London 2012 was a solid, well-oiled machine, producing, hosting, and commemorating the Olympic spirit as the world became one. One main difference was the influence of social media on these Summer Games – more tweets and shared posts for these Olympics than any other in modern history. It is a distinction important to note, signaling how technology and digital platforms continue to mediate our experiences of world events.
However, social media had no significant role in making – or breaking – my Olympic experience. Sans the sole tweet that spoiled Allyson Felix’s gold in the 200m sprint, I logged on my timeline and news feed as I usually do: to join the digital hangout and see what my networks are talking about. I tweeted about the emotive power of the Olympic movement, where athletics becomes the metaphor for the human struggle, where in all our efforts, we must fight our hardest, despite the result. I posted a link to Kerri Strug’s history-changing vault that won USA team gold in gymnastics in the ’96 games; I did the same for McKayla Maroney’s near perfect vault this year (“The Vault – Part Deux”, as I dubbed it).
I meditated on Jessica Ennis’ story, having muscle strains in her foot before the ’08 games, not even knowing the greater symbolic power and fortuitous effort lying before her in winning gold in her home country four years later. I reveled in all of the television coverage across the NBC networks, watching any and every sporting event, from tennis and taekwondo, race-walking, football (soccer), and handball, to the modern pentathlon and archery.
Yes, #NBCFail was arguably warranted: sharing event results when you intend on viewers watching the primetime telecast and limiting full online streaming to cable and satellite subscribers. A personal gripe was online event replays without commentary – I wouldn’t know if that routine on the gym floor was good or not if no one told me; hardly am I an expert in rhythmic gymnastics or synchronized swimming.
The time zone delay was insurmountable. NBC coud have had a different strategy: possibly broadcasting the events people want to see live as they happen and having online streaming available to subscribers and non-subscribers alike. However, the attitudes of the viewing public are culpable as well – if you knew the result, does that take away from how they won? Amir, the narrator in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, talked about his father’s Afghani friends wanting to know how a movie ended, to see whether it was worth seeing, if there “was happiness in the end”. We could ask ourselves the same question: if someone did win, and if you inadvertently discovered that, is there not any entertainment in how that athlete won?
We treasure the ending, not as much the story. Some even believe a country wins the Games by collecting the most medals or the most golds, when there is no such contest. Viewers should work to treasure the story and its significance in the result. I knew Allyson Felix won, but I still watched the race. She could’ve came from behind, she could’ve led the pack, or another runner from a country without a strong track and field history could’ve made her way on the podium. I wouldn’t have known if the race was memorable because of a host of strong performances or because of a strong, single competitor if knowing the winner was my sole concern.
Sports do provide that intense drama, the thrill of victory and the valleys of defeat. Especially for the Olympics, we can reimagine our motivations for tuning in. Is it to be engrossed in the process of the competition, the camaraderie of the team collaboration, or to see if a team remains unbeatable or to proclaim bragging rights? Everyone has their own motivations. When it’s the NCAA March Madness bracket or personal bets about the NBA championship, the result may be the only thing of consequence. However, for the Olympic movement, the medals were never the impetus of the Games’ creed. Uniting with the rest of the world to compete in tradition and mutuality takes precedent. The story of the people on the track, in the pool, on the floor, is the purpose.
Knowing who won a relay race is hardly as dramatic as seeing how they did it or knowing their background. Social media need not and never can spoil that enjoyment of the human experience.