According to the charter of the International Olympic Committee, the Olympic Games are held every four years to preserve the integrity of athletics, placing “sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace.” Citizens of different nations come together and interact to strengthen the international community. The original Olympic Games of Athens served a similar function: to improve relations between the different city-states and create a common culture.
The Games of our generation have become increasingly flashy and centered on spectacle. Thousands attend the Opening Ceremony and fans crowd each event. For several weeks, Olympic villages and athletes become the focus of the worldwide media. In the recent past, citizens at home have watched the events on TV, enabling the Games to reach more people.
However, the Internet age has changed the way in which we experience the Olympics. Most young people don’t own televisions, nor have they watched “prime-time” in many years. The days of gathering with family and friends around the TV to watch cultural events in real time have ended. The Olympic Games have lost some of their collective spirit.
One of the foremost reasons for this disintegration is the failure of NBC and other networks to cover the games in full. While most events at the Sochi Olympics take place in the early hours of Eastern Time, the network waits to show coverage until prime-time, when it can earn the highest ratings. The footage they show is edited, pared down, and simplified. The contestants who lose are cut out and the winners and American competitors are given large amounts of screen time. Over the years, it seems that the Olympics have become, for the United States at least, more of a celebration of America than of international cooperation. Television coverage of the Olympics has become increasingly abridged and pithy in the Internet age. The attention span of the average person has seems to have shrunk and networks are scrambling to hold the viewer’s attention, often sacrificing content.
Most young Americans don’t even bother to watch the sport events on TV, preferring the immediacy of the Internet. One can easily use Google to find the results of certain competitions and the major details of events. If you visit the Olympics website, or the website of any major news network, you will find clips, overviews, and spoilers. But there is practically no way to experience the games as they are happening. None of the videos are longer than five minutes. If you want to find the full video of Yulia Lipnitskaya’s stand-out performance during the figure skating team competition, you will be disappointed to find that these websites don’t provide footage of the entire program. Youtube videos are scarce and the quality is not ideal. More and more, viewers are watching, or rather reading about, the Olympics on their personal computers and phones. The Olympics have been reduced to news blasts, read silently by citizens on their mobile devices and then put away and forgotten.
Twitter has become the mouthpiece of these Olympics, allowing journalists and fans alike to share their thoughts, as long as they keep it under 140 characters. Exasperated fans tweet pictures of the broken locks, the stray dogs, and the toxic tap water that appear to pervade Sochi. Vladimir Putin’s personal account attempts to put a positive spin on the venue, posting photos of the President mingling with athletes while dressed in red romper (sparking all sorts of blogs and comments mocking the Head of State). Twitter has also become a forum for visitors to criticize Russia under a thin veil of humor. These social media posts and blogs are the few mediums available to gain access to the “experience” of the Olympics. Unfortunately, they are often colored by personal opinion and distorted facts. While citizens used to watch athletic events together and speak about them over the dinner table or at work, most discussions about the Olympics are now limited to the comment space below BuzzFeed articles.
The Internet is an isolating force. It chains young people to their phones and “social” media services and disrupts in-person social interaction. Virtual reality is not a new phenomenon, but its effect on the experience of the Olympic Games is slowly coming to light. If the Olympics were founded to bring people together, shouldn’t they physically bring people together? The actual events will continue to be well attended by those with the means to purchase tickets and hotel rooms, but what about the millions of other people who remain at home, clamoring for a chance to be a part of something larger than themselves? The Internet is the only viable option to gain up-to-date news of the Olympics, but it comes at a cost. The Olympics, as seen on the web, is bland, reduced to numbers and score counts. People may read tweets or blog posts of those attending the Games, but that does not constitute a relationship. You may know and love Matt Lauer’s Twitter account, but it doesn’t love you back. When you watch the Games on television surrounded by your friends, you are at least engaging in some kind of bonding activity.
Modern media has propagated the pageantry of the events, the celebrity names, and the sponsors. But it has left the mission of an international society behind. The “experience” of the Olympics has been condensed to statistics and puff-pieces, forgoing community-building in favor of information collecting. All we are left with is a sea of Internet clips and comments, which we must try to piece together on our own.