Two weeks ago, CBS racked up the biggest TV ratings in history thanks to Super Bowl XLIV. You can bet dollars to doughnuts NBC won’t be following in its crosstown rival’s footsteps with its 17-day broadcast of the XXI Winter Olympics. Why? Well, lots of reasons.
Tradition—The Olympic games date back to ancient Greece. The most widely accepted date for the inception of these Ancient Olympics is 776 B.C. In modern times, the International Olympic Committee has held Summer Games every four years (more or less) since 1896. (World War II kinda put a damper on things.) The Winter Games are a few years behind that curve, having been minted in 1924. And we can reasonably assume that the ancient Greeks did not participate in such sports as biathlon (cross-country skis and target rifles being in somewhat short supply 2,500 years ago on the Balkan Peninsula).
Popularity—Winter sports just aren’t as popular as the more common summer varieties. In fact, few of them are even actual “sports.” I mean, outside of the Olympic venue, who the hell does luge? Have you ever gone out on weekends with your pals and played on a beer bobsled team? Of course not. The Summer Olympics has cycling, soccer, baseball, swimming, basketball, tennis, volleyball—sports the average person might engage in and therefore actually be interested in watching.
Price—The majority of winter sports can also be criticized as “rich man” sports. Downhill skiing is an expensive hobby. Soccer, on the other hand, is just about the cheapest sport in the world, enjoying just as much popularity in Beverly Hills prep schools as in Brazilian favelas.
Climate—Winter sports require a certain, well, wintry climate in order to work. A good deal of our planet is tropical and subtropical. While snowboarding might be a popular sport in Norway, it’s not exactly appointment TV viewing in Coast Rica. Canadians go nuts for hockey, but their national team isn’t gonna get a lot of competition from Ghana. Occasionally, for novelty effect, tropical nations have sent competitors to the Winter Olympics—most famously the Jamaican bobsled team, who at least got a Disney movie out of it. This year, for example, the island nation of Tonga tried to send a single competitor in luge, but he crashed in the final round of qualifying.
Pride—So, if a nation doesn’t play or even watch a sport, what’s the point in sending an Olympic team to the games? About 80 nations are taking part in this year’s Winter Games. By contrast, all but one of the 205 countries with National Olympic Committees participated in the 2008 Summer Games. (Brunei missed the plane or something.) My thinking is this: If your country’s strongest man beats some other country’s strongest man in Greco-Roman wrestling, there’s a certain national pride to it. If, on the other hand, you’re a member of the world’s greatest curling team, the bragging rights are probably pretty slim outside of Wisconsin.