The ‘No Fun’ Olympics May Struggle to Attract Viewers

Cavernous, empty stadiums. Do-it-yourself medal presentations. A prohibition on athlete high-fives and hugs. Those are just a few of the ways the Summer Olympics will look different this year, as the pandemic forces organizers to forgo many Olympic traditions. The Tokyo Games, which start Friday, will instead rely on technological innovations, including fan selfies and other ways to digitally “cheer” for athletes, to help spur fan engagement.  The big question: how much will anyone care?  Amid a pandemic that is still raging in most parts of the world, there are signs global interest is lacking for what some media have already labeled the “no fun Olympics.” According to an Olympic organizers will allow fans to post five-second video selfies, which will appear on giant screens in the stands. Photo/Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS)But those tools have already been tried in sports leagues across the world — and have often failed, says Tarrant.  “It hasn’t really worked. You can’t replicate what it’s like in a full stadium with people,” he said. “It’s nowhere near the same.”  The Olympics may find it even harder to generate fan interest, since many events feature relatively unknown athletes who do not have hardcore fans. “Lots of people who watch the Olympics are viewing it very casually and are therefore probably going to be less than impressed watching it in empty venues where it’s going to appear a little bit flat,” Tarrant said. Bits and bytes However, some are excited about other technology to be unveiled during Olympic broadcasts, including 360-degree cameras, which will provide three-dimensional replays for basketball games, and the use of biometric data, which will allow viewers to see athletes’ heartbeat variations or adrenaline rushes for certain events.  “I think this time more than ever the Olympics will be experienced in a hybrid space, comprised of atoms and molecules as well as bits and bytes,” says Scott Campbell, professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan. Major telecom providers around the world have long promised that 5G technology will enable more immersive fan experiences through virtual and artificial realities, says Campbell.  “I’m not sure we’re quite there yet, but I imagine there will be some exciting attempts and glimpses into new things to come,” he says.  Hang your own medals But other traditional aspects will be notably absent. Tokyo has scrapped the Olympic torch relay, replacing it with private flame-lighting ceremonies streamed online. Perhaps most awkward of all: victorious athletes will not have their medals placed around the neck. Instead, the medals will be presented on a tray, from which athletes will take them and then hang around their own necks.  The most normal part of the Olympics could be the opening ceremony, which will likely include familiar elements such as the Parade of Nations, high-profile musical performances, and pyrotechnics.  But even that event will look different. Only 1,000 VIPs are expected to attend the ceremony, according to Japan’s Kyodo news agency. That means the vast majority of the 68,000 seats will lie empty in the $1.4 billion Olympic Stadium, which was built with this very event in mind. “It’s a shame,” says Libri. “The Japanese are obviously very well organized. But to recreate this missing Olympic spirit, which is the essence of every game, is going to be very difficult.”  

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