Feb 23, 2010

Can the Olympics Survive?

The Winter Olympics are in their second week up there in Vancouver, which is Canadian for "So Much Prettier Than Where You Live."  There have been some great stories and performances so far.  We have Ohno becoming the all-time winningest US Winter Olympic athlete.  We've seen the redemption of Bode Miller.  There's been some beautiful figure skating, some unbelievable aerial tricks, and tons of speed.  But, there is still something that really gives me a bad feeling about the fate of the Olympic Games.

If you read anything about the Olympics, it is going to be tainted by some of the negative things that have happened in Vancouver.  There was the luger who died during practice on an unsafe course.  There were the environmentally safe zambonis that ruined the speed skating short track.  Then there was the snow melting on the mountains, making skiing nearly impossible.  And, of course, there is NBC's coverage of the Games.  It has been labeled as everything from horrific to pointless to irritating.  When you combine all of this, and a few other points, there is a real legitimate concern for the Games' long-term success.

Suspense is dead.  I remember back in 1984.  We had the Sarajevo Winter Olympics and the Los Angeles Summer Olympics.  To me, that was when America hit a whole new level of obsession with the games.  Lake Placid had hosted the 1980 Winter games, with such amazing moments as the "Miracle on Ice" hockey victory over the Soviet Union.  We boycotted the 1980 Games, which made us extra-hungry for the 1984 Games on our home turf.  The Soviet boycott just helped America to win everything - which made it even better.  We had the Mahre brothers, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano, Katarina Witt, The Carruthers, and Torvill and Dean in Sarajevo.  Then there was Carl Lewis, the Gymnastics teams, Greg Louganis, and the swimming team in Los Angeles.  But, the only way to know anything was to watch television.  I remember spending every day in front of the tv with my family - watching everything and anything.  1988 was in Seoul and Calgary.  Calgary was still close, so there was some interest.  But Seoul was hours away, so all the great events were on LATE at night.  I remember staying up until after midnight to watch Ben Johnson's roid fueled destruction of the 100 meter record.  As a result, we had a lot of tape-delayed sports.  Things would get played early in the morning and shown at night.  It worked pretty well, since there wasn't a lot of options.  And the other stations played nice, telling you to not watch when they announced results.

1992, the Winter hit France and the Summer was in Barcelona.  Both games seemed underplayed here.  There were some moments like The Dream Team in basketball, Bonnie Blair and Kristi Yamaguchi.  But the US didn't do as well in either one.  The Winter Games switched off of the Summer Games years in 1994 - being played in Lillehammer.  You had Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding and Dan Jansen.  Mostly, though, the US didn't perform up to par again.  1996 had Atlanta - which we ate up, since it was in America again.  But, this was the last Games to really operate under the old media rules.  Starting with the 1998 Nagano Games, and really emphasized with the 2000 Sydney Games, the new media rules began to play.  We didn't have to watch the Games.  We could go on the Internet and find out results.  That meant that tape-delayed sports just didn't cut it.  I remember Heather going online to see all the gymnastics results from Sydney - almost ten hours before they aired.  No one knew how to handle this.  ESPN had become a behemoth by this point, also.  So they had their tickers running with constant updates.  There were never live sports shown.  A 13 hour time difference killed that possibility.  The Nagano Games were almost in a shroud of secrecy - a huge time difference and a disappearing US presence.  The biggest things from that event were the rowdy and disgusting behaviors of the US Hockey team and the Lipinski/Kwan figure skating battle.

The tape-delayed method that was set in stone by NBC was not suited for a world where you could get instant news.  The 2002 Salt Lake City games was helped by being on US soil, so there wasn't much tape delaying, although there was some.  But it was also marred by the massive scandals that plagued it - from bribes to get the Games there to screwing the Canadian figure skaters out of a medal.  2004 the Summer Games went to Athens - which may have been the worst coverage ever.  Tape delaying was so bad.  2006 in Turin and 2008 in Beijing also had to deal with long distance coverage, and the horrible tape delays.  It meant you knew everything way before it ever aired.  Shoot, you may have already SEEN the coverage before it aired.  I remember some of Usain Bolt's insane performances being on the Internet before they were on tv.  So, how did NBC decide to deal with the fact they were getting scooped constantly by their own internet arms?

