Sports Identity and American Culture: The Olympics

So the Olympics are over. The fireworks have halted, the torch extinguished. We can all brush off the glitter and get on with our normal lives for the next 30 months, at least until the next Olympic cycle restarts itself. I started my religious viewing of these Games in another hemisphere and ended them in the US. Upon my return, I couldn’t help but notice the way our culture consumes the Olympics. This year, like any other, I bought into the American perspective of the Games. I clung to the accounts of Meredith, Matt and (sometimes) Bob, rose early to catch coverage of every sport and indulged in my quadrennial obsession with ice sports. But this time, I paid attention to more than just the game, I paid attention to its presentation.

How do we identify with Olympic sport?
How do we identify with Olympic sport? (Getty Images)

What is the American sports culture? With whom do we identify and why do we choose them? To what extent do our athletes represent the values and ideologies of our country? These are the questions I intend to answer this semester in my independent study for school. What better platform to study athletic culture than from the burgeoning perspective of a full time American athlete?

My professor suggested that I submit my assignments via blog post so I could include multi-media elements (and I was all “cheaaa-yeaah”). The rest of the posts will be more blog-y, less long-y (did that work?) so sit tight. Up first, THE OLYMPICS (duh). I spent the month reading historical reviews, combing journal and newspaper articles and watching coverage to pinpoint how Americans identify with athletics during Olympic periods. In particular, I focused on media coverage. Here’s what I found:


As the Olympic Committee continues to choose locations for the Games in less and less developed areas, it becomes the duty for media outlets to cover the games in whatever manner will please the most audience members. Duty to some, power to others. In a $4.4 billion deal in 2011, NBC won the bidding war against ESPN/ABC (aka Disney) and Fox Sports for the rights to broadcast the Olympic events through 2020.

Fearless anchors of the free world (
Fearless anchors of the free world, Al Roker and Matt Lauer (

That means they have not only the rights to athletic content, but also advertising, an increasingly lucrative industry as Olympic spectators choose to stay at home. The investment appears to have been a good one, as the network had profited $25 million on advertising before the competitions even began and has had the advantage for promoting its own domestic programs to new viewers.

As Associated Press source and (hi-larious) sports media commentator David Bauder put it, “There’s only one Winter Olympics. But in reality, for television viewers around the world, the Sochi games are a different experience depending on where you tune in.” NBC aims to shape that experience according to traditional American tastes, they wish to create ownership in audience members.

At first, I was inclined to state that the American taste only allowed for white, heteronormative athletes to take the stage (why, yes, I am getting a liberal arts education). However, the American Olympic sweetheart that is Figure Skating has another story to tell. Aside from bobsledding, the US Figure Skating contingency made up the majority of diverse athletic faces, and, historically, has had the most progressive media coverage with respect to sexuality (a concept I plan to further explore later in the semester).

In fact, American choice may be simpler than social preference. Perhaps, to the average American viewer, glitter and skirts just make more sense than start lines. That, and, oh yeah, medals.

Jerry Seinfeld perfectly depicts our cultural misunderstanding of less viewed sports:

and then points out our tragic obsession with gold:

So what does that say about our country’s athletic identity? Most of the time, we resonate with images of gatorade and mud covered football players, of sliding baseball batters, but around the Olympics (both summer and winter) we flock to all things sparkly. Perhaps it’s the way the Olympics are perceived in our culture, that the spectacle is worth as much as (or more than) the event.

Online media had a frenzy over scrutinizing the first malfunction of these $51 billion Games
Online media had a frenzy over scrutinizing the first malfunction of these $51 billion Games

31.7 million people tuned in for the opening ceremony on the 7th, many of whom (myself included) were interested solely in finding out how the $575 Polo Ralph Lauren sweaters would look on our athletes. These numbers were far and away the highest of the Games, as viewership dropped each day. The final day of competition drew only 13.3 million people, 7 million less than the same day in Vancouver. What was expected to be the height of American viewership, Thursday’s figure skating finals, drew a disappointing 20.1 million viewers. There were no American medalists.

It seems fair to assume these numbers are directly correlated to the amount of medal winners the US produced this year. However, we won just as many gold medals as we did in Vancouver (nine) and almost as many bronze (12 vs. 13). We won half as many silver medals (7 vs. 15), but we don’t like silver medalists anyway (refer to Seinfeld above). So what was the difference? Why didn’t American viewers buy into the Sochi Games like they did the Vancouver Games?

Some argue that distance made the difference, that time zones and the physical extension of Russia discouraged complete identification with the Games. (Watch commercial above.) NBC did their best to counteract that by beginning coverage far before the actual Olympics, as audience members began seeing images of the travelers of the “Road to Sochi” before the New Year turned. I think, however, the answer lies not in what we watched, but how we watched it.


Despite best efforts on the part of NBC and other broadcasters associated with the Games (athletes were prohibited from posting results before their respective networks had disclosed them), the prevalence and depth of social media in these Games defined their reception. Here’s where all those missing viewers may have gone, by the numbers:

Number of Tweets about the Sochi Olympics during the event period: 38.1 Million

Number of followers T.J. Oshie gained after the US/Russia Hockey shootout: 101,000

Number of Tweets that mentioned said shootout: 136,000

Order of most tweeted sports: Ice Hockey, Curling, Figure Skating, Bobsled, Snowboard

As posted by the Twitter Blog
As posted by the Twitter Blog

Additionally, NBC reports that hundreds of thousands of cable subscribers took advantage of it’s 1,000 hours of online streaming. Needless to say, despite the dip in ratings, the Games got the conversation going. So, what’s more important? The conversation or its content?


Most people are apt to chalk up the Olympic commercialization, politicization and commoditization to travesty. They state that what was once so pure and well-intentioned about the games, Citius Altius Fortius, has collapsed into outside agendas. I disagree. The Olympics have always had outside agendas, they have always been about the spectacle more than the sport, ever since the onset of the Modern Olympic Games in 1896.

According to historian Louis Callebat, Pierre de Coubertin designed the Modern Olympics to not only be an exhibition of the ideals of the Games in antiquity, namely “physical effort, fair competition on a wide scale and sacred truce,” but also an opportunity for international intellectual and cultural development. In other words, de Coubertin wanted most for the Olympics to represent the balance between nationalism and globalization, a balance only accomplished by coming together.

Teamwork doesn't always have to come from the same team (businessinsider photo)
Teamwork doesn’t always have to come from the same team (businessinsider photo)

The original development of the Games intended for an arena for not only athletic interaction, but also artistic and philosophical discourse. In 1906 what would have been the International Olympic Committee voted unanimously to integrate five cultural competitions into the Games-architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, and music. The project failed, however, due to lack of international interest, but the original intent is not altogether lost on modern audiences and participants of the Olympics.

The Olympics are an arena in which Americans choose to identify with the spectacle, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a place where governments may exchange and reinforce ideals (i.e. Billy Jean King representing the United States in the opening ceremonies), and reiterate cultural tenets (view Coca-Cola ad below).

Additionally, it’s a place in which a multitude of cultures come together. All that considered, the medals, though fuel for commercial investment, are simply an afterthought.



Callebat, Louis. The Modern Games and Their Model in Antiquity. International Journal of Classical Tradition.               Vol. 4. No. 4. Springer. 1998. Accessed 2 Feb 2014.

David Bauder:

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