With the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro kicking off tonight, I can’t help but think of another massive, ill-starred gathering: Woodstock ’99. That festival, with its disease, lack of water, sexual assaults and the Insane Clown Posse, was a debacle of Altamont proportions. The Rio games, with the threat of Zika, crime and water problems, are primed to be the athletic equivalent. There will undoubtedly be thrilling feats of athletic brilliance, but it’s still worth asking: In what way do the Olympics even matter?
Like the MTV Video Music Awards or The Bachelor, the Olympics are less about competition and more about creating buzzworthy pop culture moments. Do you remember who won the figure-skating gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics? Probably not. You’re more likely to remember that Bob Costas got pink eye.
In the Twitter era, Olympic sports have taken a back seat to Olympic spectacle. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. But if we’re rabidly tweeting about how dumb the Olympic mascot looks during tonight’s opening ceremony, then casually watching the actual competition while making breakfast, folding laundry or watching other stuff on our phones, why are we really tuning in?
There will be 6,755 hours of Olympic programming over the next 16 days. There are 8,760 hours in a year.
According to NBC, there will be 6,755 hours of Olympic programming over the next 16 days. There are 8,760 hours in a year. Clearly, NBC thinks we care about the Olympics. In the network’s eyes, participants in the games have enough backstory to fill 100 seasons of reality TV. Take diver Abby Johnston, one of the subjects of Destination: Team USA, a documentary currently on Netflix. Johnston is a Duke University medical student who finds time for diving practice in between bio classes, all while planning her wedding to Duke assistant football coach Sam McGrath. Johnston is a Nancy Meyers movie waiting to happen.
Yet for all the charming stories, a Mount St. Helens-size black cloud hangs over Rio. It’s not that the Zika virus is might create a real-life reboot of the 1995 disaster movie Outbreak. The real problem is doping. With a third of Russia’s athletes banned from competition due to a widespread doping scandal, and Brazilian testing labs proving to be woefully inadequate, what we’re likely going to see is the 2016 version of Phil Hartman in Saturday Night Live’s All-Drug Olympics. For a clean athlete, Rio could be an exercise in dream-shattering frustration.
Again, the Rio Olympics will provide moments of athletic greatness, just like Woodstock ’99 offered a couple of bright spots (Alanis Morissette, Elvis Costello) amid the disaster (everything else). Serena Williams will continue her victory lap as the greatest tennis player of her generation, if not of all time. Usain Bolt will once again prove to be superhuman. Team USA will give a send-off to its greatest Olympian, Michael Phelps. Oh, and get to know Simone Biles now; she’ll be on your cereal box in a few weeks. While Woodstock ’99 was the last massive concert in upstate New York, the Olympic flame will keep burning long after all the problems of Rio.
Let the games begin?