by Chris Foss
The Rio Olympics have been battered by negative headlines almost from their conception. Widespread public perception holds that Rio de Janeiro, and Brazil in general, has been a disastrous Olympics site. You name a controversy, it’s dogged these games since long before they started: the possible impropriety in how the games were awarded to Rio, Brazil’s political instability, the spread of Zika, robberies like the one that targeted U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte, poverty, and pollution, not to mention the old Olympic bugaboo of widespread performance enhancing drug use. In an op-ed addressing a comparatively trivial—but endlessly dissected—kerfuffle over gymnast Gabby Douglas not putting her hand over her heart during the national anthem, Guardian columnist Dave Schilling said what was surely on the minds of many, that the real crime was not Douglas’s possible lack of patriotism, but rather that the Olympics had degenerated into a “multi-billion dollar festival of graft, political malfeasance, and civil unrest.”
Yet millions (if not billions) of people worldwide have watched these games, and nearly all of the world’s countries are represented by their best athletes, LeBron and Steph notwithstanding. Corporate sponsorship levels continue to be strong, particularly from Coke, McDonald’s, car manufacturers, and Christoph Waltz (although he’s shilling a South Korean product, Samsung). Bob Costas is still out there, as he has been since the Seoul Olympics of 1988, serving as the games’ most enduring ambassador to United States audiences. Michael Phelps and the women’s gymnastics team are captivating American viewers once again, and with Katie Ledecky, a new superstar was born in the pool.
Clearly the Olympics still matter. But why are we watching, especially when few watch most of the featured sports in non-Olympic years? Furthermore, can fans feel “clean” watching the games, knowing that some of the medals will be forfeited later due to doping? Should we as viewers feel guilty later if these games end up contributing negatively to environmental or political catastrophe in Brazil?
The Olympics matter to the sports fan largely because their sheer diversity appeals to many different types of fans, providing an unmatched view of the breadth of the world of sport. True, NBC has developed a primetime formula with a steady diet of gymnastics, swimming, beach volleyball, and track. But these are all sports that otherwise don’t show up on the Big Four sports fan’s radar, and the network is effective at hyping up the new stars that are born every four years. Basketball, while a big part of NBC Sports Network’s coverage, doesn’t appear on the main NBC network until—maybe—the gold medal game. Baseball has been gone from the Olympics, meanwhile, since Beijing. Yet the Olympics generally draws more U.S. viewers than any sporting event except the NFL playoffs.
Despite complaints about their commercialization and the patriotic way in which they are framed, the games are popular because they represent “comfort food” TV viewing for many viewers. Even though many complain about the primetime formula, it’s become a familiar staple—it hasn’t changed since at least 1996, when I first started paying close attention to the Summer Games. This is at least the sixth Olympiad where the familiar voices of Tim Daggett (gymnastics), Tom Hammond (track and field), and Dan Hicks (swimming) will be expertly narrating the stories that are unfolding. Furthermore, in a worldwide moment where violence and political instability dominate the headlines, there’s many people who want to get away from it all, for the Olympics to—however imperfectly—provide a breather to a troubled world. There’s been headlines about NBC’s poor coverage and declining ratings, but let’s not forget that the games are taking place in the context of drastically declining TV audience numbers overall. To draw 30 million viewers is still a major coup in the current media environment.
Furthermore, in recognition of the digital media revolution, give NBC credit for broadcasting all the events of the games over a wide range of channels and media platforms, competing against itself in primetime, and streaming the entire games live over the internet for the first time this year. NBC isn’t worried any longer about losing primetime viewers to the webcast or even perhaps to daytime coverage. At a time in which the American audience is increasingly fragmented across multiple viewing platforms, this is a smart strategy, and one which benefits the fan whose time and attention is increasingly divided between TVs, laptops, and smartphones.
Overall, Olympics coverage brings together a broader group of fans and non-fans than does almost any “Big Four” sporting event, save the Super Bowl. I suggested a few weeks ago that fans might have something to learn from a deeper appreciation of summer quasi-sports like kickball and softball, who give it their all in their own small-scale sporting venue. In a similar way, by viewing different Olympics events, Big Four fans can appreciate diverse artistic and athletic components. Baseball fans can’t get as much out of watching MLB right now, as many teams are giving up for the season and others are not yet ready to start their all-out sprint to the postseason. By switching over to the Olympics for a couple of weeks, by contrast, fans can watch athletes at the peak of their physical conditioning and effort.
Ultimately the major problems of doping, excessive commercialism, and the environmental impact of Olympic venues are real, highlighting that the International Olympic Committee is in need of major reforms. But what also needs to be considered is the reason why I’m discussing reforming and not abandoning the games: we need to recognize the positive impacts the Olympics have on fans and on the athletes themselves, the vast majority of whom are clean, and for whom the games represent a career—if not life—highlight. Many fans and casual viewers alike can get this, and become attracted by the human interest stories of athletes who have scratched and clawed their way to the games, often with minimal financial support along the way and little promise of fame and fortune after the games end.
In short, the Olympics represent a broader, more diverse segment of the world population than do the Big Four’s stable of comparatively spoiled millionaires. So for the fan who has less time than ever, when the Big Four sports and even soccer gobble up the lion’s share of media attention, the Olympics helps broaden the “wide world of sport” for the typical American viewer, while providing much-needed comfort food every political season to boot.
 It was announced on August 9 that Ukranian javelin thrower Oleksandr Pyatnytsya had retroactively failed his 2012 London Olympics drug test and was promptly stripped of his silver medal.
 According to a recent article in Variety magazine, the Olympics averaged 28.8 million viewers on Monday, Aug. 8; and did even better numbers on Aug. 9. Game 7 of the NBA Finals drew 30 million viewers, but most of that series attracted far fewer viewers.