I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret.
I don’t like the Olympics.
Now I realize that admission is unpopular. EVERYONE loves the Olympics. Every two years, the entire world turns their attention to the Games and is riveted. People who normally don’t have any interest in sporting events even get invested in the Olympics; it would be pulling teeth to get these people to watch a MLB baseball game, but put on gymnastics and the chance for a gold medal and it is a completely different story. To not like the Olympics is positively un-American.
While I don’t consider myself un-American, I cannot work up any enthusiasm for the Games. From a purely selfish point of view, I dread their arrival as the Olympics will dominate casual conversation and the media for weeks. People find it hard to believe that I don’t watch any of the Games; the only reason I saw any portion of Michael Phelps’ impressive gold medal streak in 2008 was because I happened to be out with friends at a restaurant/bar during one of his events. It was on every single TV and the place came to a standstill during his performance. When I asked if one of the smaller, out of the way televisions could be switched to the Yankee game, you would have thought I just asked to pee on their carpet. Faced with no other options and no one to talk to, I watched the only 20 minutes I would see of the Olympics.
My tolerance is slightly higher for the Winter Games than it is for the Summer Games. I don’t seek out events for either, but if I happen upon Olympic figure skating or hockey and there is nothing else on, I may have it on in the background and casually pay attention. I’ll also admit a weird fascination with curling – I stumbled upon it during the 2002 Games while on a trip to Montreal. Curling is much more popular in Canada, so it was on the TV a lot and I kind of got into it. If it got more coverage in the U.S., I might actually tune in for that, but even that is a bit of a stretch.
People are absolutely baffled when I confess my disinterest in the Olympics. I understand their confusion – as a huge sports fan, you would think that the Olympics and I would be a perfect fit. It’s odd that for one of the sporting events that everyone pays attention to, I’m on the sidelines.
I haven’t always felt this way about the Olympics; when I was a kid I was pretty into them. Back then, the Olympics was appointment television and I remember getting excited every four years when they would roll around (before they had the Winter and Summer Games in different years). We were still in the Cold War and the Olympics had slightly more significance. We wanted to beat “the commies”; the number of gold medals earned was seen not only as an individual achievement for the athletes, but as a referendum on an entire governing system. There seemed to be a lot more at stake. That’s what made “the miracle on ice” so important in 1980; people forget that the match wasn’t for the gold medal. Beating the U.S.S.R. had meaning beyond the ice and, especially as a kid, it was easy to get swept up in it.
It also helped that the 1980 Winter Olympics were held in Lake Placid, NY, which isn’t all that far from where I grew up. I was only three when the Games actually happened and don’t have any real memory of them, but the residual pride for the area lasted long after the athletes all went home. We had a mural in our elementary school cafeteria commemorating that Games and I remember staring at it for the five years I was there (it helped that there wasn’t much else to look at). That helped to reinforce in my young brain that the Olympics meant something.
While local and national prides were obviously in play, I can’t dismiss the importance of McDonald’s in my youthful exuberance for the Games. McDonald’s used to run a promotion during the Olympics where you would receive tabs on your soda, fries and sandwiches that indicated an event and a medal. If the U.S. earned the indicated medal in that event, you won prizes (usually more McDonald’s food). It provided me with some sort of investment, however minor, in the Games and the outcome. The promise of more happy meals was a strong motivating factor back in those days.
The climate has obviously changed for the Games. The Cold War is over and has been replaced with a much more scary international reality. There isn’t the clear “us vs. them” narrative; the conflict that we have with other nations is being actively fought on the ground, not on the race track. To my knowledge, McDonald’s no longer runs their Olympic promotion. Things are just different. But the biggest contributing factor to my disinterest in the Games, in my estimation, is the 24 hour news cycle.
When I watched the Olympics as a kid, it was pretty easy to avoid finding out the results of events. There might be some mention of it on the local news, but they always warned you to look away if you didn’t want to know. It was easy to dodge information and then watch the events on a tape delay (when necessary) in the evening, oblivious as to what had already happened.
With the rise of the Internet and cable news, however, that simplicity is gone. If you don’t want to know what has already happened, you have to be much more proactive in your defense. You can’t log onto Twitter or Facebook and you can’t look at most news sites online. Forget putting on CNN or MSNBC. You basically have to put your head in the sand. Some people are able to disconnect like that, but I am not one of them. Part of my job is communications, so I’m online all day. It’s just too much effort for me to avoid having the outcome spoiled. And if I know the outcome of the event, I’m just a lot less interested. Without the element of surprise, sporting events lose something of their luster for me.
The growth in the number of channels also makes it difficult to figure out when events are going to be aired. There are several channels airing events all that the same time. If I were more interested, I’d put in more of an effort. But I lack the motivation to seek out events and to keep track of the coverage. It also helps that there are plenty of other alternatives for things to watch. The Olympics are a ratings juggernaut, but they aren’t the only thing that is on. Faced with the option of watching the 100 yard dash or a repeat of Storage Wars, I’m picking the latter.
As I’ve really thought about my antipathy to the Games, I’ve come up with one final reason why I don’t tune in. I find the Games inherently sad. The athletes competing in these events have devoted their entire lives to their sport and for most, they will come up empty. All their work and sacrifice will essentially be for nothing. I know that there are intangibles and that the athletes are mostly doing what they love and living their dreams. I get that. But ultimately, the Games represent the end of their journey. And that makes me a little depressed. For most of the events, this is their one shot; it’s not like there are professional leagues for a lot of these sports. After the Olympics, they have to find something else to do with their lives. They can perhaps decide to train for the next Olympics, but for many that isn’t possible because of age, finance or injury. You are watching their dreams come to an end and that doesn’t appeal to me. The coverage of the Olympics specifically tries to make you identify with the athletes by playing up their back stories and the struggles that they have overcome to be there. To me, that only amplifies the melancholy.
Even the athletes that medal are often facing finality. For every Michael Phelps that becomes a household name, most Olympic athletes are quickly forgotten. A few can get some endorsement deals, but even those don’t last very long. There are only so many Kardashians to marry to prolong your relevance. To have trained for all those years, reached the pinnacle of your sport and then fade into obscurity seems unfair. It’s not a big factor as to why I don’t tune it, but it is a part of it.
If I happen to be home tomorrow night during the Opening Ceremonies, there is an off chance that I might tune in. Rumor has it that the London Ceremonies aren’t going to be very good and I am curious if they are going to be as bad as speculated. Early reports aren’t promising and the Beijing ceremonies were universally praised, so they have a tough act to follow. Plus I’m always up for a David Beckham sighting. But for the next few weeks, don’t bother asking me what I think of the Games. I’ll be too busy watching reruns.