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The 2016 Olympics Watchability Matrix

Thirty-four sports, broken down by lameness, plotted on a chart. Where does your favorite land?

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

No Olympic sport is technically lame. Nor is any amateur or professional athlete that competes at the Olympic level. The day-to-day work of reaching that pinnacle — of representing your country, bearing your flag, and hopefully standing on a podium — is punishing, far beyond the threshold of the average human. And for three years and 11 months at a time, it’s thankless.

In that sense, the Olympics are both the height of sporting excellence and the purest distillation of the human spirit, and nothing that clears those high bars can possibly be designated as “lame.” Except it can. The Olympics are largely televisual entertainment, and thus must reach a threshold of watchability, or be mocked by people like me. And though none of us will ever be an Olympic anything, it is a universal human right to be petty and judgmental.

And so, we’ll be dispassionately placing all 34 Olympic sports on a scatter plot for all posterity. Welcome to the Olympics Watchability Matrix.

It follows that anything plotted near or on the origin, or “Meh,” is not lame, but isn’t particularly watchable, either. These are usually events that are important, but boring. You might watch them, but really only because you should, like a documentary on the meatpacking industry or a speech from President Obama on foreign policy. Of course, the warm fuzziness and high-stakes competitive atmosphere that surrounds the Olympics almost guarantees a certain level of enjoyment when watching any event, so most of our plot points will center around the origin, with a few exceptions.

Cool? Cool. Let’s break down the quadrants:

The “Cat Videos” Quadrant

Items in the first quadrant are very watchable, but categorically uncool, like any and all funny cat videos you might find on YouTube.

While there won’t be anything at the Olympics that you’ll be considered a bad (read: uninformed or lazy) person for not watching, there’ll be plenty of things that are not popping but still kind of popping, you know? Normally that means artsy and unconventional, or anything that causes a comfortable level of cognitive dissonance. Were this the Winter Olympics, that would be figure skating. Have you ever watched a death drop into a sit spin before?

No? Then you can’t really say that you’ve lived yet, can you?

The “DangeRuss Zone” Quadrant

The second quadrant is reserved for items both lame and unwatchable. Most of what Russell Wilson does off of the football field falls under this zone (for example, everything he posts on Twitter and Instagram with or about Ciara) and occasionally some of the stuff he does on it, like throwing the ball at the 1-yard line when the best short-yardage back in the league was right there. Lame.

These tend to be the sports that require independent confirmation that they are, in fact, sports, and more often than not, Googling the rules multiple times during the event, should you choose to watch it [cough, DRESSAGE, cough].

The “Public Access Television” Quadrant

Items in the third quadrant aren’t watchable but aren’t lame either; like anything educational that isn’t on the History or Discovery channels. Or any “distance” event before the last 100 meters. Notice how this section is the shortest. There isn’t that much to talk about.

The “Jason Statham Movies” Quadrant

And finally: Items plotted in the fourth quadrant are supremely watchable and so cool that they actually have negative lameness. These are sports that evoke maximum joy, and you will watch when it beckons time and time again without question or complaint, like Jason Statham taking out a bunch of dudes with guns using only a fire hose in The Transporter 2. Or really, any Jason Statham action movie. There are like, a hundred of them, and they’re all great. These are usually the sports with the oldest traditions in the Olympics, the ones that ancient Greeks painted on vases and whatnot.

Now that we’ve established the parameters, let’s get into the actual matrix:

Below you’ll find some of the sports plotted on the above graph and justifications for their placement.


1 This one obviously has the lowest barrier to entry, viewing-wise. And while basketball gets more than enough attention the other 11 months out of the year, you never really get to see all of the best talent (with a handful of super-notable exceptions) in the same damn place at the same damn time. Of course the conclusion is somewhat foregone because the talent gap between Team USA and everyone else is “Grand Canyon,” but you should never — ever, ever — pass up the opportunity to watch Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson rain 3s from the next-closest continent while DeMar DeRozan tries to wipe unwitting defenders from the face of the earth.

All that being said, this will only be fun if Coach K can manage to undo at least one button on his polo and slacken his brown leather belt a half-inch before the competition starts. For real, for real dude: Let the kids play.

