The Universal Notebook: Is this the end of the Olympic Games?

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For the first time in my life I have not watched a single event in the Summer Olympics.

I saw about 30 seconds of the opening ceremonies as I was channel surfing, but the parade of nations, the pyrotechnics and supermodel Giselle Bundchen (Tom Brady’s wife) strutting in to “The Girl from Ipanema” just didn’t interest me enough to keep watching.

Apparently I’m not the only one who has lost interest in the Olympic Games. Viewership of the opening ceremonies was down 35 percent from 2012 and the average audience of 28.6 million is down 20 percent from the London games. And a Gallup poll indicated that the percentage of Americans who planned to watch “Not Much/None at All” of the Olympic coverage rose from 41 percent in 2012 to 51 percent in 2016.

NBC, which paid $1.2 billion for the rights to broadcast the Olympics, has put their best spin on the audience decline, pointing out that the games have dominated the broadcast ratings, but then that’s no surprise. It is the Olympics after all, and there’s never much worth watching on broadcast television anyway.

Perhaps to make up for the decline in viewership, NBC’s coverage of the Summer Olympics has apparently been packed with so much advertising that it’s being called “Nothing But Commercials.”

NBC countered, however, that there were actually fewer commercials (54) in their coverage of the opening ceremonies than in 2012 (72). The networks chalked the complaints about too many commercials up to viewers who are have become intolerant of commercial breaks in general. My lovely wife, for example, will not watch a movie on TV if it has commercials. The future does not bode well for commercial broadcasting.

I have to believe Rio itself has something to do with the declining interest in the Olympics. Some of the best athletes in the world declined to go to Rio for fear of contracting the Zika virus thought to be responsible for an outbreak of microcephaly in Brazil. Athletes have also been made sick by the raw sewage in the waters off Rio, and who knows what’s in the green chemical soup in the diving pool.

Of course, the sports themselves can be off-putting. I haven’t really cared much for Olympic basketball since the U.S. started sending professional Dream Teams. The Olympics should be for amateur athletes. A bunch of collegiate hockey players beating the Soviets was inspiring. A bunch of NBA stars beating Australians is not. And the entire sport of soccer is suspect that now that everyone knows how corrupt FIFA, the sport’s governing body, really is.

I suppose I should be impressed that Michael Phelps, who has won more Olympic medals than any athlete in history, is competing in his fifth Olympics, but I’m not, maybe because he has won more medals than any athlete in history. I find him tiresome, the same way I did Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods when they were winning everything in sight. I prefer to root for underdogs.

I’m sure a new generation of little girls will be inspired by gymnasts such as Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman to delay adulthood in order to perform fabulous flying feats and flip-flops, but paying attention to sports such as gymnastics, track and field, and figure skating every four years has always struck me as disingenuous. If you really must see Simone Biles’ fantastic floor routine, you can just watch it on YouTube and cut your viewing time down to three minutes.

The most objectionable aspect of Olympic coverage since time immemorial has been the America-centric nature of it. Other than a few Chinese divers, African distance runners, Caribbean sprinters and Russian dopers, you’d think no one competed in the Olympic Games except Americans. The Olympics, of course, promotes nationalism, pitting country against country, but the provincialism of Olympic coverage is embarrassing and another reason not to watch.

Ultimately, however, I have to believe that the relative lack of interest in the Olympics has a lot to do with the curse of violence upon us all. Terrorist attacks, mass shootings and a presidential candidate suggesting assassination might be an option if he loses the most terrifying election in American history have cast an anxious pall over the public life of America and the world.

The Rio Olympics will be a great success if they manage to come off without any violent incidents. But with so many serious problems in the world, running fast, jumping high, dunking and diving, while nice diversions from reality, just no longer strike me as significant accomplishments.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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