Why I Love the Olympics: Obscure Sports, Televised

Goodbye Olympics.  Goodbye London.  Fare thee well, Dream Team.  It’s back to the grind.

The last two and a half weeks have been somewhat lost to a flurry of Olympic binging.  Now I’m suffering from a sports junkie’s post-Olympic hangover.  It’s only every four years that I have a justifiable excuse to watch hours of daytime television featuring all types of sports: some popular, and others, downright obscure.

The Olympics are another reason why I rationalize our cable subscription—ESPN, and Husky football and basketball being the primary reasons.  Because I have cable, I caught nearly the entirety of the US Women’s Soccer semifinal match against Canada and the final against Japan, both thrilling, historic matches.  Comcast has my ticket (being the only cable provider in our area) so I’ve been testing out its On Demand options (24 hour delay, HD quality, commercial-free) to catch up on some of the showcase events like swimming, gymnastics, volleyball, track-and-field, and basketball.

But it’s also a chance for me to explore some of the lesser-known sports on TV.

Now for some reason, I’ve watched a lot of Olympic sports that I’ve never seen on television before these London Games.  Sports like team handball, track cycling, field hockey, shooting, and canoeing.  And I have to say that even though I don’t really understand all the rules of each game (or what is really going on,) I’m still entranced and get sucked into the competition, the drama, and the suspense.  Fact is that these are the Olympics, which showcases the highest level of competition that you will see in any given sport, no matter how obscure.

As an American, I don’t see a lot of Euro-centric sports on television.  Sports like team handball, track cycling, and field hockey just aren’t that popular in the US.  That’s why you never see these team sports on regular TV versus traditional American team sports like football and basketball.  When was the last time you saw a competitive indoor volleyball match on TV?  Volleyball is seriously exciting, and you never see much of it televised outside of the Olympics, which is a shame.

Most American viewers like me don’t get much of a chance to watch obscure sports outside the Big 4: football, baseball, basketball, and to some degree, soccer.  Tennis, golf, and cycling are broadcast on specialty channels.  But other than that, you won’t see many other sports on TV.  This is why I go on an Olympic viewing spree every four years.  And apparently, I’m not the only one who enjoys watching obscure Olympic sports.  Mike Downey, in this brilliant article for CNN, admits that he has actually been to 11 Olympics in person as a sportswriter, and he still doesn’t know what modern pentathalon is (or if there was ever old-fashioned pentathalon!)  Well me neither, but I’d watch it if NBC broadcasted it.

Here are three obscure Olympic sports I ended up watching and thoroughly enjoying this summer.  They were so obscure that I had to look them up on Wikipedia just to get the basic rules down.

Team Handball

Handball first appeared at the Olympics at the Berlin 1936 Games.  When I saw my first game last week, I thought it was some weird concoction of both basketball and soccer.  It was physical, fast-paced, and exciting with lots of scoring.  I couldn’t get the substitutions down, and was slightly confused about how players would sub in just to play offense.  But by the end of the women’s gold medal match between Norway and Montenegro, I was pretty into it.

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Track Cycling

I watched the gold medal Men’s Sprint, and it reminded me of Tron on two wheels inside the Olympic Velodrome.  Those helmets are pretty rad too, not to mention these guys were going crazy fast on bikes with no brakes.  Track Cycling has been featured at every Games but one since the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, but it was a first televised sighting for me.  In the Men’s Sprint, I was fascinated by how the race would start out painfully slow and calculated, with the rider in the front position constantly looking back at the rider in the second position waiting to make his move.  By the end of the event, I was mesmerized.

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Field Hockey

Can I just say that I don’t think there is another sport with penalty corners that are as exciting as in field hockey?  I love the dramatic scoring, and the rapid movements with the defenders pouring out of the goal, Hanibal Lecter masks and all.  This is a dangerous sport, and during regular play, no one (except the goalie) seems to be wearing any protective gear, except a mouth guard.  It’s similar to ice hockey, but this seems to be equally dangerous, particularly because there’s no protective gear at all.  Just ask the poor Argentine player with the bloody cheek in this gold medal women’s match between the Netherlands and Argentina.

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Finally, we’ve heard plenty of criticism from the many online journalists and critics who’ve (rightfully) been slamming NBC’s broadcast of the Games (#NBCFail).  Despite all the criticism, NBC is laughing all the way to the bank, especially since we learned this week that NBC’s broadcast of the London 2012 Games was the most watched TV event in US history.  Apparently, as Derek Thompson thoughtfully argues in his Atlantic article, “a lot of people still watch live-TV, even if you—and the loudest tech journalists online—don’t.”

I’m guessing that NBC won’t be changing its stylized, tape-delay, primetime model anytime soon, so we should be prepared for Rio 2016.  As per the Nielsen figures, more than 219 million viewers watched the Summer Games on NBC and its sister networks—more than the 215 million viewers who watched the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.  NBC also garnered a higher average prime-time audience than the Games in either Beijing or Athens.

As one of the 219 million American viewers, I did get annoyed because I would constantly come across the headline news articles and competition results throughout the day before I could access any video footage.  And like the 219 million other Americans watching the Olympics at home, I waited patiently until primetime (more like 11:30pm-ish) to watch Michael Phelps win his 22nd Olympic medal, and Usain Bolt’s Triple-Double.  Was it still worth it?  Yes, but I think I probably would have enjoyed the suspense of watching the events unfold naturally, live.

I suppose that is one argument in favor of becoming an avid fan of more obscure Olympic sports.  There probably won’t be any headline articles that you might come across, spoiling the score or result, and you’d be able to enjoy the drama of not knowing who wins until you see it for yourself.

I’m waiting for the 2016 Summer Games, and I’m especially looking forward to catching some more team handball, track cycling, and field hockey in Rio.  I’m pretty sure I won’t see any spoiler headlines to ruin my sense of drama and suspense till I catch the tape delayed highlights, or watch the events On Demand the following day on NBC… that is, if we happen to still have cable by then.

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