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Is Anybody Watching? How the Olympics Lost the Race to Reality TV

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The trouble with achieving something is that someone invariably beats you at your own game. That's the case with the Olympics, but the race isn't to the medal podium.

Sports fans may still be watching, but the Olympics have gone quiet on the pop culture radar. The Games used to be the champion of reality TV, but now the new generation of reality TV athlete is faster, higher and stronger. In short, current reality TV has beaten the old Olympic pioneer at its own game.

I saw about 25 people socially this weekend, who ranged in age from 8 to 70, and who work as everything from elementary teacher, construction worker, film editor, drummer, cashier, to social worker. Plus I did errands around the city. At four different events, plus a dozen stores, not a single person mentioned the Olympics. The first I saw of it was when I walked down the street on Sunday and noticed a photo of the opening ceremonies on the cover of one newspaper.

Curious, I called a few people back to ask if they were watching but just hadn't mentioned it? Nope. Only one was -- a 62-year-old woman visiting from Australia. "I watch a lot of sports," she said effusively. "I just love to see those young people; they're so full of energy." I called a few jock friends; they'd tuned in, but their non-athletic friends and relatives hadn't.

I then checked the mainstream media. Sure, there were stories about the Olympics, but not to a level that almost precludes everything else -- as in previous years. People magazine, a fascinatingly accurate cultural barometer, featured one Olympics-related story on its site: ranked fourth on Monday after Bernie Mac's death, the Brangelina twins, and Lisa Marie's baby bump was "Spectacle and Tragedy Open Beijing Olympics."

Another headline promised photos of US athletes, but instead took me to a page that was "temporarily unavailable, moved or taken off People.com." And on Us Weekly, there was only one story: a small set of photos of Olympic hunks .

Bigger than The A-Team

I have no TV viewership proof -- but none would be accurate given the changing demographics of TV ownership and the fact that the current Games are being held in a country where millions are buying their first TVs.

I have only this: when I was young, the Olympics were the holy grail of TV. On most nights, the fake-wood-panelled box with its round-cornered bubble screen sat silent and dark until the clock on the kitchen stove showed 7:00, then the few mom-sanctioned shows -- Little House on the Prairie,Knight Rider and The A-Team (anti-violence couldn't have been my mother's criteria), appeared as if by magic.

But during the Olympics, the TV was allowed on for several hours a day. We were even allowed to eat in front of it! Whether my excitement was entirely due to the competition or my knowledge that it was A Major Event is up for grabs. But I know it was the same in all my friends' houses.

The fact that it was the biggest international sports event meant that media could descend en masse and the best storytellers could weave their tales. Those tales often became personal ones about the athletes' journeys to the Games, his or her struggles and triumphs. Sucker that I am, I often teared-up at stories of the javelin player getting up before dawn and walking across the IC to go to practice, the figure skater who broke her ankle and never thought she'd walk again, the parent who worked three jobs to give their kid a chance... Those kinds of personal narratives gave the Olympics mainstream instead of just sports-world appeal. And in other words, made the Olympics the first reality TV show competitions.

Those personal narratives are still part of the Olympic experience, but the Games just aren't as compelling. Since then, I think, there have been seismic cultural, political and entertainment shifts.

Sport as metaphor

When the Olympics were in their entertainment heyday, during the Cold War, more was at stake than a marketing exercise. Sports was a key forum in which capitalism and communism squared off. In the height of nuclear fear, it was safer to skate on the ice than launch a missile from under it.

A friend told me that in his mind, the biggest sports event in Canadian history was the 1972 hockey "game" between Canada and Russia. Broadcast even in school classrooms, there was much more at stake than whether a rubber puck would make contact with a string net; it was a clash of civilizations.

In the opening ceremony, with its many thousands of performers, China was announcing to the world that it has arrived. Its brand is defined by precision, spectacle and achievement. But China is now a more market-based economy and therefore less menacing. And anyway, China's announcement is more a marketing or branding statement than one about ideology or global politics.

To win mainstream audiences, sporting events need more at stake. A game between the U.S. and Iraq might draw mainstream crowds. But a marketing battle between different flavours of capitalism isn't a grand enough narrative to get the audience medal.

Why reality TV is getting perfect 10s

With that sublimated war-of-the-worlds narrative gone, the personal stories are more important than ever, and they're still part of the Olympic experience. But now, reality TV companies are doing it better with their own amateur competitions complete with interviews, judges and theme songs. Olympic fan that I was, I hate to say it, but they've snatched the entertainment gold.

Here's why I think reality TV has taken over:

Focus focus focus -- While the Games have diluted the product and overwhelmed the audiences with ever more events and characters (athletes), reality TV has created shows that hone in on just one focused, manageable area and provide deeper knowledge of each character.

Less hype -- It's amazing to claim reality TV pales in hype in any way, but four, eight or even 10 years of Olympic build-up mean by the time the show starts, it's overexposed and anti-climactic. Sure, reality TV starts with an overwhelming barrage of ads -- but only weeks before.

Less hypocrisy -- Reality TV never promises that it's the doggone truth and untouchably ethical. But the Olympics does, which makes its transgressions into scandals which take the spotlight off the competition. Such distractions don't plague American Idol or even The Hills: scandals there are part of the fun.

Charismatic tyrant producers are more interesting than the blazer brigade -- The Games' ruling bureaucrats with their endless committee meetings, regulations and slow-moving military operations aren't as compelling, dramatically, as the charismatic tyrants who produce reality shows. People like Simon Fuller and Nigel Lythgoe create a more focused vision and more fireworks.

No kill-joy politics -- Seeing the smog in Beijing and reading reports of human rights violations, or thinking about how there will be more homeless people than athletes in Vancouver in 2010 mean that the Games' entertainment value, for me, is more than eclipsed by the ethical cost of holding them. I feel no such conflict when watching So You Think You Can Dance: no tax dollars are being diverted from starving children to pay for Cat Deeley's dresses. That leaves more brain and heart room to focus on the contestants.

So amateur -- And the contestants are what audience members need to relate to -- they're the product; they're the characters. In the Olympics, the competitors used to be "just like us," (sort of) but now, many are seasoned, career professionals. So You Think You Can Dance features, for example, total amateurs who've taught themselves hip hop and dream of changing their lives. Canadian Idol still lists the "actual" jobs of each contestant -- none are singers. I want to watch authentic, ordinary people - or as close as possible. I'm not going out on a limb to admit I don't feel any thrill of peer identification when I see Michael Phelps, the human-robot swimmer in the space-age suit as he breaks the world record by four seconds.

I flicked past several Olympic channels last night after watching HBO's Generation Kill, and was drawn in. I saw men compete in beach volleyball, then men playing court volleyball, then men's gymnastics. The announcer said one of the Chinese team members recently held a media conference to ask his girlfriend, also a Chinese gymnastic team member, to marry him. He'd written a song for her, which he sang in front of the cameras. Maybe the Olympics is learning from the soap opera of reality TV after all. But I can't say that would be the lesson I'd have hoped for.

This post originally appeared in The Tyee.

Read more HuffPost coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games