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How to save this summer’s Olympics

Don’t cancel the Games — just cancel the in-person audience. The Olympics are mainly a TV spectacle now, anyway.

An illustration titled “Olympic Final in the Year 2000,” which appeared in a German magazine, Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, in 1936. The Germans used a primitive form of TV broadcasting to relay images of the Games that year. The cartoonist foresaw what the Olympics would ultimately become — TV programming for billions of people around the world — though this cartoon also envisioned an interactive element: loudspeakers at the race piping in cheers in different languages.
An illustration titled “Olympic Final in the Year 2000,” which appeared in a German magazine, Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, in 1936. The Germans used a primitive form of TV broadcasting to relay images of the Games that year. The cartoonist foresaw what the Olympics would ultimately become — TV programming for billions of people around the world — though this cartoon also envisioned an interactive element: loudspeakers at the race piping in cheers in different languages.Wikimedia Commons

The Tokyo Olympic Games, postponed from last year, now face cancellation. Despite optimistic proclamations from Japanese leaders that they can contain and beat back a new COVID-19 outbreak in and around Tokyo, polls show the city’s residents are very reluctant to hold the Games.

Those who oppose letting the Games go on this July and August have a persuasive argument. COVID-19 is ravaging much of the world, and the pace of vaccinations is slow in most countries, including Japan.

Yet the Games shouldn’t be canceled. The Olympics provide billions of us with vicarious experiences and cathartic joy while promising a respite from the seemingly continual onslaught of bad news. And there’s a way to stage the festival, allow athletes to compete, and let the rest of us enjoy the action while minimizing risk.

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The answer is to fully embrace the fact that the Olympic Games have become a reality TV show.

Forget the idea of stadiums filled with fans. (Spectators from other countries have already been banned.) Don’t permit thousands of foreign sportswriters and journalists to descend on Tokyo and chronicle the story. Bar all International Olympic Committee officials, diplomats, VIPs, and hangers-on from entering Japan for the Games. IOC officials, corporate sponsors, and sportswriters all like to believe they’re essential to the success of the Games. But having worked in broadcast production at the Barcelona, Atlanta, and Sydney Games, I can assure you: They’re not.

Tokyo’s committee should limit attendance to four groups of essential personnel: the competing athletes and their coaches, the officials needed to judge contests, a skeleton crew of venue administrators and security, and the fewest people needed to produce TV images and audio.

We know athletic bubbles can work. The National Basketball Association built one for a longer time period than the Olympic Games will require. The Games already employ one of the world’s strictest security frameworks, so locking down Olympic venues and villages shouldn’t be particularly difficult.

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And when it comes to staging the Games as TV spectacle, well, all the required “sets” exist and only await the drama.

Olympic broadcasts on networks such as NBC already employ dramatic tropes familiar from reality TV, from the emotional and stylistic profiles of the athletes to shots emphasizing beautiful vistas from host locales. In 2016, NBC’s chief marketing officer said the network tape-delayed a lot of the Olympic action because the Games were “sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.” That’s why in 2014 NBC paid $7.65 billion — at the time the largest sports rights fee in history — to secure Olympic broadcast rights through 2032.

Transforming the Tokyo Olympic Games into athletic contests produced entirely for TV audiences would really be more evolutionary than revolutionary. Rather than decrying what would be lost without the stadium experience, we can marvel at the fact that we can still experience incredible athletic achievements in our own homes during a pandemic. The Olympic Games have always made us believe in miracles, and perhaps the one we’ve taken for granted for so long — the one that starts in a control room, is relayed through geosynchronous satellites, and ends up on our screens in real time — is the most miraculous of all.

Michael J. Socolow, author of “Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics,” is the director of the McGillicuddy Humanities Center at the University of Maine.

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