The Unwatched Olympics

The 2022 Winter Olympics are underway in Beijing. I haven’t watched one minute of the broadcasts, and I haven’t talked to anyone who has. In fact, the only reason I’m aware the Winter Olympics is going on at all is that I’ve seen news reports about how terrible the ratings have been for the broadcasts.

The ratings say that I’m not alone in my non-Olympics viewing habits. The 2022 Beijing games are on track to be the least-watched Winter Olympics in American history, with audiences that are about half, or less, of the audiences of the 2018 games . . . and the ratings keep declining. The Olympics programming is being broadcast on three networks–NBC, USA Network, and Peacock–and was viewed as a way for Comcast to bring subscribers to the Peacock streaming service. The ratings are so bad that financial analysts have started evaluating the impact on Comcast and considering whether the upcoming Super Bowl, which will be broadcast on NBC, will offset the dismal Olympics showing.

TV types also are wondering why no one is tuning in, and have come up with a lot of theories. Some point to the fact that NHL players aren’t participating in the Olympics hockey competition; others wonder whether viewers are boycotting the broadcasts as a kind of political protest because the games are being held in China. Another theory is that the crappy Olympics ratings reflect internal divisions within the United States, but I don’t see why political differences in America would affect viewership. Thanks to the COVID pandemic, people are watching TV more than ever. They just aren’t watching the Olympics.

I’m not sure precisely why I’m not watching. I don’t really care about the events, per se, but I think it is mostly that I can’t bear the over-the-top ceremonial trappings, the rote human interest stories about particular athletes overcoming adversity and other predictable topics, and the additional filler that make the broadcasts groan-worthy and unwatchable. It’s just not very compelling stuff, and with countless other viewing options on any given night, why would you watch something so leaden and formulaic?

Why I’m Not Watching The Winter Olympics

I’m not watching the Winter Olympics.  Apparently I’m not alone, because the ratings are abysmal. On some nights, the Nielsens have been the lowest for an Olympic broadcast in more than a decade.

There seem to be lots of reasons why people are tuning out the Olympics.  Some people aren’t watching because they think the NBC broadcast is dreadfully boring.  Other people are put off by the political overtones of the North Korea-South Korea storyline that apparently is a constant undercurrent in the broadcasts, or fawning coverage given to the sister of Kim Jong Un and the robotic North Korean cheerleaders.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter OlympicsI haven’t been watching because the constant efforts to jazz up the Winter Olympics with new “sports” really don’t make this seem like the Olympics at all.  I’m not a skier or skater or big winter sports participant, but in the past I’ve enjoyed watching traditional Winter Olympic sports like the bobsled — which is the best named sport, by the way — or the downhill, ski jumping, and hockey.  But when we were over at our friends’ house for a dinner party Saturday night and the Olympics was on the TV, it featured an event where snowboarders were jumping up and skidding on bannister-like contraptions and launching off of artificial hills to do spins and tumbles.  It was as if the Winter Olympics had mated with a circus act, and the next thing you know a performing bear riding a bike would appear.  That single hopelessly artificial, jazzed up event perfectly summarized the desperate efforts to make the Winter Games more exciting and appealing to the slacker kids down at the local skateboard park.  The X Games have invaded.

One of the other people at the party said my reaction reflects the thinking of old codgers.  No doubt that is true.  I’m not saying that people who can do skateboard-like moves on a snowboard don’t have some athletic ability, I’m just saying that such contrived events seem to reflect more of a desire to create ratings and interest, rather than the “Olympic spirit” that is supposed to be the underpinning of the Games.  And that’s why I’m not watching.

Should The Olympics End?

People are starting to talk openly about whether the Olympics — the celebrated get-together, every four years, of athletes from countries around the world, to participate in summer and winter sports — should just end.

Some of the stated reasons for looking to end the entire Olympics experiment are listed in this piece by Charles Lane of the Washington Post. The Olympics often are hosted by countries that are not exactly paragons of freedom and tolerance — like Russia, which will host the Winter Olympics in a few weeks. The Olympics are corrupt; some athletes cheat by taking banned substances, and the members of Olympic committees allegedly are influenced by bribes or lavish treatment. The Olympics exacerbate mindless nationalism. The Olympics are an inviting target for terrorism.

I know that many athletes, particularly in sports that don’t attract much public attention, view the Olympics as providing their one chance at glory. Americans who win a gold medal, even if it is in some obscure sport like curling, can always say that, at that moment in time, they were the best in the world. And there is no doubt that athletic competition can bring people together.

But the ideal has, I think, largely been lost. The Olympics are so soaked in money that they can’t really claim to present the pure athletic competition that was the original Olympic dream. And it’s not just TV revenue and endorsements, either. Host countries go bankrupt trying to provide the facilities needed to provide venues for the dozens and dozens of sports in which competition occurs and trying to one-up the last host country for the events. If you lived in a city vying for the Olympic Games, what would you rather spend your money on — roads, bridges, and schools, or high-ended, limited utility sports venues that go unused when your three weeks in the spotlight ends?

The Olympics seems like a silly, wasteful luxury to me. I’d be perfectly content if the United States never hosted the Olympics again.