Why We Need the Olympics Right Now

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Opening Ceremonies for the Summer Olympics will air on NBC tomorrow night, and honestly, the televised broadcast of these games can’t start soon enough.

A lot of issues are casting a shadow over the Rio Olympics, but hopefully everything will manage to go off with minimal hitches, because it feels like now, more than usual, we really need to watch and enjoy the Olympics. We need them as an uplifting summertime distraction. We need them as a reminder that people from a wide spectrum of cultures can come together in harmony and common purpose. We need them to drown out the nonstop air horn of hate that is Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. We need them not because we must make America great again but because, at least for a couple of weeks, it will be nice to feel good about being American.

This may be the first Olympics to take place during a U.S. presidential race in which one of the candidates is yelling at babies and suggesting he's totally up for nuclear war, but it is hardly the first time a Summer Olympics will occur during a moment of unpleasantness and/or discord. To cite just one example, in 1968, one of the most tumultuous years in American history, the Olympics were held in the midst of high civil-rights-related tensions and produced a then-controversial but ultimately enduring and inspiring image of black medal-winning power. Though the Olympics have certainly had their darker episodes — the 1996 Centennial Park bombing in Atlanta and the 1972 Palestinian terror attack in Munich — they are mostly associated with light. Hopefully some of that light can provide comfort at a moment when it feels like life — or at least your Twitter timeline  — is taking a taxi headed straight for the intersection of Cuckoo Bananas and Holy Shit, We’re Screwed.

Just in case you’re not convinced that the Olympics are the ideal television-viewing balm to apply to this nation’s and the rest of the world’s boo-boos, here are six reasons you need to watch.

1. The Olympics provide one of the few rare, communal TV-viewing experiences that lasts beyond a single day. As I discussed recently in this piece, television tends to be watched now according to individual schedules, at times that may not sync up with the moments when our friends and loved ones are experiencing the same shows. Programs that demand we watch together in massive numbers are rare. The Super Bowl is still the biggest must-see broadcast cultural moment in America, but that only lasts for one night. The Olympics, on the other hand, run for more than two weeks, providing sports-related drama, both streaming and broadcast, that people of all ages and interests can hook into together in real time (NBC is touting these as the most "live" Olympics ever). We may all still be staring into screens. But at least for a little while, we will be more likely to look at a mutually agreed-upon screen, or separate screens related to the same event. 

2. It gives us something to watch and talk about that isn’t the election. After the two recent political conventions and the continuing news/late-night talk-show coverage of all the crazy-ass things Trump does from minute to minute, we need a break. It’s time for television we can all watch and discuss in a context that presumably won’t raise our blood pressure or inadvertently kick-start an argument. Instead of beginning conversations with “Did you hear what Donald Trump did today?” — which, honestly, is how I have entered about 100 conversations over the past couple of weeks — it will be so refreshing to instead begin one by asking, “Did you see what Simone Biles did last night?”

3. The Olympics are the ultimate binge-watch. Holy Katie Ledecky, there is a lot of Olympics coverage to ingest and more ways than ever to ingest it: 4,200 hours of streaming coverage! More than 260 hours of programming on NBC! Wall-to-wall daytime tennis for 14 straight days on Bravo! Summer is theoretically about soaking up rays and hitting the pool, but it’s also about sitting in an air-conditioned environment while eating tortilla chips and watching toned athletes hit the pool. If you’re one of those people whose summer usually skews more toward the latter than the former, these next couple of weeks will enable you to live your best possible life. EMBRACE THIS TIME.

4. The diversity. Unlike a lot of what winds up on TV, the Olympics are inherently diverse. Athletes from all pockets of the globe will participate, which means we will see competitors of all creeds, colors, genders, and orientations on our screens. Even if NBC’s main coverage will be, as it has been in the past, pretty U.S.-centric, the streaming options will still expose audiences to a wide range of sports and medal contenders from a vast spectrum of countries. For the first time ever, there will even be a Refugee Olympic Team that enables athletes who have been displaced from their homelands to compete as a unit, under the same banner. NBC is definitely going to milk the emotional nature of that story during their coverage, and I will totally drink that milk. (What? I need something to wash down all those tortilla chips.)

5. The unpredictability. There are some things about the Olympics that we can pretty much foresee ahead of time. (Michael Phelps will win some medals; Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, who will act as Olympic cultural commentators for NBC, will do something meme-able.) But a lot of the excitement of watching the Olympics, as with any sporting event, is that we have no clue what’s going to happen. Hopefully, that unexpected element will not involve any disasters that affect the people who have worked so hard to get to Rio. (Every time I read about the state of the water in Brazil or the concerns about Zika, I worry for the athletes. I also feel like all of them should figure out how to compete while encased in a plastic bubble.) The Olympics come to your television, laptop, or mobile device with the potential for drama baked in; they are always fun and, at their best, tense and exciting to watch. Which, from the jump, already makes them 800 times better than Suicide Squad.

6. You need a good cry. If you’re in the market for a cathartic, uplifting weep — and who isn’t these days? — the Olympics will be your pile of soaked-facial-tissues jam. It’s basically 17 days of “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,” but with swimming and badminton instead of football. Speaking of: You know who probably loves the hell out of the Summer Olympics and tears up through every single minute of it every four years? Tami and Eric Taylor. I have no doubt that, if they existed in real life, they would spend every night of the next two-plus weeks on the sofa in whatever home they wound up finding in Philadelphia, eating up every second. If we can’t quite aspire to athletic heroism, maybe it will at least feel good to aspire to do what Tami and Eric Taylor would theoretically, if they were actual people, do: pour a big 'ol glass of wine and snuggle up together to watch the Olympics, y’all.