Winter Olympics: Why Do We Watch?

Aaron wrote this up but hasn't had occasion to post it:

A while back, we discussed a Malcolm Gladwell article, where he compares football to dog fighting. We now know that football players are hurting themselves long term and we continue to like and support the support and kind of look the other way.

NASCAR is one of the most watched sports in the world. But why? Every lap looks the same on TV with an occasional pit stop.

In terms of watching the Winter Olympics on TV, I argue that we can classify every event into one of two categories: Exciting competition or crashable.

Short track speed skating, ski cross and snowboard cross, curling...these events are exciting because we are watching them compete in real time. You can actually witness the strategy Apollo Anton Ohno uses when he starts in the back of every race, but passes everyone with two laps to go. It's exciting. Your adrenaline increases. When the curler knocks the opponents rock out of the ring, you are seeing legitimate skill, technique and strategy being used.

When you watch the luge or the boblsed on TV, every run looks exactly the same. The Russians run really fast, hop in, go fast and finish. The Germans run really fast, hop in, go fast and finish. The clock at the bottom of the screen says the Germans finished .13 seconds faster than the Russians. Both runs looked exactly the same. Yet we sit there watching dozens of runs that all look the same. It's the same with downhill skiing, luge, slalom, moguls, ski jumping, figure skating... you can't tell the difference between first and second. You probably can't tell the difference between 1st and 8th.

But you can tell the difference when someone falls. The falls are almost explosive in nature. Skiers going 60 miles an hour flying 190 feet in the air don't stick the landing, but are going so fast and with so much momentum, they still slide all the way across the finish line. A bobsled looks smooth normally, but looks so out of control when it is upside down. Every crash I have seen this winter the athlete has stood up and walked away and gone on to compete in the next event the following day. Except one. This isn't meant to be an homage to the Georgian luger Nomar Kumaritashvili, but an acknowledgment that our fascination with the Winter Olympics is partly dependent on the morbid nature of humanity wanting to watch car crashes.

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