Wednesday, February 22, 2006
BY DANIEL B. KLINE
Apolo Anton Ohno may be a very nice fellow and he's certainly good looking, but the average American has no interest in his attempts to win Olympic medals. We're similarly disinterested in Bode Miller, anyone who competes in a sport that involves a snowboard and any figure skater other than Michelle Kwan, who won't actually be competing.
Olympic ratings have fallen because the viewing audience hasn't developed a real connection to any of the athletes competing. NBC has built its coverage around making stars and manufacturing emotion, but those efforts have backfired.
Sports, even when presented to an audience of non-sports fans, either stir your passions or they don't. Presenting them like an episode of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" quickly becomes transparent to most viewers and the attempted manipulation dulls any real feeling.
Put simply, even really clever video packages won't create the deep connections that sports at their best inspire. The 1980 Olympics hockey team wasn't compelling because of its TV coverage any more than any great sports hero - think Mark Messier, Adam Vinatieri, Muhammad Ali or Joe Namath - held our attention because of how they were presented by the media. These athletes grabbed us because their unique feats and ability to do the seemingly impossible did not require explanation or manipulation.
The Winter Olympics also suffers because too many of its sports lack definitive winners. Watch any of the various competitions that involve doing tricks on a snowboard and there's no emotion because the difference between winning and losing is imperceptible
Basically, to the casual viewer there are two classifications of competitors - guys who fall and guys who do a cool trick. The differences between the performances are technical and invisible to people who only see these pseudo-sports once every four years.
Even the sports which have definitive standards for winning, such as skiing, fail to captivate the casual audience because each competitor races against the clock - not other Olympians. NBC may have its announcers speak in excited tones, but the viewing public can't get too worked up watching a skier try to beat the clock by one hundredth of a second when his competition is already in the lodge sipping hot cocoa.
We're not watching the Winter Olympics because the American public just hasn't responded to this group of American athletes. Of course, since NBC wants the Games to be a major primetime ratings draw, they ignore actual sports fans who might care about the subtle differences between competitors from countries they can't find on a map competing in sports whose rules appear to have been made up that day.
In a 200-channel universe, the Olympics simply won't captivate the nation every four years. The pageantry of the event and grand scale of the competition will still create stars, but it won't happen all the time.
I cried when Dan Jansen won a gold medal in his last Olympic race and cheered when Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards survived his attempts at ski jumping. Those emotions, however, were real and NBC won't be able to predict when it might happen again. Perhaps I'm not watching this year because there simply are no stories that tug at the heart strings. That doesn't make what the athletes accomplish any less impressive, it just means that I'll be watching reruns of "Law & Order" while they do it.
Daniel B. Kline is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. His book "50 Things Every Guy Should Know How to Do" will be released in April and his blog can be viewed at www.thingseveryguy.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.