Quadrant: Jason Statham Movies

Beach Volleyball

1 Speaking of basketball, think about the most vicious block you can conjure. DeAndre Jordan just a few days ago? The time LeBron James blocked that Tiago Splitter dunk attempt like he hated it in the 2013 NBA Finals? When LeBron James Jr. ate that other kid before finger rolling his way into offers from any and every big college program in the country?

Got it? Do you have a clear picture of those nasty, authoritative blocks in your head? Good. Now imagine that going on continuously, for three whole sets.

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Moreover, if you like dynasties and such, peep this: Kerri Walsh Jennings, who’ll be playing with April Ross this year (and not with Misty May-Treanor, with whom she’s been partners since I can remember and I’m still not over it; is this how people feel about boy bands breaking up?) is going for her fourth consecutive gold medal in the competition, which would make her the first beach volleyball player to do so since the sport made its Olympic debut in 1996.

Quadrant: Jason Statham Movies


1 Dude, dude.


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Quadrant: DangeRuss Zone


1 I personally don’t have the patience to play a full round of golf in real life and no more patience to sit down for 10 (four? 100? Who knows) hours of watching it on TV. However, I am all the way down for scenic outdoor sports that require the commentators to speak in hushed tones. It’s incredibly relaxing background noise and conducive to doing other stuff like folding clothes or washing dishes or balancing your checkbook.

Quadrant: Public Access Television


1 Do y’all remember how gangster Kerri Strug is? Let me remind y’all how gangster Kerri Strug is. During the 1996 Olympics, the U.S. had a commanding .897 lead over Russia, looking prime for its first team gold in the event. But then–top dog Dominique Moceanu fell, twice, which was, up until then, unimaginable. Like, Kendrick Lamar turning-in-a-wack-verse-post-“Control” levels of unimaginable. So it fell to Kerri Strug — at this point the equivalent of a Pip to Moceanu’s Gladys Knight, if you’ll allow me to keep chucking music analogies at you — to secure the gold for Team USA in two vaults.

On the first, she undershot the landing and sprained the shit out of her ankle. On the second, enduring pains shooting all up and through her left leg, she rounded off and snapped two tendons in that ankle on a near-perfect landing. But given the sheer autarchical correctness this stuff requires, she still had to pose it out. So what did Kerri Strug do?


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You stubbed your toe and winced for five whole minutes just last week. Big up where big ups are due.

Quadrant: Jason Statham Movies (Yes, gymnastics are cool, if you don’t like it, change your mind.)


1 OK, so, handball is essentially an amalgam of every team sport there is, and it’s awesome. There are faint undertones and flagrant overtones of everything from basketball to football to American football to lacrosse, and a lot of things in between. Floor-spreading, slashing-and-kicking, ripping-and-dipping, half-court sets, post routes, nutmegs, goalies; it’s all there. Plus, the game is played at such a frantic pace and with such flair that even the misses look tight.

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If that’s not enough of a draw, watch this supercut of the completely ridiculous fashion in which handball players do 7-meter throws, the equivalent of a penalty kick in soccer.

Quadrant: Jason Statham Movies

Rhythmic Gymnastics

1 You’ll be watching a floor routine and, momentarily snapping yourself out of being enraptured in the unfeigned, ephemeral beauty of it, you’ll be like, Yo, my guy, how is she tucking that bouncy ball between the nape of her neck and her lower back while doing cartwheels?? And by then, the routine is already over.

Quadrant: Cat Videos

Synchronized Swimming

1 Yes, synchronized swimming. Each performance is like a moving impressionist painting set to classical music, and you get to use words you haven’t used since that one art history class you took in college like “impressionist,” and chiaroscuro, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

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Quadrant: Cat Videos

Track & Field

1 You know those slow-motion videos of cheetahs using their tails like drag flaps as they chase down antelope in the wild? Usain Bolt winning a 100-meter dash by a full 5 feet against a collection of the fastest men to ever walk the earth is way tighter than that. He’s 6-foot-5 with the same turnover rate of someone six inches shorter and apparently crafted from the same stuff space shuttles are made of.

Of course the distance running portion is a bit of a snoozefest, but in aggregate, “athletics” is a must-see. Shot put included.

Quadrant: Jason Statham Movies