The Winter Olympics begin in two days and nobody’s ready for it. The Olympics’ best feature for the last four or five decades has been to get people who otherwise don’t care about sports to tune in for two or three weeks every other year. For the first time, there’s a real question of whether that will happen this year in the United States.
First of all, the Games are in PyeongChang, South Korea, which is hardly a major international city that captures the imagination. When I was reporting on the Olympics for a sports website, the most common response I got when mentioning PyeongChang was “where?”
To be fair, this isn’t an example of American ignorance. PyeongChang is a small, rural resort town of some 30,000 people roughly 100 miles from Seoul. But unlike other resort towns that have hosted the Winter Games in the past—think Lake Placid in 1980 or Squaw Valley back in 1960—PyeongChang is not exactly an established winter sports destination. The ski slopes are fairly small (think a mid-sized Vermont resort) and much of the infrastructure, including hotels and many of the venues, had to be built specifically for the Olympics. It’s basically like if Burlington, Vermont were to be hosting the Olympics.
It’s also a stark contrast from recent Games. In the last three decades, Vancouver, Turin, Salt Lake City, Nagano and Lillehammer have hosted the Winter Games. People know those places, for the most part, as snow-covered winter wonderlands or major jumping-off points to them. It adds to the glamor and prestige that the Olympics traffic.
Of course, I didn’t mention the most recent Winter Olympics host, Sochi, which was decidedly not a major city nor a winter sports destination. In fact, it was the exact opposite, and this captured the American interest for completely different reasons.
Sochi was a boondoggle, the most expensive Olympics ever orchestrated, partly because everything about it had to be built from scratch—and some of it only barely just. In the weeks leading up to the Games, journalists flocked to Sochi and posted photos online of dysfunctional hotels. It even sparked its own hashtag, #SochiProblems. The fascination with Sochi stemmed largely from a kind of cultural rubbernecking we also saw at the 2016 Rio Olympics in spades. Americans, it seems, either want the glamor of Olympics in glorious cities like London and Turin, or to read endless articles about what a disaster they are in places like Rio and Sochi. People need a narrative, and pending disaster is always a powerful one.
If there is a storyline to these Games, it’s the unification efforts between North and South Korea. The two countries will field a joint women’s hockey team and parade together during the opening ceremony. But, a joint hockey team is little comfort when our president tweets semi-regular threats to nuke North Korea. Whatever hope it may be bringing to Koreans, I don’t think the message of peace and harmony is resonating with many Americans. So we’re left with an Olympics that is going to function—the biggest controversy is whether the new high-speed rail line from Seoul has enough capacity—but won’t offer the glitz.
PyeongChang will also have a distinct lack of star power. For the first time since 1998, there won’t be any NHL players participating. Whether the IOC wants to admit it or not, this is a major blow to the event’s profile, as hockey players always offer at least some degree of name recognition. While hockey is not as popular as it used to be, it’s still one of the five major North American sports and is tremendously popular in northern Europe and Russia. On top of that, people who don’t normally watch hockey often tune in for the Olympics version, which is generally regarded as superior to NHL action thanks to All-Star rosters and a faster pace due to a larger ice surface. For whatever reason, hockey players genuinely care about the Olympics, too. Which is to say: The games are fun as hell. But this year, we won’t have any of that.
But it’s not just a hockey problem. For Rio, NBC could trot out a half-dozen recognizable American faces: Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Simone Biles, Missy Franklin, to say nothing of the NBA players or US Women’s National Soccer Team. Past Winter Olympics had your usual NHL stars and narratives plus Apolo Ohno, Ashley Wagner and Bode Miller. It’s a true challenge to name even three athletes competing in the upcoming Games, even if I spot you Shaun White and Lindsey Vonn.
On top of all those issues, there are more practical concerns. PyeongChang is 14 hours ahead of New York and 17 hours ahead of Los Angeles. “Primetime” events in Korea beginning in the early evening will air in the middle of the night stateside. Most people will wake up to news of who won medals rather than experiencing it live.
Put all of this together, and there’s little reason to think the country will watch PyeongChang in anywhere near the numbers they did for Rio, Sochi, London or Vancouver. But the appeal of the Olympics is that new stars can rise and achieve greatness. You’d better believe that NBC—the Olympics’ $4 billion rights holder—is going to do its damndest to make that happen, to compel you to watch. The company has too much riding on it. After all, Tokyo 2020 isn’t for another 30 months.