The following exchange was written over the lead-up and first few days of the Olympic Games in Rio. I asked my buddies Matty and Andrew (who write the Blog “A Rash of Copycat Crimes…” [http://www.copycat-crimes.com/blog-1/]) to talk Olympics with me and answer the question, “Are the Olympics Still Relevant?”
My first few memories of the Olympic Games came when I was 9. I distinctly remember the Miracle on Ice (I DO believe in miracles!) and Eric Heiden exciting the world about speed skating. The third distinct memory was the fact that there would be no summer Olympic Games at all. I was crushed. But my parents really talked to me about it. They sympathized with my pain, as despite being supporters of President Carter, they did not believe the Olympics should ever be politicized. The Olympics, they explained – and I remember quite exquisitely, like a well-versed speech to the U.N. – no joke… the Olympics was a place where the world could come together in peace and compete in a way that brought out the best in all of us. A place where we could battle with rival nations in sports in the hope that competition and rivalry could be kept to the field, pool, or ski slope and not result in bitter or armed conflict. Four years later, L.A. hosted the games, the U.S. dominated in the absence of the Soviets, and my patriotic fervor and love of sports were etched in me for a lifetime.
And so it is interesting to me that seemingly every 4 years – and to no surprise, usually following a very popular world soccer tournament – the sports media seem to reignite the question: Is the Olympics still relevant? I’ve got some real things to say about why I think they not only remain relevant, but essential – starting with the point made by my parents back in 1980.
If the first week of the Games is any indication – the Olympics is more than merely “relevant.” The U.S. Swim Team alone has made them almost transcendent. What do you guys think? Are you both into the Olympics and do you think its coverage or relevance has lost any luster?
I did not see my first Summer Olympics until 1988.
For 1976, I have one faint recollection of my father watching a swimming meet. For 1980, we did not have an Olympics. For 1984, I was at sleep-away camp.
The only experience I had with the Olympics that year in 1984 was a kid at the camp had a brother competing. After the camp of about 400 people ate dinner, we would have evening announcements, and one night I remember the kid got up, which was a huge rarity because kids were not allowed to make announcements, and told the whole camp that his brother just won a bronze medal in wrestling. The whole camp freaked out, and I think it might be the first time I can remember hearing the chant of U-S-A!
…So I was introduced to the Summer Games until 1988…and most specifically, through the lens of Bryant Gumbel.
The games took place in September that year, and I remember a kid in my homeroom class at school wore a shirt every day that said: “Our Goal is Seoul.”
I do not remember much about that Olympics, except loosing basketball. Unfortunately, my most vivid memory of that Olympics was NBC’s Ahmad Rashad doing a campy segment about him going clothes shopping at a Korean tailor, which even as a teenager in the 1980s, I found offensive. Rashad played the ugly American really well.
If I was honest, I love the Olympics for frankly all the wrong reasons. Yes, I will do all the things true Americans do…
– I will cheer the US Soccer team if they reach a medal round,
– I will root for Phelps as he wins 127th medial,
– I will stare very strongly and intently at the television during the women’s beach volleyball pairs,
– I will think of the fabled SNL skit when I see synchronized swimming,
– And, I will laugh when they show parts of the swinging ribbon floor competition.
But as a creature that follows the news industry, I love the Olympics because of all on and off-air television talent. This kind of focus only happens every four years.
I honestly like to see what the design wizards will come up with for their broadcast set. I love hearing that the Olympics is coming from “NBC’s International Broadcast Center.” When I watch, I feel bad that an icon like Dick Ebersol has no part of the broadcast production. Yup, that how I roll…
Having said all of that, to answer the question, I am not sure the Olympics are as relevant as it once was…but here are three steps to a great Olympiad –
Step 1 – HYPE
First of all, there is no hype anymore. Some of this has to do with the fact that there are no magazines or newspapers. I loved the hype. I miss the hype. Up until a few years ago, the month before the Olympics would always be about the hype. I remember the pullout special the NYTimes did before the 1980 Winter Olympics. It sat at my bedside table for at least four years.
Unfortunately, what has replaced the hype of the Olympics is the narrative that the host City is “not ready.” This seems to be more important than the actual games, and this elevated news story seems to break like clockwork every four years.
Step 2 – OPENING AND CLOSING CEREMONIES
Let me be clear and brief on this. It’s easy. None of this arty, esoteric, global crap during the ceremonies. You need only thing. It is a very simple equation that has been proven. There is no reason to stray from the formula.
All you need it is – Lionel Richie
See it for yourself….https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EuLDqT47rkA.
Step 3 – GET OUTSIDE MORE
What I find interesting in how the actual Olympic events seem to be covered from a remote studio. I do not think the announcers and play by play folks even attend the actual events. It seems they are in some studio, in this case, Rio, watching it on a television. And Costas will be sitting in his International Broadcast Center, and we will be lucky if we get a shot of a window of the city. We need to get these folks outside.
Well, I’ll start with my first Olympic memories. Then, because Todd thinks the Olympics are still relevant and Matt thinks they need help to sustain relevance, I’ll just take the opposite end of the argument spectrum and contend that they’re not relevant.
Memories first. The Olympics were pretty much a window for me as a young kid to the larger world. I remember vaguely at age 5 hearing about an exotic place called Montreal. I remember hearing at age 9 about a place I’d never heard of called Moscow. I also learned at the same time about a place called Afghanistan and gaining some hazy understanding that the latter had something to do with why our athletes weren’t traveling to the former. Then as an east coaster with little understanding about US cities outside my time zone, I got a glimpse of this funky place called L.A. But that somewhat more mature and informed view of the Olympics was clouded by the Eastern Bloc’s absence, which led me to believe that the Olympics (which seemed pretty cool as I was now a fully formed sports fan) had been, were, and would inevitably be bound up with politics. That was something of a jaded outlook, but was it incorrect? Surely in the years since, we haven’t had the scale of outright boycotts that we saw in ’80 and ’84. But there’s certainly a more subtle politics at work. There’s the absurdly corrupt way that the IOC selects Olympic host cities. There’s the uneven enforcement of doping rules. There’s the sad prospect of host countries diverting funds to build one-time-use venues rather than needed infrastructure. Debbie Downer, I know.
