I’ve been alerted that the Olympics are over and that I can come out from my self-imposed media storm shelter. In looking at the late echoes of the coverage from Rio, it seems I did well to avoid the full onslaught of the media event.
I wasn’t alone in trying to stay away from the Olympics. The U.S. television audience was 20 to 30 percent lower than four years ago. Viewership faded as the games wore on, with the lowest ratings tallied on the final Saturday. Even loyal TV sports fans couldn’t wait for the show to be over. Among those who watched the broadcasts, there was criticism of NBC, with TV critics and pundits questioning both the selection of events and the live commentary the network provided.
But it seems there was plenty of criticism to go around this month. The IOC and other institutions of international athletics came out looking ashen and dubious, and at least six top U.S. athletes came away with reasons to regret having made the trip. Regret seems to be the word for the host country and city too. It was too late to cancel, but Brazil and Rio de Janeiro pulled off a respectable event, even if the unintentionally green swimming pools have stuck in people’s minds as one of the most enduring images of the 2016 games. Neither Brazil nor Rio could make the case this year that they could afford the Olympics in a financial sense, but costs aside, I think this is the first time that an Olympics host has seen its reputation actually damaged as a result of hosting the Olympics. Brazil did not really want to be in such a big spotlight right now, facing an economic nightmare the country can’t seem to shake off, not to mention a related presidential impeachment that had to be postponed until today in order not to make appearances worse than they had to be. As for the host city, I feel certain I recall that a month ago, Rio was widely seen as an almost mythic place that you might get to visit someday if you were lucky. Now that has changed. Without anyone being able to say how or when it happened, the city’s image has been turned on its head. Maybe it’s just a case of too many TV cameras in one place. It isn’t about people saying, “I’m glad I don’t have to be in Rio myself,” which would be an understandable sentiment this year given the region’s current horrifying mosquito-carried disease outbreak. It is worse than that. No one is even thinking about Rio in those terms, as if the unspoken understanding is, “Well, obviously, who would voluntarily set foot in Rio de Janeiro?” I almost wonder if the 20th-century short form of the city’s name, “Rio,” is no longer valid, and the full name might now be required, in case someone might respond with, “Rio who?”
As the games dispersed, one of the big headlines was about the president of Turkmenistan blasting his country’s team, heading home without a single medal. The Olympics weren’t entirely a bummer, though. The headlines also speak of a few hundred medalists who have become heroes in the world and especially in their home countries. I knew the Olympics were on when I saw a flurry of bicyclists out on country roads in the early evenings last week. The broadcasts reminded these athletes to tune up their bicycles, get on them, and ride. The burst of bicycle activity might have lasted only a week, but even this level of inspiration has some value.
There is no question about the 2020 summer games, for which plans are set and contracts signed, but there has to be some doubt about 2024. The Olympics in recent decades have been mostly paid for by the host city and U.S. TV, and that no longer looks like a workable formula. Did I mention that the U.S. TV audience was down 20 to 30 percent in spite of an ideal time zone for the American audience? NBC can absorb its losses from this month, but if the U.S. TV audience declined 20 to 30 percent in four years, could it decline another 50 percent in another eight years? More to the point, what giant U.S. broadcaster will be in a position to take that chance? Meanwhile, now that potential host cities see that it’s possible to shell out $20 billion and also take a black eye that could linger for decades, what city will take that leap of faith? It is an ethical problem already that most of the work that goes into the Olympics is provided by uncompensated amateur participants. There has to be a new formula for the Olympics that doesn’t require transferring so much cost and risk onto third parties that may not be prepared to bear them.