When I was a kid, the Olympics were a huge deal. I remember, as a nine-year-old in 1972, watching the Summer Games from Munich as the basketball officials robbed the USA by giving the USSR three chances to win the game, which they did on their third try. Of course I watched. There were only five channels in St. Louis: 2, 4, 5, 11 and 30. And we might see Cardinal baseball once every couple of weeks on TV, rather than seeing every game.
Mark Spitz won seven swimming gold medals in Munich, and heavyweight boxer Duane Bobick was stunned by dominant Cuban Teofilo Stevenson.
Four years later in Montreal, the USA tuned in to see St. Louisans Leon and Michael Spinks win boxing gold. Sugar Ray Leonard won the light welterweight title that year and became an immediate star. Howard Davis won the lightweight gold. At Olympic Stadium, Cuba’s Alberto Juantorena became a star with wins in the 400 and 800 meters, and the USA’s Bruce Jenner won gold in the decathlon.
Politics got involved in 1980, as President Jimmy Carter barred the U.S. team from going to Moscow in retaliation for a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There were great flashes in Los Angeles in 1984, with Michael Jordan leading the Bobby Knight-coached basketball team to gold, Florence Griffith-Joyner becoming a superstar, and Mary Lou Retton and Carl Lewis permanently burning their names into America’s consciousness.
Of course, 1992 in Barcelona gave us the greatest team ever put together in team sports, the only real Dream Team, with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton, David Robinson, Clyde Drexler, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullin and Duke’s Christian Laettner. Perhaps that team brought the Olympic movement to its height in America. These days, we don’t seem to have the electricity for the games we did then.
NBC will still get great ratings for the London Games, of course, but as we approach the Olympics in London starting July 27, our culture has changed. Boxing isn’t a focal point anymore, and Americans aren’t boxing. We won’t see stars born like the Spinks brothers, Leonard, Meldrick Taylor and Pernell Whitaker. The angst provided by Eastern Europe is no more, with the falling of the Berlin Wall and of Communism. So that conflict isn’t provided, and we don’t go into an Olympics with a nation we love to hate.
Sure, we know Michael Phelps from his swimming exploits and we know Usain Bolt because he’s the fastest man in the world. And we know the NBA players like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade who grace USA’s basketball team.
But aside from Phelps, who are we looking forward to watching? We don’t have a Dan and Dave situation for the track team, or an Edwin Moses who dominates his event. We don’t have that glamorous star on the horizon like FloJo, or that pixie-like gymnast like Retton or even Shawn Johnson.
The other thing that’s happened is that the NFL is at a greater popularity than it ever has been. As the games start on July 27, we’ll be only two days away from the start of Rams training camp, and the rest of the league will be reporting at that point. America will be focusing in on its favorite sport, and will most certainly watch preseason games rather than Olympic events.
We’ll be headed into the stretch run of a baseball season in which fans of 10 franchises will see their teams in the playoffs. We’ll likely have 20 teams in contention for a playoff berth when the Olympics get underway. And the London Games start just six weeks after we saw James and Wade win the NBA title for the Miami Heat.
Like every aspect of life, there are many more options for people now than there were 20 years ago. There aren’t as many athletes participating in Olympic sports, and there isn’t as much broad-based interest in those sports as there used to be.
The Olympics are still a big event, but they’ll never be what they used to be. American team sports have done a great job of marketing themselves and building fan interest. The money paid to pro athletes is so enormous that a player that might have wanted to be an Olympian before now has to apply himself to pro sports. For that reason, among others, interest on the part of the viewing public, and on the part of the athlete pool to play in the Olympic Games, will never return to the levels it enjoyed up until the original Dream Team played in 1992.