There’s a series on Netflix called Secrets of Irish Castles. I watched about six episodes last week. I might have gotten to the end of one of them without falling asleep. My wife says they were fascinating. We also watched about 10 episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee over the weekend. They’re short, so you can binge on them without really feeling like you’re binging. At one point a message came on the screen, “Are you still watching Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee?” Maybe nobody had ever watched that many episodes in one sitting. Or maybe our TV is programmed to occasionally make sure we still have a pulse. We are kind of old, after all.
In case you could not tell, I haven’t watched the Olympics much. There were a couple of events that I intended to make time for, but I lost track of when they were supposed to be on and ended up knowing who won before they were on TV. Curling appears to be on every time I flip past a channel televising the Olympics. I do not understand curling, and I do not want to understand curling. For the last 206 weeks, maybe a hundred people on earth cared about curling. Now for two weeks, we are all supposed to be obsessed with it. If curling is an Olympic event, cornhole should be.
Do you understand snowboarding? What constitutes a successful performance in snowboarding, aside from not ending up on your ass or in the emergency room? Do you know the difference between snowboarding and freestyle skiing? How about a Super G and a slalom? Here’s an easy one: what is the difference between ice dancing and pairs figure skating? You don’t know, do you? Because you don’t care. You sit there and watch, and you groan when they fall down. What you don’t know is if that was a triple Lutz or a triple Salchow. When watching the luge, are you wondering if they will shave a tenth of a second off their time when they go around the next corner or are you just wondering if they will crash? Personally, I’m wondering how these two guys spend any time in that position and not feel awkward.
You may be watching because there’s no NBA this week or because This Is Us isn’t on. Maybe you are watching because Comcast owns NBC and they have reprogrammed your remote so the Olympics come on no matter what button you push. What about watching because you’re a patriot and you want to cheer on the American in every event? If that is the case, you probably should be watching Secrets of Irish Castles. Spoiler alert: Norway is kicking our ass in everything. Norway has about the same population as South Carolina. Apparently Making America Great Again hasn’t gotten around to the biathlon.
There’s some pageantry that’s cool, like when Queen Elizabeth jumped out of a plane or Muhammad Ali lit the torch. But every opening and closing ceremony is contractually obligated to be an hour longer than the one that preceded it, so by 2030, there may not be any time left for actual sports. For the most part, the ceremonies have recently tried so hard to be original that they just end up being weird. I have come up with a new rule about watching such things on TV. If they were happening 50 miles away and I wouldn’t get in my car and drive to see them, they probably aren’t worth watching on TV. The opening ceremonies didn’t pass that test this year.
Maybe you like the human-interest stories that consume at least half of the air time. These have been a staple of Olympic coverage since the 1970s. Back then, athletes worked their whole lives for one shot, and if they failed they had to get a job and get on with their lives, so there was real drama in their struggle. Now, there may be some drama in whatever adversity Shaun White or Lindsay Vonn overcame to reach these Olympics. White and Vonn are millionaires in their 30s, though, who have already won Olympic medals and are trying to win more because it helps them get better endorsement deals. My empathy isn’t quite stimulated, no matter how much Hoda Kotb tears up.
Maybe you like the commercials, although they keep showing the same five over and over. I keep wondering how any American can walk into a room and see that guy and then be surprised when it turns out to be a Chevy commercial.
Maybe you like the scandals, like when the American swimmers got robbed and then they didn’t get robbed in the last Olympics. The biggest scandal so far has been the Russian curler who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. That seems less of a scandal and more of a punch line. Most of the other scandals have been about people saying things that were insensitive or just plain stupid. We already have Twitter for that.
Here’s the real scandal: the billions of dollars that governments spend to host the Olympics, from building venues that get used for two weeks then sit empty for decades to the endemic corruption around the selection process. Russia spent $50 billion on the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Consider that in the context that Russia’s GDP is about one-fourteenth that of the United States, so that would be the equivalent of us spending $700 billion, which is slightly more than our entire defense budget. Russia is an outlier because they chose to hold their Winter Olympics in a subtropical climate (and because the corruption in Russia doubles the price of doing everything). Yet everyone who holds the Olympics — including places with overwhelming poverty like Rio — commits themselves to taking billions of taxpayer dollars away from social services and infrastructure to knowingly make an investment with a return slightly lower than buying stock in Sears.
Let’s see if Hoda tears up over that.