A month from now, you probably won’t be thinking about the balance beam. You won’t in six weeks, or in six months, or especially in a year. But the odds are good you were thinking about it Monday night — that as you watched Simone Biles under-rotate and wobble on the edge of the beam, you found yourself caring deeply. “Oh no,” you might have said to people gathered around you, people who also will not be thinking about the balance beam in a few months, people who all nodded grimly. “That’ll cost her for sure.”
The Summer Olympics is the height of armchair fandom. Featuring 306 events in 42 sports over 19 days, it brings a fan experience unlike that of any major sport. For viewers, the most notable difference might be that many just don’t know very much about what they’re watching. Certainly, fencing, archery, and table tennis have their share of die-hards, people who feverishly track the results of the FINA World Championships and Judo Grand Prix. But every Olympic cycle, they are joined by hordes and hordes of much more casual fans, who descend with passion and patriotism and single-minded devotion for a few days every four years and then go back to obsessing over Tom Brady suspension news and A-Rod rumors. And it is great.
Aside from generation-defining superstars like Michael Phelps, who has been a fixture in the press since the 2004 games in Athens, here is what the average fan knows about the average Olympic contender: He or she (1) is from a (usually small) town in Somewhere, (2) has trained more or less since gaining the ability to stand on two feet, (3) is blessed with a devoted family and coach, (4) has a winning smile, and (5) really wants this. Maybe you caught a 90-second broadcast segment that focused on a parent’s difficult childhood; maybe you read up on an “Athletes to Watch” list. Or maybe that’s all you know: that this person is wearing the right national colors (I was abroad during the last Summer Olympics and all the local television networks could talk about was their athletes; it was deeply unsettling) and has grit. Whatever it is, it’s enough. Did that flip look impressive? Did that feint fool everybody? Did that dive produce only the tiniest splash? Splashes are bad, right? U-S-A! U-S-A!
Bandwagoners get a bad rap throughout the sports world, but here we have casual fandom at its absolute best. The crowd comes in with fresh-out-of-the-box enthusiasm; newcomers are welcomed, mostly, by athletes and more serious fans alike. Sure, there are hiccups — the outrage on Monday night, for example, that diving at the finish line is not only legal but a widely respected tactic in track and field — but generally we all do just fine bypassing the intricacies of a sport or a particular athlete’s history for the snippets crooned to us by NBC lead-ins. It’s like going to a wedding where you don’t know anybody: If all you had to go on was the parents’ speeches, grandma crying in the front row, and the groom’s college roommate saying how meeting the bride changed the groom’s entire life, you’d think you had found the loveliest, most generous, most in-love couple to ever walk the earth. The truth is probably a little more complicated — that stony-faced well-wisher over there is, in fact, an ex-girlfriend; a couple of Jamesons from now that college roommate will be saying well, we all have a first marriage — but isn’t it nice to be a true believer for once?
It’s partly why the sudden decline of athletes like swimmer Missy Franklin is so perplexing. The actual mechanics of what has gone wrong are a mystery even to her, so what are we — whose sum total of knowledge is that She Is the Best — to make of it? What do you mean, she just doesn’t have the gas? She’s not even medaling? Have you tried restarting the TV?
We’re in the final stretch now; the sound of whistles echoing at the Olympic pool is already growing distant. But it’s been fun, and those of us who tune in only every four years have gotten what we came for: delight at the successes we were promised minutes before, amazement at the feats we were informed were very difficult, and outrage over the interlopers whose small towns and wills to win we were told nothing about. Soon enough, the last fireworks will fly, and the athletes will go back to performing in front of quieter crowds. But they can count on this: We’ll see them in Tokyo.