We now know just how terrible ratings were for the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games. As one headline put it, NBC’s coverage “faceplanted,” drawing by far the lowest U.S. audience ever for a Summer Games.
NBC averaged roughly 15.5 million primetime viewers over the two weeks of competition. Compare that to the almost 40 million who tuned in during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Average viewership also dropped by 11.2 million from the 2016 Rio Games.
You might ask, who cares? Do the Olympics still matter? Have they lost their meaning? Are they a 19th century anachronism?
To the Olympics haters, I say bah, humbug.
I’m with the head of the World Health Organization, who, amid the pandemic, called the Games “a celebration of hope.”
On the grandest scale, the Games have brought major benefits to humanity. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic committee, hoped that the Games would promote peace, by bringing the world’s peoples together and encouraging international friendship. The five interlaced rings of the Olympics’ symbol represent unity among the world’s continents.
Obviously, the Olympics have failed at achieving world peace, but they have helped bitter divisions heal, even if only momentarily. The Games have brought together Cold War rivals, Israelis and Arabs, North Koreans and South Koreans.
If the worst of enemies and people of all races and creeds can come together on playing fields, can they not find common ground in international politics? It certainly can’t hurt.
The Olympics have also highlighted female athletes and had an incalculable impact on the success of women’s sports.
They have inspired countless young people to work hard and excel in sport and in life.
I confess that I am an Olympics junkie. One of my greatest disappointments is that I wasn’t fast enough, strong enough, or good enough at a sport to represent my country and march in the world parade into an Olympic stadium.
Still, the dramatic decline in viewers is surprising. Sure, most of us knew the results of many events long before primetime because of the time difference with Tokyo and the news bulletins we receive on our phones. Many people also complained about the quality of NBC’s coverage and how difficult it was to find events. The empty stadiums that hosted the opening and closing ceremonies bordered on depressing. The latter felt especially soulless and somber, lacking much of the joy of the past. Oddly, one of its highlights was the taped preview of the 2024 Paris Olympics. Maybe because they promise some semblance of post-pandemic normalcy, instead of Tokyo’s ubiquitous masks and absent fans.
More significant and concerning is the increased politicization of the Games, personified in some athletes using the Olympics as a platform for protest, and some viewers boycotting the Games as a result.
An Axios/Momentive poll found Americans sharply divided over whether protests were appropriate on the Olympic stage, with 49% disapproving and 47% supporting them.
I can understand both sides, those who believe athletes have every right to express their opinions, and those who object to what they perceive as unpatriotic behavior.
However, I don't understand the jump from disapproving of some protesters to fully rejecting the Games because they were “globalist propaganda” filled with “politicized athletes.” To quote a post on my Facebook page: “The minute the losers turned their backs to the flag of the country they represent, I turned my back on them.”
By tuning out, those who didn’t watch missed inspirational athletes from around the world, many of whom were American and reveled in their patriotism and gratefulness to their country.
Here’s some of what made the Games great:
Allyson Felix. My all-time favorite Olympian (sorry Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps, and Nelly Korda) added a bronze and a gold to reach 11 all-time medals and become the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history. And she’s a mother who stood up to Nike when the company treated her poorly after she got pregnant. Please, Allyson, reconsider and come back for your sixth Olympics. Paris is only three years away.
Caeleb Dressel. The 24-year-old Floridian cemented his place as a swimming legend, but his five gold medals seemed an afterthought to his stunned awe after winning the 100-meter freestyle. In the post-swim interview, he cried with genuine emotion about the honor of representing country and family. If that failed to move you, I don’t know what will. And, if that weren’t enough, his tears flowed freely while the national anthem played as he stood on the podium.
Katie Ledecky. The greatest female swimmer of all time and I went to the same parochial school, which, unfortunately, hasn’t made me a better swimmer. Ledecky added to her record-breaking haul of medals this year, but the young American’s character in putting the spotlight on her teammates is what most stood out to me, along with a furiously fast anchor leg in a relay. With the U.S. looking like it wouldn’t win a medal in the race, Ledecky not only won them a silver, she came up just short of an incredible comeback for gold.
The Best Race Ever? The two top male 400-meter hurdlers in history faced each other what was billed in advance as the best race ever. It didn’t disappoint. Norwegian Karsten Warholm obliterated his own world record, winning the race in a time of 45.94 seconds, He beat American Rai Benjamin, who also broke the previous world record by more than half a second. For some context about how fast they went: The world record in the 400 meters without hurdles is 43.03.
The Second-Best Race Ever? “Iron sharpens iron,” Sydney McLaughlin likes to say when it comes to her competition with fellow American, Dalilah Muhammad. The two fastest women to ever run the 400-meter hurdles were separated by only one-tenth of a second as they both shattered McLaughlin’s world record of 51.46. The record for the 400 meters without hurdles is 47.60. They were so fast, that the U.S. team recruited them to race in the 4X400 meters relay (no hurdles). Along with Felix and the 19-tear-old winner of the 800 meters, Athing Mu, the Americans dominated and took home the gold.
The U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team. Simone Biles deservedly garnered much of the attention by courageously confronting her mental health struggles and then coming back to win a medal on the balance beam. But her teammates deserve some serious plaudits. Instead of crumbling upon the withdrawal of the gymnastic GOAT, they stepped up and proved their greatness winning silver in the team competition. Then, 18-year-old Sunisa Lee clinched the gold in the all-around individual competition, as did Jade Carey in the floor exercise. MyKayla Skinner won silver in the vault.
The Most Stunning Achievement? Sifan Hassan arrived in the Netherlands as a 15-year-old refugee from Ethiopia in 2008. She arrived in Tokyo with a dream to do something nobody had ever done, win gold in the 1500, 5,000, and 10,000 meter races at the same Olympics. That impossible dream almost immediately became a nightmare when, shortly after she began the last lap in a qualifying race for the 1,500, she got tangled up with another runner and came crashing down. Instead of quitting, she got up and miraculously won the race. Only 11 hours later, she won the gold in the 5K. She later took gold in the 10K and just fell short in the 1,500 final, earning bronze. Nobody had ever medaled in those three races in the same Games.
To conclude, the Olympics can and should be appreciated independent of politics.
Those who skipped watching the Games missed the many young men and women who escaped war-torn countries and achieved Olympic glory after finding refuge in the freedoms of the West.
More important, those who objected to the few athlete-protesters missed the far, far greater number of young Americans who wrapped themselves in the flag and celebrated their country.
Watch next time. It’s worth it.
Cover phone credit: Creative Commons