Question: when is a sport too much a sport?
It may seem like a Sphinxian riddle, but it’s a query whose answer reveals much about what makes sports tick as a cultural product. What is it, exactly, that sparks the passion of fans into spending hard-earned cash on things like foam rubber fingers? What visceral elements are triggered so that grown men and women willingly saunter around in public with painted faces, woo-hooing their hearts out with fellow fanatics at passing cars or, (most incredibly) for television cameras? In short, what’s so great about sports that it can drive us to such heights of irrational ecstasy?
The question is a complex one, and one that’s been raised for me in the wake of this year’s Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. A closer look at the games shows that, while it might be difficult to come up with a universal definition for what attracts fans to sport, it’s far easier to determine what doesn’t do it for them. Despite the best faces put upon the event by its organizers and sponsors, the reception of the games particularly in the US can be described as tepid, at best. Coming on the heels of a professional football game that attracted an audience of over 90 million people, this year’s Olympics are, for many, an athletic anticlimax, the televised equivalent of the Spin Doctors coming onstage to follow U2.
That’s not to say that nobody at all is watching. Unlike those Spin Doctors, NBC has still managed a considerable audience, particularly with its coverage of the competition’s opening weekend. Estimates put the audience at around 25 million people, which is certainly respectable. But, with nearly four times as many people watching a Super Bowl that featured two small market teams in Seattle and Pittsburgh, is “respectable” a justifiable qualifier when it comes to a global sporting event like the Olympics? What’s worse, a good deal of what’s happening in Turin doesn’t even make it to NBC, which cherry picks the most compelling parts of the games and relegates the rest to the cable network Siberia of CNBC and MSNBC - sister stations with far less an audience than the major network. (The USA network has also been broadcasting the games, though it, too, reaches a diminished viewership by comparison.) Given the scope of the games, which should ostensibly only be heightened by their cyclical staging, a number like 25 million seems like so many crickets, chirping disinterestedly as the Olympic pageantry carries on at the periphery of our national consciousness.
A variety of reasons might explain why the Olympics pale in comparison to the lure of the big three (football, basketball, and baseball) in the United States. Importantly, those reasons tell us more about what the latter sports provide for its spectators and consumers than what the winter games fail to provide. And very little has to do with the actual sports themselves, but instead concern the packaging; those oft-damned bells and whistles extraneous to the games themselves, but that account for this drastic imbalance in popularity.
First among these is the lure of celebrity. What household names can the Olympics offer us to compete with the likes of the Diesel, the Rocket, or the Bus? The biggest American star, figure skater Michelle Kwan, has pulled out the competition with an injury, refusing even to become a commentator for NBC. And the second most known athlete, skier Bode Miller, is more infamous for having admitted to imbibing demon alcohol before skiing competitions than famous. The rest of the US team, while undeniably hard working and talented individuals, is thrust into the spotlight with little to no prior exposure, making them a tough sell for the games’ broadcasters, no matter how many backlit, personalized vignettes they run.
The one exception to this phenomenon may be the snowboarding team, who, through venues like the X-Games and the Warped Tour, enjoy more exposure than your typical Olympian. Still, I defy you to find anyone over the age of 20 who, before these games, could tell you who the “Flying Tomato” was. (Turns out it’s Shaun White, who won a gold medal in this year’s halfpipe.) Moreover, the sport has been a part of the games for less than a decade, and seems more like a separate competition unto itself than a part of the larger event. This may be in part because snowboarders convey an image of so many stoned teenagers who have managed to organize their after-school thrill seeking into a judged event. Perhaps most unfortunately, this image was typified by Canadian Ross Rebagliati, who tested positive for marijuana just three days after winning the gold at the first Olympic snowboarding competition in Nagano.
But snowboarding is merely emblematic of precisely the kind of insularity that condemns the Winter Olympics to little more than an athletic curiosity in the eyes of American sports fans. What constitutes good strategy in the biathlon? Is luge merely just skeleton in reverse? The fact that these sports only come around once every four years ensures that their rules, subtleties, and, most importantly, their stars, will remain largely unknown to a larger audience. Such ignorance, of course, indicative of a terrible hypocrisy in the world of sports. What happened to “no I in team”? Isn’t the specter of amateur athletes, toiling away in obscurity for the love of their sport and country, the pinnacle of our sporting ideal, no prima donnas, no agents, no holdouts?
As it happens, not really at least not if television ratings are any kind of indicator. It would seem that it takes bona fide, overexposed, self-aggrandizing, and popularly denounced superstars to attract viewers these days (see Terrell Owens, Ron Artest, Pedro Martinez, et al). To return to the initial question, it would seem that sports alone, without the trappings of celebrity or spectacle, are not enough to attract (American) fans in significant numbers. Is this to lament the current sad state of affairs where “pure” athletic competition takes a backseat to the “corrupted” character of modern pro sports? Not at all. Instead, it’s to point out how these ideals of purity are really just so much hot air. When push comes to shove, fans will watch players who can deliver reliable and familiar spectacle, and who will provide easy fodder for moral grandstanding about the impending apocalypse as evidenced by their latest controversy: an interview, or a touchdown celebration, or some behavioral tic, or, simply, enter your own reason for complaint here.
Worse than this hypocrisy, however, the relative obscurity of the Olympics is symptomatic of the worst kind of national chauvinism. Americans, who love to dub their national victors “world” champions, seem less and less attuned to sports of international significance. For the Winter Olympics, this apathy is particularly acute, as roughly only half the country’s geography allows for the snow and ice that inspire these games. And while places like Florida, Atlanta, and Nashville may boast professional hockey teams, those fans who aren’t transplanted northerners are most assuredly attending games for the mere novelty of the experience and the spectacle of player fights.
Truly, we’re a long way from the “Miracle on Ice” in Lake Placid. Without the drama of a Cold War backdrop, without the familiarity of spectacle, and without the lure of major celebrity, the Winter Olympics will continue to emanate irrelevance on the American sporting landscape. By this token, though, the games provide a telling argument against globalization, by which American products, methods, and ideals are trafficked abroad, but little is reciprocated in the way of our consumption of other cultural products and ideas. The foreignness of the athletes and their games ensures that Americans, en masse, aren’t buying, but are instead concentrating on those American sports that they have grown to love and the players they have grown to hate.
This phenomenon goes against much of what was once the case in this country, typified by ABC’s longstanding, but now defunct, Wide World of Sports, a program that successfully and routinely brought obscure international games like jai-alai and badminton into American living rooms. Perhaps this year’s Winter Olympics can serve as a reminder that it’s time we sought to reverse the scope of American sports, which threatens to contract into just the three majors, and broadened our sporting, and cultural, horizons. Curling, anyone?