They went for the human interest stories.  If they couldn't build suspense with the events, due to everyone knowing the outcomes, then they would drum up interest by making the athletes' stories more prominent.  It had been successful in some of the Games in the 80s, so NBC decided to beat it into the ground.  So, now, whenever you watch the Olympics at night, you see a few minutes of taped action from earlier in the day (which you already knew about).  Then you get a story about some athlete who overcame huge obstacles to be here (that's all of them).  Then there are a few live shots, maybe a medal presentation.  Then there's some story about Vancouver (or China or Italy).  Then a few more minutes of taped coverage.  Then another story.  It isn't sports coverage.  It is trying to make everything into a sports movie.

This has driven true sports fans away from NBC's coverage into the MSNBC, USA, and CNBC realms, where they just show live events.  This could explain the shooting popularity in curling, hockey, and the sledding track events.  They are shown in their entirety without listening to Bob Costas or Mary Carillo or Al Michaels.  You just get to watch a game as it unfolds - often live.  The drama is nice, but it builds too much reliance on the specific chosen athletes to make the Games a success.  I remember with Bode Miller, he was played up so much in Turin, that when he didn't medal it made the whole Games seem like it did poorly.  This leads to the next problem.

As Americans, we want to be the best in everything.  If we aren't the best, we will throw money at the situation until we are.  If that doesn't work, we just quit worrying about it.  This is why men's tennis is a non-entity in America.  We don't have the best players in the world, or anyone close, so we just stopped caring.  The same thing is true about soccer.  It is part of the arrogant American approach to life that has been ingrained in us almost since we became a country.

That means that we need to win every Olympics.  We want to be the top medal country.  We aren't content to win the overall, either.  We want to win the most in each event.  We want winners in every sport.  If we don't win certain sports ever, we don't cover them either.  Have you noticed how little play ski jumping gets now that America routinely finishes last?  It gets buried in coverage.  We also will try to change the rules to make sure we can win.  Look at basketball, hockey, soccer, baseball, golf.  We now have our professional athletes go to make sure we win.  We hate losing.  America doesn't lose.  And if we are counting on an athlete to win, to carry our coverage, they had better not lose either.

Here's how ridiculous it is.  Lindsey Vonn is one of the greatest female skiers ever.  But she had a "disappointing Games" by most commentators.  What was her crime?  She only won two medals.  She fell in one event, so she didn't get three medals.  Bode Miller has always been seen as a failure because he had never won a gold medal.  We've never won ice dancing medals.  But last Olympics, Belbin and Agosto won a silver.  So this year?  Well, naturally, they had to win.  They came in fourth - what a horrible job!  At least the other US team managed to get a silver.  It is like a dad who has a kid come home with all A's and a B in Med School and asks what happened with the B.

These athletes are expected to do ridiculous things.  Don't just get TO the Olympics.  You HAVE to win.  If you come in fourth, you failed.  Vonn was racing with a shin that was so hurt it would have put normal people on crutches.  But she is a failure because she didn't get three medals.  Someone wrote that if she hadn't spent so much time modeling and doing appearances, then she probably would have won.  What?!?  How are those even related?  She did modeling in December, so that's why she bruised her shin or fell on the slope?  That's just stupid.  But that is how we treat our athletes.  If you win, we will throw money at you and turn you into a demigod.  If you lose, you get booted to the curb.

The Olympics is a big money item.  But, NBC has already told everyone that will listen that they are losing money.  It is highly likely that they will not try to win the next Games up for bid - the 2014/2016 Games.  I read something the other day that talked about how ESPN/ABC would probably try to grab the Games.  Or Fox will sneak in like they did with the BCS Games a few years back.  What will happen if the Games go to ESPN?  There are still a large number of people in America - and worldwide - that don't get cable.  Will they use ABC as the "human interest outlet" like NBC is now?  ESPN has the resources to give a ton of coverage.  They have ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPN U, ABC, ABC Family, Disney, Disney XD - and the new ESPN 3D channel that is coming.  Add in the ESPN 360 web outlet and the ESPN pay per view channels.  Let's just say the coverage could improve.  But how do you deal with the tape delay?  No matter how many channels you have, there still is going to be the problem of the marquee events (women's figure skating and gymnastics, 100 meter race, finals in team sports) being played at other times.

