Olympics will be most visible, accessible ever
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Sunday, July 22, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Not so terribly long ago, committing to watching the Olympics was akin to curling up with a best-selling novel by a first-time author. We didn't know the characters, didn't know the plot, but we had familiar narrators — Jim McKay and Bob Costas by the fireplace — and a pretty good idea it would be worth it.
That's how we fell for Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug, for Dan Jansen and Rulon Gardner.
How we fumed at Tonya Harding, Marion Jones and whoever the random Russian judge happened to be.
How we shed a tear for a luger from faraway Georgia named Nodar Kumaritashvili when he tragically slid off that icy track.
We learned just enough to make us care, and the magnitude of the event took it from there.
But these Games of the XXX Olympiad, for which the torch will be lit Friday night in east London, will be unlike any other when it comes to the foreword.
No one will need a program to pick out LeBron, Kobe or Coach K at the basketball arena.
Or Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and the Williams sisters at Wimbledon, their second home.
Or Hope Solo, cover-girl goalkeeper of U.S. women's soccer.
Or Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, giants of traditional Olympic sports who will be the most famous athletes at these Games on the global scale.
A swimmer and a sprinter.
How the Olympics will play out is as clear as London fog. But because of Phelps and Bolt, because of the inclusion of already-famous pros, because of the proliferation of media at the world's fingertips, we know already these will be the most visible, most accessible Games in history.
SportsPro, a British magazine that analyzes international sports business, ranked the world's 50 most marketable athletes in its March issue. An incredible 17 will participate in London. That includes Bolt at No. 4 — he was No. 1 the previous year — Phelps at No. 19 and five from the NBA.
No sporting event of any scope can come close.
Phelps exists in such a stratosphere that he boldly envisions making swimming a big-league, touring sport in the United States. And he means it.
“I think — or I'd like to think — that we're reaching that point,” Phelps said two months ago at the U.S. Olympic Media Summit in Dallas. “I know a lot of us look forward to the day when we can swim in front of huge crowds. There aren't many venues that hold more than 4,000 or 5,000, so you have to think about building a pool inside a sports arena.”
His reference was to a pool placed inside the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., for the past two U.S. trials, which were watched by capacity crowds of 15,000-plus.
“We could do that all over the nation,” he said. “I'd love to see it.”
That's not likely to happen, of course, especially with Phelps, 27, announcing that these will be his last Olympics. But that Phelps could raise such a topic in a roomful of about 250 reporters without a trace of laughter spoke volumes.
Phelps is that big. He has about five million followers on Facebook, 250,000 on Twitter and he's projected to earn more than $100 million in his career, mostly through endorsements. He's even made his mom famous.
Bolt is all that and more.
The undisputed fastest man in history figures to be the face of these Games. He'll own the British tabloids. He'll draw more microphones and cameras than Phelps and all the NBA players combined. He'll also produce the hottest ticket. The 40,000 made available for the 100 meters, track's crown jewel, were snapped up from a pool of more than 1 million applicants faster than Bolt off the blocks.
Neither Phelps nor Bolt should reach the superhuman heights of Beijing, where Phelps topped Mark Spitz with eight golds, and Bolt was the first to break world records in the 100 and 200 at one meet.
Both are older — Bolt turns 26 in August — and both are beatable. Phelps must fend off surging, longtime teammate Ryan Lochte. Bolt must do likewise with Jamaican Yohan Blake, the reigning world champion in the 100.
“I actually think it's a very similar parallel between Phelps and Bolt,” NBC track analyst and former sprinter Ato Boldon said. “It's not a question of whether they're not going to do well. They will. It's a question of whether the pack has gotten a lot closer.”
Phelps and Bolt vs. mortality?
That could make for even more drama, more attention.
It's rare to hear a lower-profile athlete complaining about pros at the Olympics. If anything, most cite mingling with the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Venus and Serena Williams among the highlights of their experience.
It's rarer still to hear complaints from the pros. They've become an integral part of the Games, and it's easy to see most relish it.
Consider that, after NBA commissioner David Stern recently announced his league “will take a step back after London” and ponder sending only players 23-and-under to future Olympics — as it's done with soccer — Bryant flatly called Stern's idea “stupid.”
That echoed the view of nearly all pros since the original Dream Team broke the barrier in 1992 and inspired the NHL to follow suit in the Winter Games.
Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, has embraced the pros in turn, applying a philosophy that the Games must represent “the best of the best.” He backed that up most powerfully by tossing out baseball — and softball, as collateral damage — because Major League Baseball refused to interrupt its season to participate and the Olympic tournament had become a glorified Double-A all-star game.
Most NBA and WNBA players have treated the Olympics as a championship on par — or close — to those won with their regular teams. The sight of the NBA stars in Beijing kissing their gold medals on the podium — the only tangible reward for multimillionaires — was a poignant testament to that.
They called it “The Redeem Team,” after a bronze flop in Athens. Mike Krzyzewski led that group and is back for a final Olympic run on a job the Duke legend calls “the best honor of my coaching career.”
The basketball world knows the outcome but can't pass up the plot.
Serena Williams just won her fifth Wimbledon title, but she'll retake tennis' most famous lawn for these Olympics in hopes of a first individual gold. She and Venus have won twice in doubles.
“I'd really like to try and finally get one,” Serena said.
So would Federer, fresh off his seventh Wimbledon on the men's side. And few will mind seeing either sequel. Centre Court has been sold out for months.
Alex Morgan, a gifted forward for the U.S. women's soccer team who — like Solo — hasn't been shy about capitalizing on good looks, sees the increased presence of pros and overall name recognition in the Olympics as a positive.
“Especially in the women's sports, it's great for us to have a chance to perform on this kind of stage, to have the world watching and appreciating what we do at the highest level of the sport,” Morgan said. “We'll take as much of it as we can get, I'll tell you that. We love hearing from our fans.”
Media in all forms
Morgan hears from more than most, with about 550,000 Twitter followers, double Phelps' total.
Social media affords a direct way for athletes to connect with fans, so sports once relegated to second-class status by the traditional media have a bypass. More than 300 of the U.S. team's 530 athletes are tweeters.
The primary network will step up, too — in unprecedented fashion.
NBC will divide broadcast coverage over its flagship, NBC Sports, MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo and Telemundo. The flagship will air a record 272 hours, and the six-network total will be roughly 2,500.
The website NBCOlympics.com will stream another 3,000 hours of live feeds — most without commentary — in hopes of exponentially multiplying its 52 million unique visitors for Beijing.
Total hours of coverage: 5,535.
Or 231 days.
The emphasis online, NBC Sports president Mark Lazarus said, will be on mobile platforms.
“As times have changed, there is a sense to satisfy all the people using digital devices,” Lazarus said. “The avid fan has that need of immediacy. We are going to satisfy that request.”
The world-renowned BBC of the host nation will rival NBC's efforts.
But none of this newness, from built-in fame to fancy platforms, is likely to kill the old Olympic charm of unknown athletes and unexpected headlines arising.
If Lochte or Blake meet the epic challenge of toppling Phelps or Bolt, these Games could be theirs.
Jordyn Wieber, the American gymnast some are audaciously comparing to perfect-10 Romanian Nadia Comaneci, could end up on cereal boxes like Retton and Strug.
Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old U.S. swimmer, will compete in seven events, like Phelps.
Oscar Pistorius, a double-amputee sprinter from South Africa, will run on carbon-fiber blades — in the Olympics, not just the Paralympics.
And how about Trevor Barron, the Bethel Park teen who's America's youngest race walker and a legitimate threat?
The only certainty: More than ever we'll feel connected to it all.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com
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