The other day in my honor’s seminar at Loyola University New Orleans, I’d asked my students if they’d been watching any of the Olympics. A few hands went up, but it was a weak response. I assuaged my disappointment by soldiering on with an apparently uncommunicable enthusiasm about watching Ryōyū Kobayashi gracefully clinch the gold medal in the men’s normal hill ski jump, the first of his country in that event since the Olympics unfolded in Sapporo in 1972. Then on to ski jumping in general, and how friends of mine would practice the sport across the river in Fox River Grove, Illinois at the Norge Ski Club, how it seemed as improbably dangerous then as it does now, how at night on a clear winter night you could see the marker light on the top of the jump tower from our front yard. “Just like on the Wild World of Sports,” I continued undeterred, “the agony of defeat!” crisply intoned by Jim McCay, as Yugoslavia’s Vinko Bogataj spectacular 1970 wipeout nearly beheads a cameraman. I recite the entire intro and hum the theme to blank, even pitying stares.
To say that the Olympics, either winter or summer, fail to capture the public imagination as they once did is an understatement. Today there are so many other choices, and to the extent 20 year-olds are watching the event it’s in sub-3 minute clips after-the-fact on Youtube or even TikTok (so they tell me). How different it was in my 1970s childhood when we all tuned into ABC to watch and learn about sports that “spanned the globe” from a show whose viewership eventually grew to cultural icon status. Today, culture, and life in general, are far more atomized than they were before 1980 (a core point I’m making in a book that I’m writing called The Millennial Shift). In contrast, the coverage of the 2022 Beijing Olympics is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.
As a consequence the Olympics are no longer able to bring us together, particularly at a moment where the need for some sort of unifying national concept has never been greater. Yes, the host country is an oppressive dystopia and the games unfold on a global backdrop of conflict. Yet this has always been true in some form. Yes, the pandemic remains a factor, but we’re just not watching, this year less than ever. Even a overhyped national banality such as “the big game” has attracted roughly the same viewership in a steadily growing nation. Or more accurately, we’re just not watching things generally in the same way. It’s harder to measure how many under 30 year-olds are opting for the executive summary on their smartphones, but it’s a lot.
There was a time when the winter olympics were everything, especially for a kid living in a place where it could get 20 below in the winter, who cross country skied and shot his .22 rifle at tin cans in the snow. Television coverage of the Olympic games was far more extensive, definitely on our lone television, and supplied the most indelible sports memories of my childhood. Who can forget the “miracle on ice” that concluded the 1980 gold medal hockey match between the Soviet Union and the United States, a moment so poignant it became the subject of a Kurt Russell film? In those same Lake Placid games Eric Heiden, who hailed from nearby Madison, Wisconsin, became the first American to win five gold medals. This was the thill of victory.
The Cold War always lent shape to the quadrennial event, and even the most die-hard Jimmy Carter fans acknowledge the self-defeating stupidity of our boycott of Moscow in the summer of 1980 for the invasion of a country Americans thirty-five years later found themselves invading. Axiomatically, the collapse of the Soviet Union may have signalled the beginning of the end of the Olympic Games as we know it. Simultaneously, the proliferation of cable television channels like CNBC and MSNBC could have offered hope for increased variety but instead seemed to give us more myopic prime time human interest profiles about a shrinking number of mostly American personalities sandwiched between broadcasts of Kudlow and Cramer. Rather than spanning the globe the prospect of an event’s ability to sell Gatorade or Chevy Trucks seemingly meant more to the network than the notion of sport engaged at its highest level. (As a volunteer and spectator at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, I can say much about the tyranny of Coca-Cola.) We decreasingly saw Slovenian bobsledders and Swiss downhill skiers. Emerging celebrities like the eminently likable Shaun White came to us through new popular sports, but at the expense of more esoteric events that received a collapsing amount of screen time. In short, coverage by the late 1990s sucked.
Perhaps the greatest irony in this age of spectator decline is that the Olympic Games coverage has never been more accessible. I first recall the promise of the internet meet some sort of realization in 2008, during the summer Beijing games. Still not able to monetize the option, NBC instead offered free streaming through the Microsoft Silverlight application. This miracle allowed me to view with rapt attention the archery competition live on my laptop in crisp 720p. The streaming of Olympic sports has been hit or miss in the interim, but nobody can fault the extensive coverage one might today receive through Peacock, all of it beautifully broadcast in high-def, for only $5, one more manifestation of the great streaming wars. One of the few winners in the internet age of Winter Olympic competition seems to be the discovery of the seemingly everyman (and woman) sport of curling, but that is a rarity. Fewer people are watching, a lot fewer.
It all literally hits home this morning: I’m watching bobsledding and hockey on my iPad as I make breakfast while my kids monopolize the tv in the other room with 3D Mario World. As the oldest member of my household by a not insurmountable but yet significant margin, I’m the only one who cares. Maybe I should just catch the TikTok synopsis of this dying institution.