The 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics were filled with “firsts”: first time anyone landed consecutive 1440-degree jumps in the snowboarding halfpipe, first time an American woman executed a triple axle in Olympic figure skating, first time two-man bobsledders tied for gold and countless more. The commentators were all over it, and so were viewers.
However, this need to have the spectacularity of an event be derived from being unique and never-before-executed is detrimental to the future of sports. As the margins of winning – especially in race events – become increasingly narrow, there is little room for improvement. In fact, The New York Times has called the 2018 Games “Peak Olympics,” meaning we have reached the height of the ability of humankind to improve athletically in most events.
There are two directions to go from this “peak” in order to keep the Olympics and other sporting events relevant. Only one of them is really possible.
One solution would be to redirect the way sporting events are structured and consumed by focusing on single accomplishments. This would entail watching sports simply for the event itself, the race that exists only in the moment for enjoyment on a smaller scale. Of course, this was the basis of the Olympics at first, when the competition was reserved for amateur athletes. The shift to allow professional athletes to compete in the games reflects the viewing habits and interests of spectators; the change began after the Olympics started being broadcast on television in 1960, due in part to the demands of viewers to see the most impressive athletes compete – or perform, really.
This idea of refocusing on individual races without comparing them to past or future competitions is unfeasible as audiences still demand the spectacle of super-athletes shattering records. We constantly compare athletes across generations: If Chloe Kim is the best now, she must be the best for all time in order to garner the attention of average viewers. It would take a complete change in the foundations of what is considered real success to reject the idea that there is only one, all-time best athlete and instead treat every race and competition as an incredible feat regardless of the singularity of it.
The other option is to shift sports away from athleticism and towards technological advancement. I’m not necessarily suggesting that robots will represent different countries in future Olympics, but I’m saying that technological advances in sports equipment and design will determine the success of the world’s best athletes in future competitions. Even now, victories are only measurable because of the incredible timekeeping and frame-by-frame photo comparison technology; it is only so much longer before these technologies are incorporated entirely into the performance of the athletes as well.
The fractional differences between success and failure are especially apparent in race events, which do not rely on subjective judging or physical, one-on-one competition. This winter, the Great Britain skeleton racers even wore suits with ridges, designed to increase aerodynamics and provide an estimated half second advantage. These suits may have contributed to Lizzy Yarnold’s gold and Laura Deas’s and Dom Parsons’s bronze medals. By enhancing the technology used in sports, teams are capable of improving their scores. But, this may raise questions of economic advantage as these technologies will only be available to certain countries with certain resources – the budget of Britain’s skeleton team, for example, was a massive $6.5 million.
Regardless, sporting events are already headed down this track. Unless we encourage athletes to utilize performance enhancing drugs, which has limitations as well as dangers, the only way to continually increase athletic excellence in sports is to encourage the use of performance enhancing technology. If the viewing habits of spectators persist in the status quo, future Winter Olympics will become, essentially, a science fair on ice.
Sports are changing. They always have and always will in order to maintain their relevance. The necessity for change becomes especially apparent in light of the high-tech Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and the tiny differences between winning and falling short. With wavering viewership and rising prices of broadcast rights, a shift in the attitude of viewers or in the nature of sports is necessary to keep alive the symbol of worldwide unity and human excellence that is the Olympics. Pyeongchang debuted groundbreaking technology like a 5G network and interactive 3D viewing that will surely transition to the sporting events themselves in coming years. So, with Tokyo declaring intent to outdo Pyeongchang in technological innovation, brace to witness the patriotic science fair in the sun that will hit NBC in 2020.