“Sports is like a war without the killing,” once said Ted Turner, the founder of CNN whose greatest achievement is probably owning the Atlanta Braves.
Cheering for your country on the field or in the stadium elicits competitive patriotism, giving nations around the world a chance to trample each other to victory without anybody getting shot. The Olympics offer this opportunity on a scale no other sporting competition does.
The 1980 Winter Olympics famously brought us the Miracle on Ice, in which the U.S. hockey team bested its heated Cold War rival the Soviet Union in a 4-3 upset. The youngest team in the competition, the Americans went on to win gold in the final round against Finland after beating the four-in-a-row gold medalist Russians. It was a moment of national ecstasy and pride.
When Sports Illustrated ran a photo of the victory on its cover, it was the only time the magazine used a photo with no type or caption. “It didn’t need it. Everyone in America knew what happened,” photographer Heinz Kluetmeier later said.
Not just in 1980, the Olympics have long been a chance for Americans of all stripes to cheer for the red, white, and blue. Ours is the greatest country on Earth, and we’ve always enjoyed reminding the rest of the world that nobody wins like America does. …
… But this year’s Olympics seem different, not just in competition success (it’s still early, though it’s been a slow start) but also in the games’ ability to inspire fans at home. U.S. viewership of the opening ceremony was 16.7 million, the lowest in 33 years. It was a 37 percent drop from the 2016 Rio games, and a 59 percent drop from the 2012 games in London.
Some of this cloud surely comes from the year of waiting. …
… But there also seems to be a general malaise.