Are the Winter Olympics Really Worth Watching?

How we come to think that boring is interesting.

Posted Feb 09, 2014

The showman P.T.Barnum coined the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute.” His specialty was convincing the public to pay good money to stand in long lines to see much-hyped curiosities such as the “Bonassus” (actually a bison but described as something much more exotic). The “Soprano’s” creator David Chase, in writing about this phenomenon, noted that “in order to make the boring interesting, everything is hyped.” That is certainly true of major televised sporting events such as the Winter Olympics currently airing from Sochi.

With the exception of figure skating, hockey, and daredevil snowboard tricks (borrowed from the X-Games to beef up the appeal to young people), few of the Olympic events are known or have any viewership at other times of the year. (Curling or Biathlon anyone?) I have a hard time believing that very many of the millions of viewers really are enjoying more than a few of the dozens of accumulated hours they devote to watching the coverage every evening and all day on weekends.

So why do viewers subject themselves to such an unsatisfying experience? Because the weeks of hype leading up to the event convinces them that they would be missing out on something that others (such as co-workers or Facebook friends) will be talking about. Of course, a big contributor to this manufactured interest is the nationalistic aspect, with the hour-by-hour updates on, say, ESPN regarding the number of medals won by American athletes. (Probably a major reason for adding the X-Games events is that without them few Americans would win any Gold medals, and NBC would have had little incentive to spend nearly a billion dollars to broadcast the event in the US.) An added twist on the nationalistic aspect is the inclusion of uplifting inspirational vignettes about known or unknown American competitors and the sacrifices they have made to represent the U S of A in Sochi.

In my 2009 book “Annals of Gullibility,” I discussed a 1925 book by Ring W. Lardner, Jr. titled “Gullible’s Travels. Etc.” The book is about a Chicago couple, Mr. and Mrs. Gullible, and a trip they made to Palm Beach, Florida. They picked that destination because of all the stories Mrs. Gullible had read in her local newspaper about the good time that various prominent people were reportedly having there. Of course, the Gullibles had a miserable time, but they agreed to tell their friends back home about what a swell experience it had been. The modern equivalent of that is probably Las Vegas (what a hell-hole that is, based on my one visit), with cruises on enormous floating hotels running a close second.

In case anyone thinks I am an anti-TV hippie ideologue, I should point out that I am a recovering TV addict, who would probably have accumulated many more career accomplishments if I had not wasted half of my waking hours watching garbage—including over-hyped sporting events--on TV. But it took my burgeoning recent interest in the phenomenon of gullibility to begin to understand how I had been manipulated into thinking I was having a good time when in fact I wasn’t. This year, I am resolved not to watch the Winter Olympics (made easier by the fact that it is being put on by that evil dog-killing goon Putin), and so far I have succeeded. Hopefully, this trend of avoiding over-hyped sporting events will continue, although I might make an exception for next year’s Super Bowl, especially if Peyton Manning has another chance to cement his place on the list of the five greatest all-time football quarterbacks.

Copyright Stephen Greenspan