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Why The Ratings for Beijing Were Anything But Olympic

Savannes and Dirt Roads

It was the Summer of ’92. After spending three terms learning my ABCs and 123s; and how to read “Carla and Rose were going to school today” in as robotic a style as can be imagined; I was looking forward to running around uninhibited for two whole months, in my beloved Savanne; (the closest thing to a backyard in rural 90s Choiseul); where wild grass grew; grandmothers tilled the dry earth, and children imagined themselves the hero in a Chuck Norris action film they had just watched on VHS. The Savanne too, was a relic of the post abolition reality, that “black” people didn’t always think they needed handouts from masters who no longer were; just in order to thrive.

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Painting of coconut tree branch for cricket bat
Painting depicting a child using a coconut tree branch as a cricket bat

But the Savanne was not the only sanctuary of fun for my brother and me in Reunion where we grew up. The thoughts of playing cricket on the dirt road next to my cousin’s home, filled my infant school mind with joy. We loved leaving home and walking two minutes over there to pretend to be Brian Lara smashing the English for four for our beloved West Indies. Nothing beat playing cricket back then with a dried coconut branch (bas cocoa), a taped up tennis ball, and two stones; which all made for admirable replacements of the traditional bat, ball and wickets that my British and Aussie child counterparts most probably enjoyed.

But enough of poverty and all the excuses that come with it. My childhood, with the Savannes, and the coconut branch, and all the poverty in the world; was a very happy one; and to this day I look back at it most fondly and wouldn’t trade it for any memory in the world.

Why The Ratings for Beijing Were Anything But Olympic Colour TVs and Olympic Firsts: Barcelona

So that Summer, cricket, and playfighting, and running around in the dried wild grass of the Savannes were all on the menu.

1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics
1992 Barcelona Summer Olympic Games Logo

What I had not been anticipating was watching the Summer Olympics of Barcelona that year. My mother of course, would not have let me miss those Games; she who had had high hopes for my then prospective athletics career.

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Having already won the short sprint race in my age group at my school’s Inter House Sports; my passion for running (athletics) were sky high and unequaled. And boy was I fast.

I had won every race I’d ever participated in; and though I had yet to taste defeat, I already knew I hated it’s bitterness.

But I would not be the one doing the running that Summer.

I don’t remember exactly the afternoon my mother sat us down with the rest of the family and tuned into one of two channels available to us on our brand new colour television; (a technological marvel to a rural boy in the early 90s); but it was to watch the hundred-metre dash qualifying round at the Barcelona Olympics.

I was dazzled by the colour, the stadium and the overall ambience of NBC’s broadcast. I had never seen anything like it before. The voices on commentary, and that timeless fanfare that accompanied the highlights of the best athletes in the world; made the Olympic experience; just that; Olympic. It was must see tv. And the athletes delivered.

Every piece of the Olympic presentation; from the producers, to the commentators, to the music production crews, coaches and athletes; each one gave the viewer, the fan, a feeling; that the Olympics was the most important event; not only in the sports world; but in any form of entertainment.

Why The Ratings for Beijing Were Anything But Olympic USA vs Britain, USA vs The World

My eyes widened and filled with wonder. I asked my mother every question that came to mind. What were the rules? Where was the whistle that had been used to start the race at our school meet? Who was the fastest participant in the event? And who did she think was going to win?

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Her personal favourite was Frankie Frederick from Namibia. While the NBC broadcast team focused on the American contingent, Dennis Mitchell and Leroy Burrell. It was hoped they would carry on the torch American hero Carl Lewis had passed on from Seoul four years earlier. My mother told me that Lewis was the fastest man in the world; (except for the notorious Ben Johnson of course, ran at Barcelona that year but would ultimately fail to qualify for the final round). Lewis was not a participant in the 100 metre event at Barcelona, so he could not defend his Seoul title. The man who finished second (actually third) in Seoul and was back to try for one better in Barcelona, was Linford Christie, representing Britain by route of Jamaica; and the man I would be routing for.

Linford Christie
Linford Christie crosses the finish line for gold in the men’s 100m event at the 92′ Barcelona Summer Olympic Games

Let’s just say there was an anti-American sentiment in the house.

