Several weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me about the Olympics, being held in Beijing, China. As someone who lived in Beijing for 4 years, I was both intrigued and confused at the fact that I was barely aware the Olympics were even taking place. I’d like to explore why I, and some of my readers, were so blissfully unaware of the Olympics this year, at least compared to past years when the Olympics were at the center of the zeitgeist.
There’s several factors to consider here. I’m going to make many comparisons to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a mere 14 years ago. The Olympics happened two years before I moved to China, which would have made me approximately 10 years old. However, I remember the construction of the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube Arenas, and their world debut at the Opening Ceremonies. I remember the running and swimming competitions most, with athletic titans Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps leading their respective packs.
This was, of course, a Summer Olympics, which boasts events involving track, field, court, and pool, encompassing popular games such as soccer, basketball, and volleyball. Sure, the Summer Olympics have their fair share of ancient and/or publically inaccessible sports, such as the throwing sports (javelin, shot put, discus, and my personal favorite, hammer-throw), but the vast majority of the sports represented at the Summer Olympics are things the average person can see themselves reflected in and strive to improve at. Running, swimming, jumping, and recreational sport played at their highest possible professional level. The average person has access to all of these things, which helps to draw viewership and keeps watchers engaged from event to event.
This is less true for the Winter Olympics. The nature of the games itself has an air of pretension and privilege. Most of the sports require expensive external gear or specialized training and knowledge inaccessible to the average person, especially those living in warm climates. Arguably the two main sports of the Winter Olympics are skiing and snowboarding, and their dozens of variations including slalom and jump. If you’re from a landlocked, flat area, it’s likely that you’ve never had access to snowy mountains on which to practice your skills. This disconnect would make you either less inclined to watch professional versions of the sport, or alternately, more inclined, out of pure fascination and desire to become familiar with the sport. It seems, of my friends at least, that this year, many chose to ignore the games altogether, or were vaguely aware they were happening but paying no attention to individual events. This is a far cry from 2008, where families gathered in their living rooms with ample appetizers and liquor to watch each event meticulously and root for their home countries.
If skiing and snowboarding are inaccessible, it’s almost not even worth mentioning the vast majority of other sports represented at the Winter Olympics. How many individuals do you know that have been bobsledding? Or gone curling? Luge, anyone? Do any of my readers even know how they would go about getting started at the luge, ignoring completely the regional accessibility? I suppose you’d start out as a kid sledding down hills and develop a desire to go faster and faster, eventually upgrading your sled to sport-regulated gear and changing out small hills for more dangerous, steeper inclines that have you hurtling downhill head-first as fast as a car. The sheer danger of the sport alone is enough to make most rational humans turn away, and the sport’s history of injuries and death supports this. This is not to shame the specific sport, but to highlight the disconnect between the Winter Games events as a whole with the population they assume will watch.
It’s impossible to have this conversation without acknowledging current events. First of all, COVID-19 is still running rampant, despite relaxing mask mandates and declining hospital admission rates. We’ve lived through at least four variants of the same virus, and been forced into quarantine at least once, twice if you’ve caught the virus. This has had a predictable impact on the general psyche of this generation, and has shepherded many formerly extroverted people into lives of solitude. Viewing parties, if they happened at all, were likely few and far between, and the shared sense of camaraderie and pride for our home team was masked along with our faces. COVID also delayed the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games by a full year, making it less than a year since we’d seen the Olympics, a marked difference from the two-year gap usually left to give audiences a break between the athletic festivities. We also just had the Super Bowl, a grandiose spectacle of American might in athleticism and global musical contribution. All of these make for a fairly overstimulated audience member, especially a casual sport-viewer with little investment in the success of any particular team or athlete. On top of this, many Americans still view China in a negative light, in many cases falsely blaming them for the creation and spread of COVID-19.
Beijing hosted the Olympics only 14 years ago, albeit the Summer Games. Part of the allure of watching the Olympics is the new, remote destination of the host city (ie. Rio de Janiero 2016), and the unique culture the host country brings to the games, both through the infrastructure and the Opening Ceremony, which is usually a massively televised event. I remember in London’s 2012 Opening Ceremony, where both the Queen and Mr. Bean represented pinnacles of English culture. Then there were the 2014 Sochi Olympics, which happened in spite of global tensions with the host country, Russia. We got a view of a beautiful Russian city and the most expensive Olympic Games ever. Two years later, Russian athletes were banned from participating in the games under their own flag, however still being allowed to participate as the Russian Olympic Committee (arguably acting with impunity and skirting any form of punishment). This caused some viewers to distrust the politics of the Olympics, especially in the wake of recent Russian military involvement in Ukraine. The same Russian Olympic Committee sent a 15-year-old female skater to this year’s Olympics, who publicly failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs, and yet was still allowed to compete in her events (in stark contrast from American runner Sha’Carri Richardson, who was forced out of the Summer games last year for testing positive for marijuana after the death of her mother).
There was supposedly a “media boycott” surrounding the Olympics this year, and if this is true, it certainly worked, regardless of the political motives behind it. Some boycotted because of China’s treatment of its ethnic Uighur group; others boycotted for China’s treatment of Taiwan, which grew in relevance as they threatened to use the global chaos surrounding Ukraine as an excuse to invade Taiwan. Regardless, the Olympics came and went with minimal coverage. The only major headlines surrounding the games were that of Eileen Gu, an American-born athlete who competed, and won medals, for China. This unfortunately served to heighten racial tensions at a time when Asian-Americans had already been the target of much public scrutiny, resulting in a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes.
On a different note… just curious, how many TV subscriptions do you have? Personally, my dad subscribes to family plans for Amazon Prime, Netflix, HBO Max, and Hulu. We don’t pay for, and therefore don’t have access to, Peacock, Paramount Plus, Roku, and dozens of other streaming services that have popped up in the wake of Netflix’s breakthrough success in the mid-2010’s. Which begs the question: which of these were the 2022 Beijing Olympics available to stream on? If you know, you’re likely in the minority here.
Before subscription services, during the Olympics, you’d turn on almost any major TV channel and be immediately indoctrinated in whatever sport was occurring at that very moment. We had around-the-clock recap coverage of sports that had happened earlier in the day, so you didn’t miss a moment while watching another event happening simultaneously. This year, however, I was barely aware of each event as it occurred, making it impossible for me to tune in and watch the few events I would have cared to see.
Granted I’m not the biggest sports fan, but our family has always watched the Olympics together in celebration of our country and its athletes. I yearn for a post-COVID world where viewing parties come back in full swing, and we can watch and break bread together like in the old days. However, that simply wasn’t in the cards this year, and I had to resort to watching highlight compilation reels on YouTube.
International athletic events are the news-worthy events that used to grab our attention in year’s past, but with a world in flux, torn apart by disease and war, it’s hard to focus on the beauty of figure skating or the speed of a slalom run. The Olympics have a complicated political history, looking back to when Jesse Owens travelled to Nazi Germany and pissed off Hitler, or when Israeli athletes were slaughtered by Palestinian terrorists in Berlin, or when a domestic terrorist’s bomb went off at the Games in Atlanta, Georgia in 1996. Given all of this and the state of current events, it seems almost ironic that the Olympics were held this year in Beijing. All of this being said, I look forward to the Los Angeles Games in 2028, assuming I’ll be wealthy enough to afford a ticket.