Many people like the Olympics, and many people dislike the Olympics. What they all have in common is that as sure as the Games, summer and winter, come along every two years, they are forgotten nearly as soon as they end. It's odd, isn't it, that we hold this ginormous festival of athletics every other year, and then -- poof! -- it's gone, and it's as if it was never here in the first place. Why is that?
It's not because of the athletes: They are clearly as physically gifted as the top echelon of professional hockey and football players, if not more so. Olympic athletes are usually more articulate and likable, too, and perhaps that's why we are so drawn to their stories during the Games. We connect to their triumphs and struggles more so than professional athletes because they are so clearly more emotionally invested in what they are trying to accomplish. If you aren't inspired by their devotion to excellence then you've got no heart.
It's not the Olympic "atmosphere," which while being very corny is also fun and generally positive. Athletes talk about how happy they are just to be here. The Olympics has that, as they say, big game feel to it. Sure, it's run by a group of crooks at the head of which stands a man whose name just sounds like pure evil. And there are likely athletes on drugs and refs and judges to be bought, but the grandness of the competition, of the gleaming new sportatoriums packed to the brim with cheering people and the general air of goodwill, drowns all that out.
That leaves us with but one characteristic of the Olympics to explain why we don't care about the Olympics when the Olympics aren't staring us right in the face: the games themselves, and here, I think, is where the problem lies. It's that the sports competed in at the Olympics don't keep our attention. In other words, they are not interesting to us when not framed by the Olympics.
For one thing, the sports featured in London are laughably simplistic. Compare a typical Olympic amateur sport -- let's say, shot put -- to a typical professional team sport, hockey. The former is ludicrously one-dimensional: You throw a heavy ball as far as possible, and hope no one throws the ball any farther. That's. Basically. It. Now consider hockey: for starters, competitors are actually playing two games simultaneously -- trying to score a goal and trying to keep the opponent from scoring, and there are any number of ways to be successful, and to fail, in each of those endeavors. I don't want to belittle the technique and training necessary to become a successful shot-putter (have you seen those guys?), but at the end of the day, like running, swimming, javelin, pole vaulting, cycling and virtually every other Olympic event, it's just one very specific skill-set.
Moreover, these sports are hampered by the fact that they present, essentially, competition between sole-practitioners, and thus lack the defining characteristic that makes modern professional sports so compelling: the team dynamic. One of the joys of watching hockey (or football or soccer, for that matter) is the intrigue of seeing disparate individuals, each with his or her own talents and deficiencies and shall we say "unique" personalities, forced to band together. How well they learn to work as one is as important, if not more so, to their ultimate success as the collective talent of the individual parts. We are drawn to team sports because most of us belong to teams ourselves -- as couples, families, colleagues -- and success in life, we generally come to understand, has less to do with what we accomplish on our own than with what we accomplish as part of a team. Yes, there's a Team Canada at the Olympics, but "team" really just means a bunch of insular athlete-groups partying together at night.
Granted, this doesn't explain why MMA has such a rabid fan base and judo and wrestling don't. Or why plodding basketball games are all over your TV while handball, which it turns out is pretty damn entertaining, is broadcast on justin.tv. It doesn't account either for why the big star -- Tiger Woods -- that pushes the mass consumption of golf (a very individual sport) is more athletically (and culturally) relevant than the biggest swimming or gymnastics stars 206 weeks out of 208.
But you can't deny this: TV networks, the CBC, sports stations -- they all pay big money to air sports. And the sports they most often choose to air involve two teams of multiple players, playing against each other. This is because they know that's what we like. And the reason we like team sports is because they are highly complex and appeal to our sense of community. And Olympic sports are for the most part unsophisticated competitions of strength and speed that seem pointless a month later, and that's being generous. Isn't it ironic that the worst thing about the Games turns out to be the games?