With the Olympics over, it seems appropriate to reflect back on the key trends of the last two weeks. A central theme of this blog has been the fracturing of the culture since the 1970s and 80s due to the arrival of cable television and greater entertainment options overall, but it appears that the Olympics may be bucking this trend. Amazingly, in a time of declining viewership for the broadcast networks along with the growing availability of Internet streaming, London became the third consecutive Olympics to achieve an increase in ratings, reaching the highest Nielsen numbers for a non-US games since 1976.
The tremendous ties between Great Britain and the United States may have been an important reason for heightened American interest. The opening ceremonies demonstrated the huge impact of British culture on the United States, from appearances by popular stalwarts such as James Bond, Mary Poppins, and Harry Potter’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort. Closing with Paul McCartney performing “Hey Jude,” it felt more familiar than any non-American opening ceremonies I can remember. With its performances by multiple British pop stars as well as Monty Python’s Eric Idle, the closing ceremonies had the same feel, topped of by a medley by “The Who,” whom had performed at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2010.
Clearly, the tremendous success of the U.S. team, which won a road Olympics record of 46 gold medals while also leading the overall medal count, fueled viewership. With the first week exploits of perennial Olympic star swimmer Michael Phelps and the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, America got off to a strong start. Followed by the surprising strength of the US Olympic track team and the Ali-like charisma of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, the second week was more compelling than in recent Olympiads.
Another key element may have been the emerging rivalry between the U.S. and China. While the United States won both the gold medal and total medal races, China was a strong second in both categories. Because the two countries rarely face each other directly, American diver David Boudia’s gold medal win in the 10 meter platform, where he needed a spectacular final dive to defeat the dominant Chinese team, was one of the great moments of the games. While not achieving the same heights as when playing on home turf in 2008, the People’s Republic’s performance was very impressive and certifies it as the replacement to the old Soviet Union as the U.S.’s chief competitor.
Speaking of which, I prematurely declared Russia a second-rate power during the first week of competition. After a slow start, Russia picked up its pace, finishing with 82 medals, a close third to China’s 88. Despite this success, Russia won a mere 24 golds, finishing fourth behind Great Britain’s 29 hometown triumphs.
Another important aspect of these games was the behavior of the superstar professional athletes. In past Olympics, such as Athens in 2004, some of the US basketball players seemed less than enthusiastic about participating. For the second consecutive games, the American basketball players appeared quite engaged, cheering their teammates in other sports and playing together as a unit on the court. Los Angeles Clippers’ All-Star guard Chris Paul said the Olympic competition was the most fun he had ever had. When the US defeated Spain to win the gold medal, the players celebrated as if they had won an NBA title.
Similarly, all of the elite tennis players came to the Olympics and played a fiercely competitive tournament. The gold medal victory by Great Britain’s Andy Murray, who had lost in the Wimbledon final only weeks earlier, was one of the emotional highlights of the fortnight. Serena Williams, who has won everything else there is to win in women’s tennis, celebrated her first gold medal in singles as if she had won a major championship.
The Olympics are always one of my favorite sporting events because few things can match the excitement of having one chance every four years to win an event playing for your country. Already looking forward to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, event if the opening and closing ceremonies won’t be as familiar.