RIO 2016! It's a showcase for the triumph of the human spirit, opportunity for the world's top athletes to have all the sex, and a possible looming health disaster of epic proportions. High jump over here for all of Thrillist's coverage of the games, and the games beyond the games.
The Summer Olympics begin this week in Rio, and in two weeks, their conclusion will mark the official start of the countdown to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. But which version of the Olympics is better? We asked notable sports fanatics Joe DeLessio and Will Leitch to embrace the debate and make their cases for the Winter and Summer Games, respectively.
Joe DeLessio: Hello, sir! So before we begin the argument portion of this debate, it's probably worth recognizing something I believe we agree on: that the Olympics are, by and large, sports for people who like reality TV. Part of the fun of being an obsessive sports fan is rooting for the team, and part of the fun of rooting for a team is that you can follow it, day in and day out, for years and years. As you've written before, sports fans like context and history. In the Olympics, you often find yourself cheering for someone you'd never heard of a week ago and may not think about again for four more years, if ever. Which is fine! But also different.
Which brings me to a pet peeve about the Summer Olympics, as a sports fan. The idea of the Olympics, if you strip out the corruption and the scandals and the worldwide corporate partners, is a fine one -- to see which athlete or which country is the best in the world at something. Maybe I've been brainwashed by too many years of Bob Costas, but the Olympics DO have a certain cachet. The thing is, among many of the sports I already have some interest in, the tournaments don't always feel like a Big Deal.
American basketball players don't always treat the Olympics like a priority (and even if they do, America is still far and away the best team). The boxing event is still mostly for amateur fighters. The men's soccer event doesn't even pretend to compete with the World Cup -- or the continental championships, for that matter -- and it has roster rules in place to force countries to play mostly young players. I'll take the tennis Grand Slams over the Olympics, too, and though I don't follow golf very much, I get the sense there's a similar dynamic going on there now that it's an Olympic sport.
I'm cherry-picking a bit, but that's a lot of high-profile sports -- as in, ones where you may actually follow the athletes more than once every four years -- where the Olympics are far from the pinnacle of competition. (The saving grace might be the women's soccer tournament, which is legitimately a big deal, but even that has the World Cup to compete with.)
Looking through the list of Winter Olympics sports, I'm not sure that's an issue anywhere. I'll get to men's hockey in more detail later, but even though there are high-profile club leagues all over the world, hockey fans generally get really into the Olympics. And unless I'm underestimating the importance of the X Games, an Olympic gold is the biggest prize in every other sport. Those across-the-board stakes are attractive to me.
Will Leitch: I can, and will, come up with all sorts of reasons why the Summer Olympics are better than the Winter Olympics, but first off, let's discuss your (correct) assertion that "there are a lot of high-profile sports where the Olympics are far from the pinnacle of competition." This is definitely true. Basketball, soccer (even women's soccer, really), tennis, golf, boxing: in all of those, the Olympics are more of an exhibition rather than the main event.
But this is how it should be. The Olympics ARE an exhibition. Carmelo Anthony might end up with four gold medals after this year, but honestly, no one considers him a champion. This is just and right: the Olympics are a freakish showcase of small sample sizes that only happen every four years, and therefore shouldn't be the ultimate gauge of anything.
The fun of the Olympics is not when champions get their due: it's when people train every day for four years in tiny sports that no one cares about in order to shine on the only national stage they'll ever be afforded... and then they blow it. That's the best! That's what sports is about. They're not about congratulating people on being the best; they're about a zero-sum game in which all the normal things in the world that get in the way of actual achievement -- social status, nepotism, physical attractiveness, occasional sociopathy -- don't matter, and you either win or you lose. You can work really hard and still lose and not have anybody care. And after it's over, people will forget you ever existed. That's the Olympics' shining virtue. The Olympics aren't real sports. This is what makes them both fun and pointless.
We have actual stakes in other sports, the ones we watch the rest of the year, making the Olympics superfluous. That hockey matters so much in the Olympics isn't a point in favor of the Olympics: it's a point against the NHL. Remember two years ago, when Gary Bettman had a faux argument with someone from the IOC about what meant more, a Stanley Cup or a gold medal? This isn't even slightly a debate in any other sport: it's obviously not a gold medal. If Bettman has to have that conversation, he has already lost. The Olympics don't matter. That's a reason to watch them. But that's also why dedicated sports fans don't really invest in them.
