For a moment, forget about some of the real-world issues surrounding the Sochi Olympics: the threat of a terrorist attack, which has seems more real after the recent bombings in Volgograd, the controversies over Russia’s anti-gay laws, the ridiculous expense of the Games, the environmental consequences of staging the Olympics in a resort town by the Black Sea.
NBC, the network that empties its coffers for the rights to broadcast the games, has a more practical problem as it courts American fans drawn to the Phelpsian big-names: Which American athletes are worth watching?
American audiences like stars, and story-lines about breaking records. With skier Lindsey Vonn’s announcement Tuesday that she’s withdrawing from the Olympics, the U.S. just lost its biggest-name attraction. Vonn was marketing gold for the Vancouver Olympics. But given her continued success on the mountain, and her relationship with, you know, the most famous athlete in the world, she was bigger bonanza before Sochi. Vonn is a household name. Sadly, her knee wouldn’t cooperate.
So now what? Well, Shaun White is back, but haven’t we exhausted our “Flying Tomato” infatuation? He’s a bit 2006. White even cut his famous locks. White’s pursuit of gold in a new event, slopestyle snowboarding, does add some intrigue. He’ll have to carry the A-list load.
Bode Miller is also back, still a threat, but past his prime. Speedskater Shani Davis has never craved media attention; that approach is worthy of respect, but it’s not a formula for winning tons of mainstream fans. America has no gold medal favorites in figure skating, the glamor event of the games. Apolo Ohno is now in the broadcast booth. The men’s and women’s hockey teams may thrive – look out for the Lamoureux twins, who have a habit of fighting Canadians, on the women’s side. But hockey players don’t drive eyeballs like their basketball counterparts in the summer games.
Some athletes may emerge, and lift NBC’s ratings. Ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White are favorites to win American’s first gold in that event. Teen skiing phenom Mikaela Shiffrin could be the next Vonn. In short-track speedskating, J.R. Celski is trying to fill Ohno’s enormous shoes. The women’s ski jumpers will make their debut in Sochi, and defending world champ Sarah Hendrickson has crossover potential. But she’s battling her own knee issues. And for most Americans, ski jumping is still a foreign, and strange, sport.
The Olympics always surprise. That’s what drives their popularity. But America – and NBC — also needed a sure thing. Vonn’s absence leaves a void. And no one will replace it.