My first memory of the Olympics is of the Grenoble Winter Games in 1968. I don’t know that I had even heard of skiing before, but I was in love with triple-gold medalist skier Jean-Claude Killy. I watched as much coverage as I could — there weren’t four round-the-clock cable channels then and, being only 8, I had an early bedtime — and even read the sports articles in the paper. I didn’t have any idea of what an endorsement was, but I read about the controversy with Killy having his picture taken with the trademarks on his skis visible. (See this article from the SI archives on the 68 games: Over the scattered bones came Jean-Claude.)
What a different world we live in today! Early during the London Games, I read a news story about how some athletes were considering protesting the ban prohibiting them from mentioning their sponsors in tweets. Ah — maybe the Olympics are not so different from Killy’s glory days on the slopes!
This week’s WP Weekly Writing Challenge/Mind the Gap posed the question: Has social media changed how you view the Olympics? I have a twitter account, but I don’t use it much. I’m not much of a sports fan, so until the athletes’ stories air, I don’t know most of their names. How would I even know who to follow?
For me, Twitter and Facebook and an abundance of real-time options over the internet did not make a difference to my Olympics viewing. I was content this year to watch the nightly NBC program, carefully edited with lots of hype and false drama — “Gabbie has to do it for the team to win“, “Will Phelps get his 18th gold?“, “Will Rafalca advance to the next horse dance?” (Seriously, I never would have thought I’d know the name of a horse in the Olympics!) If I were really interested in the outcome of a specific event, I might have wanted real time information and I would have taken advantage of the internet for that. On the few occasions where I saw a “spoiler”, although disappointing, it didn’t make me turn away from watching a specific competition.
The hype was annoying, but for me, the Olympics is not about who wins a competition or what the total medal count is. It is about witnessing, albeit in a very structured, edited, and biased manner, the pageantry, the competition, and the sportsmanship of the Games. That is why I spent a few minutes almost every day watching whatever event was being aired in the middle of the day — archery, skeet shooting, handball, even horse-dancing. I don’t know anything about these sports, but I still enjoyed watching them for a few minutes. If I were a twitter follower, while I might have learned of the results or found some insight or amusement from a favored athlete, I don’t think that I would have found the same enjoyment as I did tuning into the events. Social media may augment the Games, but it doesn’t replace viewing.
I wish that the prime time show didn’t focus so exclusively on the US athletes or only the premier showcase events like swimming and track and field. Synchro swimming, with the heavily painted kewpie doll faces of the swimmers, seems a bit creepy to be, but what about the synchro diving competitions, where the beauty of the acrobatic skill of individual diving must be done with precise timing? If those events were covered in the evening broadcasts, I missed them. I find the Men’s Still Rings and the Trampoline amazing displays of energy, control, and strength, yet only a few minutes were aired during the main broadcasts. I disliked that the medal ceremonies were usually broadcast only when an American or a Brit won a medal. I don’t care that it isn’t my national anthem; I wanted to see the athletes, proud to represent their country, be awarded their medals while their anthems played. It seemed like the same stories were told repeatedly — were there not more athletes with interesting stories from other countries?
But, none of that matters much. I still soaked up the evening programs whenever I was home, regardless of what they were showing. Had it been synchronized paper clip bending, I might have laughed at the hyped stories, but I still would have watched. Why? Because it’s the Olympics and every four years individuals, many of whom know that they will never come close to the medal podium or win a big endorsement deal, will gather to show how they have trained to master their particular sport and to compete with others who have done the same.