Saturday, February 13, 2010

Who Needs the Olympics? Not Us!

Everybody loves the Summer Olympics. I understand that. But this year there seems to be even less love than usual for the Winter Olympics and you have to wonder why.

I remember a time not so long ago when the Winter Olympics were as culturally cool as their summer counterpart. And it wasn't just because Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding made for sensational tabloid headlines--people were legitimately interested in Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan. Figure skating was the winter version of gymnastics and Team USA was golden. Other events were big, too. Remember Bonnie Blair? Of course you do. Can you name anyone on the 2010 Team USA Speed Skating Team? Me neither.

So why are the Winter Games so scorned these days? Aside from the fact that our culture now encourages the immediate cynical scorning of anything as quickly and often as possible (usually in 140 characters or less), I think the real reason behind our general Olympic malaise is the fact that we have become desensitized to competition.

The Olympic Games used to be the main venue for watching your talented fellow human beings perform feats of strength, precision, grace and athleticism. They'd head into the arena/rink/slope/course/etc., perform their skill for the judges and--panting from the exertion--wait for the scores to be handed down. The process was repeated for each participant and the drama built to a blistering crescendo until the Olympic medals were finally distributed. People tuned in to see the triumph of the human spirit and the culmination of years of hard work and training.

Now you can turn the TV on any night of the week and see any number of contests that follow the model outlined above: American Idol, The Amazing Race, Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, America's Next Top Model, Survivor, The Biggest Loser, The Apprentice, Wipeout, American Gladiators, and on and on...

In these cases, the coveted Olympic Gold comes in the form of a record deal, a large cash prize, an impressive amount of weight loss or simply 15 minutes of fleeting pop culture fame. The scale is decidedly smaller than the international stage of the Olympic Games, but it still satisfies our need to watch someone achieve something extraordinary and be recognized as such on a continuum against others in their field.

In fact, we like this better than the Olympics. Anybody with vocal chords can try out for American Idol. The formal training is slim to none, so the gold medal seems much more attainable. Singing? Of course I can do that! Training on ski slopes for years and years? Don't be ridiculous. What do you think I am? An Olympian?

After watching regular people get rewarded for more down-to-Earth feats every week, the Olympics just don't hold the same high place in the American consciousness anymore.

I think it all comes down to one question: How can the Olympic Committee expect anyone to care about the Luge now that we've seen Donny Osmond do the Lindy Hop?


seanhargadon said...

Call me a throwback (or worse), but I sill love the Olympics, summer and winter. I think I've watched more of the Olympics than I watched of the baseball playoffs. I actually watched the nordic combined last night. Guess I'm a sucker for the Olympic melodrama.

Joezilla said...

I love the one question that it comes down to! It keeps making me laugh.