In an age of ultra-high definition and the ability to watch any sporting event anywhere in the world live on your phone, it has become a mostly accepted axiom that sports are made-for-television events. But this is never more true than at the Olympics.
The Olympics are a television show. They are more than that to the athletes involved, of course — people who have trained their entire lives to master very specific pursuits, many of which only draw mainstream coverage once every four years (or five years, in this pandemic-delayed case). But for you, me, and everybody else, they are a fortnight of mini-dramas. All those years of hard work are distilled into four-minute video pieces introducing us to an athlete, getting us hooked on their story, with the entire arc of their lives edited into bite-size chunks of programming. People experience the Olympics in short chunks, to be forgotten about quickly before they move onto something else. They are, in their purest sense, reality TV.
And if there were ever a year in which the Olympics need to be exactly that — with all the chaos and boring parts edited away — this sure is it. By every account, the Olympics are already a mess. Athletes are testing positive for COVID in growing numbers. Tokyo is in a state of emergency. Japanese citizens have been begging the Olympics to stay away for months. Major corporate sponsors, the true lifeblood of the Olympics, are already bailing; Toyota, one of the core Olympic advertisers, is pulling all commercials in Japan because they don’t want to offend the locals by even being attached to these games. No spectators are allowed at any events, which has evaporated a large swath of the revenue Tokyo had been expecting (perhaps wrongly) to be injected into its economy, and neither athletes nor media members are even allowed to exit the Olympic village and, in some cases, their cramped hotel rooms. (Simone Biles, the most compelling athlete of these entire Games, is skipping the Olympic Village entirely, as are her teammates.) If you’re at the Olympics right now, you’re surely complaining about it, and you’re also probably very lonely. As the games have become more corporate and less fan-friendly over the years, attending them has gotten less and less enjoyable — I’ve gone once, to the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, and while I got to write some good stories, my only lasting memories of the experience involve being groped and searched by Russian security roughly 30 times a day. For anyone actually in Tokyo this year, with no fans and soaring COVID case numbers all around you, it’s more trying than ever.
This is the thing, though: You, the viewer, don’t have to worry about any of that. Well, sure, you can worry about it in a macro, human sense; holding an Olympics in the middle of a COVID surge in an undervaccinated nation whose citizens want absolutely nothing to do with any of this is probably something we should all be hesitant to associate ourselves with. But that’s not the way any of us are going to experience it. We’re going to experience it as good television. NBC has proven expert at shaving off Olympic unpleasantness in the past. Sochi is a case in point: Heading into the games, all anyone could talk about was how much of a terrorist target they were (and let’s not forget what was going on in Crimea and the Ukraine during the Sochi Olympic fortnight). The last Summer Olympics, in Rio, are another example: They were held amid the Zika virus, mass public discontent around Brazil’s massive spending to fund the games, and widespread questions about whether the country was actually ready to host the event. But watching at home, you wouldn’t have been privy to much of any of this. The Olympics are scrubbed for television. And the Tokyo Olympics are going to require a lot of scrubbing.
Still, I suspect the television audience will not care once the Games are going; the Games are, after all, a pretty irresistible television show. You will meet colorful, likable characters — I’m already fond of the speed skater turned baseball player who is trying to become the first person to medal in both the Winter and Summer Olympics since 1936 — and you will become invested, however briefly, in their stories, and maybe you’ll start to feel a little patriotic in spite of ourselves, and suddenly you’ll be watching Peacock all the time. (Becoming an active Peacock user is the ultimate sign that the Olympics have gotten their teeth into you.) When the Games get going, it’s difficult not to get swept up in them, despite everything.
That feeling you have now, that they really shouldn’t be doing this? Trust me, it will fade once the Games get going. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it will. After all, this has happened in every other sport that has plowed through the pandemic. Whether it’s the NFL or baseball or La Liga, each season begins with the feeling that maybe this is a mistake, too big a lift; remember, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred nearly canceled the 2020 season less than a week into it. But then the games get going, and they develop their own momentum, and you just lose yourself in what’s happening within them. The Olympics will be no different. And the Games have always been dramatically different from the way they’re portrayed on television. What’s going on behind the curtain? Don’t ask. You don’t really want to know. We never do. When the athletes are up on that podium, fighting off tears as they receive their gold medal while listening to their national anthem, it won’t matter. I’ll be hooked, you’ll be hooked, we’ll all be hooked. That’s what the Olympics have always counted on, and that’s what they’ve always delivered.