Five-ring Circus

Do Americans Still Care About the Olympics?

Ratings were way down for NBC. Is that because the U.S. is too good at winning medals?

Bronze medalist Kristi Castlin, gold medalist Brianna Rollins, and silver medalist Nia Ali of the United States celebrate with American flags after the women's 100-meter hurdles final on Day 12 of the 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro
Bronze medalist Kristi Castlin, gold medalist Brianna Rollins, and silver medalist Nia Ali celebrate with American flags after the women’s 100-meter hurdles final on Day 12 of the 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The Rio Games are over, and we have learned a lot. We’ve learned that being a horse is the best job at the Olympics, that a butt-baring Irish bureaucrat is the biggest jerk at the Olympics, and that removing your clothes and dumping them on the scorers’ table is no way to lodge a complaint about a wrestling match. We’ve learned that Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian and that Ryan Lochte is the drunkest. But mostly we’ve confirmed something we already knew: The United States of America is really, really, really good at the Olympics.

Good doesn’t quite describe how good the U.S. is at the Olympics. Goooooooood sort of gets there, but not quite. For the second straight Summer Games, the U.S. led all countries in the overall medal count, winning 121 in total: 46 gold, 37 silver, and 38 bronze. (China ran a distant second with 70 total medals; Great Britain, with 67, came in third.) The U.S. has now led all nations in the medal count in every individual Summer Games since 1996. There has been a lot of talk this year about America’s decline in greatness. But it’s good to know there remains at least one endeavor at which the United States is inarguably the best in the world. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

But wait—is it possible we’re too good at the Olympics? Despite America’s sustained dominance in the pool, on the track, and on the various weird gymnastics apparatuses, the Rio Games were not a ratings bonanza for NBC. Over the past two weeks, according to Bloomberg, NBC pulled prime-time ratings that were 17 percent worse than the ratings they got for the 2012 London Games. What’s more, viewership in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic dropped by 25 percent from London to Rio de Janeiro. The U.S. crushed it at the Olympics this year. America yawned and played Pokémon Go.

There are several possible reasons for the ratings drop: The presidential election is unusually entertaining this year, and people are really getting into the summer reading clubs at their local libraries. But there is perhaps a case to be made that our inevitable march to Olympic glory has drained the event of the drama and poetry that have traditionally made it exciting to watch. Overwhelming victory has become the norm, to the point where even historically great performances pass by unnoticed. The U.S. women’s basketball team hasn’t lost a game at the Olympics since 1992, and Diana Taurasi and co. could barely get a mention on the prime-time broadcasts this year. Bo-ring!

As I wrote in 2012, the U.S. is mostly really, really good in two disciplines: swimming and athletics (otherwise known as track and field). This year, 33 of America’s medals came in swimming and 32 came in track and field; another 12 came in gymnastics. When we say “the United States is too good at the Olympics,” what we mean is “the United States is really good at a couple of events that give out a bunch of medals.”

Swimming and gymnastics received an overwhelming share of NBC’s prime-time coverage during the first week of the games, and viewers watched Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, and Simone Biles dominate. With a couple of exceptions, their events were coronations. The problem in Rio wasn’t that the U.S. was too good at the Olympics. It was that athletes from other nations often weren’t good enough to create dramatic, must-see competitions. The Olympics were most exciting when the Soviet Union challenged the U.S. in all of the sports where Americans excel. Now, especially with the Russians mostly exiled from Rio, our biggest Olympic rival is probably China, and China cleans up in the sports—table tennis and badminton and diving—where America isn’t great.

Every TV show needs its stars, and NBC has done a great job making stars of athletes like Biles and Ledecky and Phelps and, yes, Ryan Lochte. NBC, though, isn’t nearly as good at crafting compelling narratives around sports that take place neither in the water nor on a track. And, come to think of it, NBC isn’t even that great at creating compelling narratives in track and field. Allyson Felix is a great runner and has an incredibly winning personality, and yet the American public hasn’t really responded to her story. Perhaps track and field is simply diminishing in popularity. If so, then NBC really might be in trouble in 2020, especially considering Usain Bolt will almost certainly be retired by then.

Going forward, I think NBC should invest more time in second-tier sports—to make its multibillion-dollar investment in broadcast rights worthwhile, it’s going to need to transform less-popular events into popular ones. There is great drama to be mined from U.S. athletes’ attempts to medal in unfamiliar sports. What about cycling? Americans love to ride their bikes! Or fencing—Americans love swordplay! And given the number of Americans who enjoy owning and shooting guns, you’d think it’d be natural for NBC to make more of the many, many shooting events.

And you know what? NBC did a great job of this with its streaming Olympics package! The network broadcast every single minute of every single sport at Bloomberg reports that, as of last Tuesday, and the NBC Olympics mobile app had logged 78 million streams, a 24 percent increase from the same time span at the London Games. However disappointed the network might be in its prime-time ratings, its online numbers can be seen only as a huge success.

I watched, at minimum, more than 100 hours worth of the Rio Games, and 95 percent of the time I was watching it online—toggling between live streams, watching archived ones, focusing on the sports I liked and not worrying about the ones I didn’t. People are starting to curate their own Olympics experiences, and not just on the official NBC platforms, either. You can follow the events on Twitter and Facebook, and see GIFs and clips of the best moments, and basically get the gist of the whole thing. What all of this means is that the prime-time package NBC puts together is going to be more and more irrelevant as the years go by. That’s especially true given that the 2018 Winter Games and 2020 Summer Games will both be held in Asia, and everything will be on tape delay.

In 2020 in Tokyo, more and more people will tune out on TV and tune in online. The U.S. will probably win the most medals again, and NBC will broadcast gymnastics and swimming and track in prime time. I’ll be watching weightlifting and beach volleyball on my computer, cheering on the Americans I care about and ignoring the ones I don’t.

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.