The 2012 London Games will only have a five hour difference from Eastern US time, not much worse than the three hours from the West Coast.  But NBC has already said they are going to keep using tape delays.  2014 will be in Russia.  And then 2016 is in Rio - which is in virtually the same time zone as the US.  (So we'll be able to watch people get kidnapped and murdered live.  Just kidding.)  The Rio games highlighted another disturbing trend.  It is ugly just how much money is getting thrown at even getting the Games.  The proposals costs to be considered as a finalist is ridiculous.  Once you are a finalist, you basically have to start preparing as if you won the Games just to get considered.  If you lose, all that  money is down the drain.  The 2012 battle was ugly.  Florida was in the early running, but it didn't stand a chance against New York.  The final battle of New York, London, Moscow, Madrid, and Paris was like a Battle of the Titans.  The Olympics, though, want so much.  The Games have become such a huge deal that they require an unbelievable amount of work.

For the last few Olympics, the host cities had to built multiple stadiums.  Just look at the price tags of some of the new stadiums in America.  Cowboys Stadium in Dallas was $1.2 billion.  The new Jets/Giants stadium in New Jersey was $1 billion.  A billion dollars for a stadium?!?  Even the new Orlando Magic arena will be $500 million - for a small market team.  So how much would it cost to build an Olympic stadium, swim facility, basketball stadium, Olympic village, in addition to all the smaller facilities.  London is renovating some sites, but they also have to build a lot of stuff (not as much as Athens, who barely could complete the job).  But that's not it.  London is building a high speed rail for the Games.  Sydney had to develop an entirely new area of town, complete with multiple train stations and lines.  Add to that the thousands and thousands of hotel rooms that have to be available.  Florida actually had a good bid for the 2012 games.  They had a lot of pre-existing hotels, conference centers, and sports arenas between Orlando and Tampa.  But the transportation was the problem.  There is no public transportation in Florida.  So they were going to have to build a high speed train, widen I-4 to 12 lanes, and create a whole system of buses.

All that money going into the bid, the prep, the construction is supposedly going to be made up by the influx of money into the area.  But what about afterwards?  There is the upkeep of these newly created items.  That train that wasn't needed before the Games is now going to drain money.  The stadiums can be repurposed - most of the time.  Sydney and Atlanta turned the Olympic Village into housing.  But what the heck are you going to do with a velodrome?  (For the cycling events.)

So where is the Olympics going?  I don't think it is going to disappear.  Worldwide, it still has a huge draw.  And the next few Olympics - at least the next two Summer ones - will have a lot of draw to Americans.  But I wonder how it is going to have to adapt to succeed in the changing world.  I love the Olympics.  I like seeing the spectacle.  I enjoy the sports, even if I don't want them the rest of the time.  I like bobsledding and ski jumping and downhill events.  In the summer, I like gymnastics and swimming and track and field.  I even have grown to really like curling this year.  But, like many people, I want to be able to watch them without hundred of commercials and stupid interruptions.  It is like the NFL.  It used to be watching a game was exciting.  But now, there are so many television time outs and sideline reports and so much hype, that the game has become less fun.  UNTIL it goes into overtime.  Then, the tv timeouts go away and the game becomes what it once was.  That is how Olympics hockey, basketball, most Olympic events are.  They are heart pounding, exciting, thrilling.  They have clear winners and losers.  That is why they have gotten to the point they have.  So, let the Games speak for themselves.  Don't try to make them dramatic or suspenseful - they already are.  Let them unfold as they should.  Make us stay up late to see important races, instead of holding them until tomorrow when we'll watch them on YouTube.  Use the new technology to help.  The Olympics in HD is stunning.  Try out new camera angles and 3D technology.  Give us cameras imbedded in the track.  I love the new cameras they use in swimming.  Come up with ways to broadcast the games that will make us WANT to wait to see the events.  Give us a reason to tune in instead of checking the results on our iPhone app.  Put the extra stuff online - the bios, touching stories, travel dialogues.  Make it so that what we are seeing is so phenomenal on television that we won't be satisfied with just replays.  That will make it must-see again.

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