The Olympic Experience Is Enormous, So Why Does the Media Make It Feel So Small?

Joon Lee@iamjoonleeStaff WriterFebruary 26, 2018

Fireworks explode behind the Olympic cauldron during the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018. (Florien Choblet/Pool Photo via AP)
Florien Choblet/Associated Press

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The best way to describe being at the Olympics is that it's like going to see a new Star Wars movie for the first time. You've seen the old ones so many times that you have this idea of what they are and know what you want out of the new one. You want it to meet every one of those established benchmarks, because you want to feel like you're "watching a Star Wars movie." Then again, you want it to be different. But not too different. You want to be surprised, by the storylines, by the character development.        

When I touched down at Incheon International Airport a little less than 20 days ago, I had my expectations for what might be in store during these few weeks—but also the hope that things would deviate in interesting and memorable ways.

I know I'm of a dying breed, carrying this emotional investment in the Olympics. I'm a young person, 22 years old, and it's no secret that the Games have had trouble capturing the attention of people like me. While the ratings are still solid, viewership among younger audiences has now declined in two straight Olympics. The U.S. team's underperforming in key sports surely hasn't helped. Medal favorites such as Nathan Chen and Mikaela Shiffrin failed to meet expectations, and the men's hockey team lacked in both success and, because of the NHL's mandate to keep its players out of the Games, star power.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

But what I've come to understand from being at all of these facilities, from interacting with people from around the world, from dropping nearly 10 pounds because of the supremely hectic schedule of the Games, from watching some of the world's best athletes compete, is that the pristine packaging you see on TV is just a small fraction of what makes the Games so special. That's what so many of my friends don't see in their indifference toward the biannual events.

The Olympics are suffering, their future as a unified sports-watching experience in question, because of the clean-cut, overly traditional way they're presented in the media.

By the end of the first day, I knew how little I'd seen in watching the Olympics on television all of my life, because, holy crap, was the scale of these Games enormous. It's hard to describe in written word. It's like walking around New York City for the first time, or the opposite of how I felt when seeing the Mona Lisa in person. The Olympics is like if you had an enormous football stadium, and then built another five of them within a 10-minute walk, and then you had an enormous winter-sports resort a 40-minute drive down the road for any event imaginable.

So much of the mystique—so much of why these three weeks covering my first Olympic Games have been so special—has been how it takes you out of a bubble.

It's walking through the media dining hall, sitting at a table and hearing a conversation in five different languages.

It's watching the native Koreans cheer on their women's hockey team, as a vocabulary slideshow of important hockey terms cycles through on the Jumbotron, like they'd won a medal any time their team brought the puck into its opponent's zone.

It's watching the faces of the Russian media light up in excitement from watching their women's figure skaters win gold and silver.

Paul Chiasson/Associated Press

It's trading Olympic pins with someone from another country, communicating with solely your hands to make a swap. (My best pickup of the Games was a Japanese Pokemon-themed pin.)

This is something that struck me about American coverage of the Olympics (and this does not exclude us at Bleacher Report). We're so focused on our own athletes, our own successes, that the coverage, especially on television, can feel like it revolves around us. Norway, which finished the Games with 39 medals, eight more than second-place Germany, was barely mentioned in the American press. Look on the Olympic landing page for any major American sports website. The top-performing country at the Games is barely mentioned at all. It makes no sense. If sports websites never mentioned LeBron James, Tom Brady, Mike Trout, would their readers be able to understand the full scope of the NBA, the NFL or MLB?

The issues for the five rings, of course, aren't limited to the media outlets themselves. Among the most memorable moments of these Games was Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson's goal in the shootout that stood up as the golden goal for the United States women's hockey team. It's a moment cemented in the history of women's hockey. Afterward, several GIFs and videos of the moment circulated social media, only to be taken down by the IOC, which has historically been stringent with the video distribution of the Games.

This contrasts dramatically, for example, with the NBA, a league that understands the marketing and brand value of letting moments—even by bootleg video—go viral.

I couldn't help but ask myself whether the trade-off of advertiser money in the short term mattered more than the long-term viability of the Olympics among young people, who mostly consume highlights and develop their sporting interest off their Instagram and Twitter feeds. Sure, NBC might lose some of the social video revenue in the short term, but what will it be doing 10 to 15 years down the road when everyone cares less about the Olympics because the enforcement of strict video distribution rights kept sports fans from celebrating the Games' greatest moments on social media?

It takes a lot for my generation to turn on the television. We don't have cable. There are so many other options: Netflix, HBO Go, video games, YouTube. It's like getting an untrained dog to walk down the sidewalk without sniffing everything in sight and stopping four times a block.

It took eight months for my roommates and me to pull the trigger on getting an antenna to receive basic HD network signals. So many of my friends (many in the New York City bubble) don't even bother with that. It took my ordering the antenna off Amazon Prime and the package actually arriving at our doorstep for my roommates both to finally give in on splitting the $30 cost. For months, one had refused because he said he'd never turn on the television to watch a channel.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

But they turned it on to watch the Games. To watch Adam Rippon. I've been a sportswriter for a year now, and never more than with Rippon did I receive texts from my friends and group chats saying, "OMG YOU INTERVIEWED THAT PERSON?!?!?" There's a reason Rippon struck a chord with so much of the American public. Politics aside, he was a part of this massive, archaic figure skating institution, and he flipped the tropes on their heads, a master anarchist at work. Instead of performing to Swan Lake or another piece of classical music, Rippon skated to what I can only describe as club music. Off the ice, he gave great quotes, embracing his identity and encouraging others to do the same. He embraced the attention and utilized his platform, something I've only seen done as skillfully in the NBA, where drama and beef fuel the interest among young people.

Rippon became known for his off-ice personality as much as his on-ice personality, and regardless of whether you loved or hated him, you felt some sort of way about him. In the attention economy of 2018, he became someone people cared about, a reason to turn on the television.

Being at the Games, you feel this sense of excitement, of drama, of personality and of globalistic scale everywhere. The sense you get from the couch watching Rippon or the U.S. women's hockey team, or the figure skating rivalry between Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva—only in those small moments does it match what it feels like to be here.

Watching the Olympics, in many ways, is like watching a marathon. These Games are about the athletes who bared their souls, sacrificed their lives, to compete in a sport that isn't guaranteed to lead to financial stability or fame. Most of them compete for the love of the game, to get to this point and represent their country, all for the hope of standing on a podium with a medal draped around their neck as their national anthem plays. We cheer for these athletes not because we've grown close to them over the course of a season, but because we appreciate the hard work and sacrifice that went into this moment, to represent our country.

The thing that shocked me most about coming to my first Games was the constant feeling that for my entire life, I'd only seen a sliver of what this spectacular event has to offer. The Olympics that I'd consumed had been bottlenecked and force-fed, the choices made on what matter to us. In today's media environment, when I can pull up any episode of Parks and Recreation at will on my phone or immediately get in touch with any of my friends, people will no longer accept others making their media consumption habits for them.

I hope things change soon, because I'd prefer never having to talk to my grandkids about the greatness of the Olympics like the legends of years gone by, like they'd happened a long time ago, in some galaxy far, far away.

I'd hope they'd want to see it for themselves.

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