When the finals finally came around; I was nervous before the starting gun. I really wanted Linford Christie to win, but at the same time I was terrified that what everybody had been saying; would be inevitable; one of the Americans was going to win.

And the gun went off and in a flash; Christie had won, Frederick was second and I jumped for joy. Mitchell was third meaning an American medaled but the bragging rights belonged to Britain on the day.

Olympic Ratings then and Now

When NBC went to the break, the camera had been focused on Christie waving the Union Jack; with that brilliant Olympic theme blaring over the television speakers.

It left an indelible impression on a 5 year-old aspiring athlete; and this is what the Olympics would continue to be throughout the nineties and into the early 2000s. It was the most important sporting event in the world; it’s prestige and pomp unmatched; even by the World Cup. Who the best athletes were; was determined at the Olympics; ably assisted by brilliant marketing and television presentations.

And viewers responded in kind.

That 92′ Barcelona Olympics had a first weekend average rating of 27.0 Million.

Now compare those numbers to the recent Beijing Winter Olympics, which aired across broadcast, cable and streaming platforms of Comcast’s NBCU. It only drew an average however, of 11.4 million primetime viewers over its two-and-a-half week run.

Prime time viewership on average does better ratings than any other time slot; but the Winter Olympics could not even get half of the Barcelona Games overall average during the first weekend. Take into account the multiple streaming and online platforms over which NBC aired this year’s Winter games and it begs the question; why have the ratings dropped and what happened to that Olympic appeal?

Olympic Ratings Just Aren’t Olympic Anymore: China

Many will blame the anti-Chinese sentiment leading up to and during the most recent Winter Olympics. Yes; international feeling toward China on social justice issues are very negative; whether it’s China’s notorious and evil former one child policy; or the Uyghur situation, or the general lack of political freedoms granted in the massive Communist nation.

Opening ceremony at the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008
Opening ceremony at the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008

But China has hardly ever enjoyed a sparkling image in the international public eye. That fact didn’t stop the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, from drawing an average of 30.6 million viewers throughout the event’s duration. That’s 6 million more than Barcelona ’92 did. And there were calls to boycott that Chinese hosted Olympic event too. The ratings were still great.

Olympic Athletes Have Become Second Class to the Marketing World

Some say television isn’t what it used to be. And that is true. While production value has increased exponentially since Barcelona ’92; right along with the world’s technology; the coverage of the Olympics isn’t what it used to be. In ’92, it wasn’t just about the sharpness of the video or the clarity in the sound; it was about the importance that the commentators and the whole television presentation lent to the importance and grandeur of the Olympics.

In recent years, it’s clear the Games and their athletes take second place to the Super Bowl, (which in truth is nothing more than a national event) or to the NBA, which although has more appeal than American football internationally; was never before seen or presented as more prestigious, than an event which hosted the best athletes in the world competing for the ultimate prize; a coveted Olympic gold medal.

It’s obvious why this shift has taken place and just as understandable. It makes financial sense. The Super Bowl is a commercial cash cow unlike any in the sports world and NBA athletes for some reason are being called the best; when in the days of Carl Lewis, only a lunatic would say Michael Jordan was a better athlete. More popular; yes; but better?

That shift in perspective has also been fueled by money. It now makes more financial sense to say Michael Jordan is a better athlete than Carl Lewis; that LeBron James is a better athlete than Usain Bolt; or that winning an NBA or Super Bowl ring (team accomplishments) are as difficult or monumental as winning an Olympic Gold Medal, and being crowned “The fastest man in the world”.

Why The Ratings for Beijing Were Anything But Olympic Conclusion

Team sports like the NFL and the NBA, have left Amateur Athletics in the dust when it comes to commercial value and the television companies have responded in kind. And sadly, it shows in how those sports are presented.

These factors have combined to form the reality, that the Olympics aren’t what they used to be. They’re not presented with the same level of prestige or importance they used to. The Olympic athletes have been dismissed as fringe by a more and more commercialised television and advertising industry. And the consumer has followed suit.

The NFL, NBA and team sports like them, have become the Olympics of this era. The money they generate, have for years now, trumped the honest recognition, that Olympic athletes are the best in the world, and should be presented and covered as such. Without the mainstream media and advertising machine pushing that reality to the masses; the Olympics just aren’t Olympic anymore.


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