From a pure sports standpoint, stripped of the all of the external distractions, the Olympics are fantastic. There’s nothing like seeing an athlete devote himself or herself to the pursuit of a goal, then experience the exhilaration of achieving it — a worthwhile example for anyone. There’s the pure fun of watching sports that you never otherwise get to watch (synchronized diving! fencing! steeplechase!) There’s the sentimental enjoyment of watching sports I’ve participated in as a younger guy (basketball, tennis, rowing). There’s the wonderful experience of trying to act like an expert in an unfamiliar sport purely by virtue of having watched 30 minutes of it (“she really stuck that landing”; “that dive was a little past vertical”).
But are the Games still relevant? I could go into the usual litany of cliches about the availability of other entertainment options; you know, all of the cliches that explain why people think baseball is less relevant than before or why it took so long for football to return to L.A. I also believe that the overly melodramatic and stylized personal profiles that NBC bashes us over the heads with are indicative of viewers’ need for force-fed entertainment value to boost their otherwise passing interest in the actual on-the-field/court/track events that those personalities actually participate in. I think there’s also a sub rosa feeling among many viewers (or potential but not actual viewers) that the medal count is going to show a list of the world’s haves and very few of the have-nots. And how many times over the last few Olympic cycles have you said to yourself just a few days before the Games open, “I can’t believe they’re here already. There’s been so little hype.” Maybe that’s telling.
So, are the Games relevant? To the athletes, of course. Where else can you ensure that you are facing the best of the best? To fans of particular sports that get to see those bests-of-bests in action? Sure. But “relevant” implies some broad-based interest. Are the Games relevant to the broader public as a whole? I don’t want to say “no.” But I really wish I could say “yes.” I don’t think I can.
Fellas, I feel as though I’m reading a Tale of Two Olympics from you both. You seem to have some fond memories, and in Matt’s case a self-admitted predictable level of patriotism for certain sports or events. But I am also hearing a more cynical view of either media coverage and/or overall presentation, or being tired of the somewhat spoon-fed melodrama you feel NBC and others try to wash all over us. Not that I don’t think these comments are fair. After all, I did hit the media with the following predictions in my “Todd’s Predictions for the Rio Games” blog post a few days ago:
- The “Christ the Redeemer” Statue will be featured in LITERALLY every NBC commercial break transition
- NBC will make 35-55 references to the fact that “it’s actually winter down here”
- There will be an equally large number of cutaway shots to Gisele Bundchen and a focus on wherever she’s going next
- The plight of the Amazon rain forest and the haves/have not level of poverty in Brazil will be completely ignored
- Al Roker will be recruited to descend on Rio’s exotic destinations, and mostly report on delicious food. I predict at least 3 references to plantains alone
- Speaking of medals, NBC will, at some point, make a small print error in their digital department and have the word “metals” on screen
The good news for Matt is that NBC does seem to be “getting outside more,” with Mike Torico sweating his way through the broadcast while perched just above a beautiful and thriving Rio beach setting. … And for the heat stroked journalist – they have been doing a majority of their headquarters coverage and interviews indoors.
Andrew is right to site the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as the corrupt bastards that they are. They make FIFA look as innocent as your trusty neighborhood pharmacist.
But I still argue that the Olympics are relevant, and here’s one big example why: Neymar, Brazil’s star soccer player – and arguable one of the World’s 5 best players – sat out this summer’s Copa America Centario (the 100th anniversary Copa) SPECIFICALLY so he would be fresh and injury-free to play in Rio. Brazil, despite its soccer identity, hasn’t often won soccer Gold. But Neymar saw the huge importance of being there for the national team, playing in his home country, to delight and enliven the Brazilian fans. And he could only have done so for 1 reason – there is something special about the Olympic stage.
That said, the Olympics have actually started and been underway for about 6 days now since we started this thread amongst ourselves. Are there any new takes you might have about the games? The controversial Russian Swimmer? The USWNT? What countries you had never heard of before in the Parade of Nations? We now enter more of a “rapid fire round.” …
I really did not start watching the Olympics until last night….here are some thoughts…
- Completely agree with TF’s point that they are getting outside more. Glad NBC listened to me.
- Last night kinda freakin’ rocked. Lilly King is a huge talent and a bad ass…love her and love that she called out the Russian dopes!
- Was pretty impressed overall with NBC pushing the hype on those rivalries. Whether it be King and the Russian or Le Close and Phelps.
- The Commercials are really incredible, although it feels like there are more prime time commercials than actual events.
Glad you brought up the commercials. All kinds of consumer products and services are paying up big production and ad-buying budgets for special, Olympics/sports themed ads. Further proof that Olympic ratings must be relevant enough to matter to advertisers!
I, too, am as usual gung ho for U.S. swimming – men and women. Vlad Putin seems to want a new Cold War? Well, he’s EARNED one fair and square by granting his blessing to “win at all costs” Russian coaches and athletes. And while it’s always still more important to “Beat the Aussies!,” Lilly King and Katie Meili (my new U.S. Women’s Swim Team crush) bookending the Russian with the Gold and Bronze for the U.S. in the 100M breast stroke was awesome.
…. So there we left it. Here’s hoping this second week of the Olympics brings an equal number of thrills!