We’re 100 days from the 30th modern Olympics, a spectacle expected to draw 10,500 athletes from 204 countries and a worldwide audience of more than four billion.
The U.S. men’s basketball squad, expected to led by LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade, is likely to grab much of the attention – and is already drawing comparisons to the 1992 “Dream Team” that boasted Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.
But the Olympics, at their heart, are about very different, very personal kinds of dreams.
For all the mind-boggling numbers, big names and vast scope, our enduring fascination with the Olympics rests largely with the individual stories of athletes striving to grab the gold on Earth’s greatest stage, during 17 days of fierce competition designed to make the heart alternately race, soar and break. We seek in the athletes glimmers of ourselves – or at least idealized versions of ourselves – and have an opportunity to uncover commonalities that cross national borders and the squishier boundaries of culture.
This promises to be an Olympics for the Internet Age, with social media, which has helped fuel international movements and better link humankind, in a position to reinforce the sometimes-tenuous bonds that keep the Olympic Rings interlocked.
Far more than time has passed between the 2008 Beijing games and London. In 2008, Facebook claimed 115 million users, compared to some 845 million now. During the Beijing Games, Twitter counted 4.4 million users, compared to 500 million now. YouTube recorded 5 billion hits per month four years ago, compared to 4 billion a day now.
NBC (parent owner of this site) is teaming with YouTube to ensure that between TV and NBCOlymics.com, that some 3,000 hours of Olympic action can seen live whether on televisions, computers or mobile devices. That’s a huge service to fans in an on-demand era, as well as a recognition and embracing of how the Web has changed the way we consume media – and connect to the world.
The backdrop to the London Games, like Olympics of years past, is a mix of political and social upheaval, with a big heap of the unknown always at play. The difference this time around is that the external events are being recorded, and, in some cases, propelled by a communications revolution that gives anyone with a smartphone a crack at the world stage. We’ve witnessed scenes of economic-driven disturbances in Europe. Occupy Wall Street. Arab Spring. Whatever your politics, there’s little denying that social media has aided and offered a live chronicling of largely youth-driven movements.
London, at least symbolically, seems both an unlikely and a perfect spot for these Games. At the time of the first modern Olympics in Athens, in 1896, the sun had yet to set British Empire, whose legacy of colonialism still echoes through the world. Now, the image of the British Lion has been replaced a dowdy old woman, a pampered, if powerless vestige of an outmoded age whose heyday pre-dated her birth in 1926.
Yet Queen Elizabeth II’s 60-year reign may be best remembered for another explosion of youth culture and media, when angry young men in the 1960s reinterpreted American rhythm and blues to create a phenomena that transcended music.
Beijing may have given us endless drummers pounding in perfect time, but the July 27 opening ceremony for the London Games could very well be a huge last hurrah for some aging rebels who marched to the beat of their own drummers, ones with names like Ringo, Charlie, Keith and Bonzo. Paul McCartney, who turns 70 in June, reportedly has been asked to help lead a final British Invasion, amid ever-present hopes for a Led Zeppelin reunion. Another enduring 1960s British icon – James Bond – in the form of Daniel Craig – reportedly will be involved in the big show.
Rock and roll wasn’t part of the popular argot when London last hosted the Games in 1948, after a 12-year absence wrought by World War II. Those Games represented a world returning, if not to normal, then re-emerging to bravely tackle a scary new, nuclear age. The latest Games were awarded to London on July 6, 2005, a day before the transit terror bombings ripped through the world capital – a sad sign of the ongoing, very different kind of threat of these times.
The Olympics can’t help but bump up against political. But they’re the place where battles are fought every four years on the courts, on the tracks, in the arenas. It’s as close as we come to fair fights, even if the bigger, better-financed countries generally take home the most medals. It’s a good bet the U.S. men’s basketball team’s collective net worth represent a larger sum that the Gross Domestic Product of some the competing countries. It’s also a good bet that the U.S., China and Russia again will be in a battle to win the most gold.
But the Olympics are – or should be – about a lot more than big money, big stars and big countries. The Games provide a bracing testament to the human spirit that, in the greatest moments of competition, transcends larger worldwide worries and narrow-minded nationalism.
The contests and the back stories grip us as we eagerly watch for the emergence of the next Nadia Comaneci, the next Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the next Usain Bolt, the next Michael Phelps, the next Sebastian Coe, who is the face of the London Games.
It’s appropriate, in some respects, that Ryan Seacrest is joining an NBC team in London that includes Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira and Bob Costas. The Olympics are our purest form of Reality TV – but instead of “American Idol,” this is an “International Idol” contest. The Games aren’t about winning votes or achieving cheap celebrity as much as reaching the pinnacle of glory through grit and sweat, as the best of the world’s best rise to smash records and grab the popular imagination. Watching the Olympics, whether in person, in a packed bar, in your living room or on your iPhone, is an intimate experience – one that just happens to be shared by more than half of the people on Earth.
The Olympic, above all, are about dreams. Our dream for the 2012 Olympics is that the London Games will go a long way to proving that it’s a small world after all.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.