It was special watching Gabby Douglas use art and power to win gymnastics gold. It was thrilling when Serena Williams danced after her Olympic triumph that came with no prize money. And U.S. divers could bring some memorable moments this week.
So it’s difficult to reach a conclusion on which Olympic sports provide the best viewing experience. It’s hard to argue against swimming and track, which would be a validation of NBC’s reliance on them.
Both offer simplicity and brevity. There’s a purity to them. No arcane rules. Save a rare false start, there’s no intrusion from judges or referees.
The gun goes off and the fastest one wins. It’s essentially unadulterated athleticism.
With the exception of a few longer ones, the races are over in a relative flash. The energy pulsates from start to finish.
There is no pretending to be injured to draw a foul (soccer), or stalling to run out the clock (basketball), or tanking to get a better draw (badminton). No endless run of timeouts.
It all makes for tremendous television, which is why NBC continues to feature swimming and track (along with gymnastics) in prime time in every Summer Games. Of course, with Americans tending to dominate (or be extremely competitive), both sports make for a nice marriage between exhilaration and patriotism.
Yes, Rowdy Gaines can be grating as the NBC swimming analyst, but listen to the soporific world feed online coverage and his enthusiasm becomes considerably easier to take.
Sprinter Usain Bolt blew by the field in 9.63 seconds Sunday. On Friday, Michael Phelps came from way back to capture gold in the 100-meter butterfly in just over 50 seconds. Performances by Bolt and Phelps can be as unforgettable as ones by Elway or Bird, no?
Football is said to have the ideal marriage with television. But much of the action takes place outside the camera shots. Swimming and track races are in full view throughout.
Naysayers might argue that swimming and track have had plenty of athletes busted for doping, which gives a viewer a sense of wariness about their purity. That’s inarguable and rightful.
Perhaps the enjoyment has to come with a suspension of reality. And maybe with a concession that unless evidence of doping comes during the Olympics (see Ben Johnson, 1988), the Olympics will be long over when the cheating is confirmed.
On one level, it’s a wonder why swimming and track don’t generate much interest in the years between Olympics. But it’s understandable. The Olympics are each sport’s Mt. Olympus – their biggest stage.
Which begs the question why all sports where pros participate and have more coveted victories aren't banned from the Games. Yes, playing for one’s country is fantastic, but would a basketball player prefer a gold medal or an NBA championship? Would a tennis player take an Olympic gold over a Wimbledon title? (Serena deep down would probably say no. Same for Briton Andy Murray, who won Olympic gold on home soil after failing at Wimbledon.)
Golf is coming to the next Summer Games, but it has no business in Rio. NBC may want Tiger Woods there, but the Masters will always mean more to him -- and to his fans.
Also, unlike swimming and track, golf is too slow for prime time.