Leitch: Why the Olympics Are the Reality TV of Sports

Michael Phelps
The Christian Siriano of sports? Photo: Getty Images


Two nights ago, while Michael Phelps was winning his third gold medal in world-record-breaking fashion, I was sitting at a sports bar in the East Village watching my beloved St. Louis Cardinals play the Florida Marlins. The bar was full of televisions showing different sporting events, from the Red Sox–White Sox near no-hitter to highlights of the Little League World Series. Tucked over in the corner, in a smaller television just above the door to the women’s restroom, was the lone television showing Phelps’ victory. The sound was not on.

Like a lot of devoted sports fans, I’m a little bewildered by the Olympics. I’ll occasionally flip through one of NBC’s army of affiliates, catch a quarter or two of basketball, stare blankly at the screen, wonder whatever the heck “trampolining” is, then creep myself out with a few minutes of women’s gymnastics. It’s sporadically entertaining, not least because of NBC’s surprisingly smooth (and, impressively, timely) coverage. But I’m not sure I consider any of it sports.

Oh, sure, it’s athletics; the Olympics showcase the sometimes terrifying capabilities of the human body. (While at the bar, I enjoyed the contrast of the aerodynamically defined Phelps on one screen and portly Cardinals closer Chris Perez on the other. Never had the difference between sports and athletics been so clearly exemplified.) But the Olympics are full of weird sports we’d never even notice otherwise. And being a hard-core sports fan is about being an obsessive. Following a sport year-round, and not just ducking your head in once every four years, is the whole point.

The Olympics fly in the face of that, which is probably why so many casual fans are watching them and enjoying them. Unfortunately, casual fans think that because I’m a sports fan, I’m somehow as into the Olympics as I’m into the Cardinals, or my fantasy football team. (As if being a sports fan is simply a matter of enjoying things that are scored.) The Olympics are for people who like reality television, individual, easily resolved, simple disposable dramas that are forgotten in a matter of days. They are not for sports fans.

Sports fans enjoy history, enjoy context, enjoy the alternating joy and pain that come with following a team/player/franchise for decades on end. We are either rewarded for that devotion (Red Sox fans) or punished for it (Browns fans, Cubs fans — let's hope). But it’s something we carry around with us every day, and always will, for the rest of our lives. After the Olympics are over, you’ll never think of Michael Phelps again. I’m gonna be stuck with my Arizona Cardinals forever.

Sports fans reading this are nodding their heads; they’re getting pretty tired of being asked about Michael Phelps and the beach volleyball team when they get to work in the morning too. The Olympics are entertaining, and even occasionally inspiring. But they’re not what American sports fans are watching. American sports fans are out watching sports.

So let us be, or at least deal with our empty nods as we pretend, while you're telling us about that totally awesome pommel-horse routine you saw last night, that we understand what you’re talking about. You might recognize the look; it’s the same one we give you when you talk about what happened on Project Runway last night. To us, they’re the same show. —Will Leitch

Counterpoint: Why the Olympics are Real Sports, But Better [NYM]