Anyway! Five very simple reasons the Summer Olympics are better -- which are not particularly serious but are nonetheless undeniably true, thus proving my point even further, because they're all among the weakest of my examples:
1. Variety of venues. At the Winter Olympics, you're either in the city or you're in the mountains. (All the cool sports are in the mountains, and there's more to drink up there, too.) You can conceivably see every event in two weeks. (In Sochi, I did.) Summer Olympics are more sprawling, and thus have more variety.
2. Less reliance on X Games stuff. I've come around on the X Games a little, but let's not kid ourselves: these are mostly excuses for the US to pump up its medal count. And they are a much larger percentage of the Winter Olympics than they are the Summer Olympics.
3. Beach sports. Come on, man, they're playing sports on the beach. Though to be fair, in Rio, most of those beaches are 43% syringe.
4. The Summer Olympics have horses, bows and arrows, and guns. And not necessarily in that order.
5. Oh, and trampoline. Which is not this, not yet, but someday:
DeLessio: I can see the NBC promo now: "The Rio Olympics: it's just an exhibition that doesn't matter!"
I'm actually gonna skip past that part, though, because none of it is really an argument for the Summer Games over the Winter Games. The small sample size, the athletes in obscure sports on the biggest stage of their lives -- that's common to both. But I'm not going to skip over the Bettman thing. The question of whether an Olympic gold means more than a Stanley Cup is framed in such a way to inspire some burning-hot takes, but it doesn't need to be. The NHL and the Olympics can exist on parallel tracks; it means a lot to win either one.
I've argued before that hockey is the perfect Olympic sport, and I'll condense that argument here: you have a sport with a large existing fanbase, athletes we already know and follow, context and history that informs our viewing, players who take it seriously and truly want to win a medal for their country, and relative parity where a number of nations can legitimately compete. Obsessing over a two-week tournament that I really care about -- as in, losses-from-six-years-ago-still-sting care -- is a rarity in sports. And it's an opportunity to see a sport consistently played at the absolutely highest possible level, like an All-Star Game that lasts two weeks and actually matters. The Winter Olympics offer that in hockey.
I'll hit the other points one at a time:
1. The ability to sample all of the events (either in person or on TV) is a point in favor of the Winter Games. You can't enjoy those obscure sports if the overall program is so bloated that you never get a chance to check them out in the first place.
2. I love the X Games stuff! Perhaps my American-ness is showing here, but those events are fun. What do you have against fun?
3. Well, TV executives sure do love beach sports, though that's not entirely because of the drama of the competition.
4. The Winter Olympics have guns, too -- in the biathlon, if that's your cup of tea. (By the way, you forgot that the Summer Games also involve swords.)
5. Valid point. Trampoline is pretty cool.
Leitch: Yeah, I kind of took us a bit away from the initial point with my little hockey riff. Let's just focus on why the Summer Olympics are better. There are a lot of reasons! But the most important reason is a pretty obvious one: normal, non-Norse people actually play these sports. We've all run. We've all ridden a bike. We've all played basketball, or soccer, or badminton. (I have played a LOT of badminton.) The Summer Olympics are simply more relatable because they're universal sports that aren't practiced solely by Americans who live in Colorado, Utah, Alaska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and parts of California. (No offense to those states!) Most people can't even ice skate, Joe, let alone ski or luge or curl. The more popular a sport is is directly proportional to how much we American idiots can imagine ourselves doing it. The Summer Olympics have almost all of those. They're also more global and diverse.
Here's the number of countries that won a medal the last two Olympics:
2014 Winter Olympics: 26
2012 Summer Olympics: 85
Eighty five, Joe! Some of the countries that medaled at the 2012 Summer Olympics: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Gabon, Kuwait, Moldova, Qatar. I had no idea Gabon was a country. It's possible it's a fake FIFA country.
Plus, Summer has rugby! How did I not realize rugby was in the Olympics?
And because so much of the fun of the Olympics is randomly tuning in to find SOME sort of sport on, the Summer Olympics is perfect because no matter the hour of the day, someone's either playing beach volleyball or rasslin' or jumping off a diving board or kicking someone in the face. These are the sports we play and can understand. We need no primers. The Summer Olympics are for the most casual of sports fans. We can just dive right in, anytime. (And then do a synchronized swim routine.)
DeLessio: I'd disagree with the idea that normal people play a great many of the sports in the Summer Olympics. When was the last time you got your dressage on, Will?
But point taken that most of the Summer sports are more accessible than the Winter ones. There aren't many places to ski in Bolivia. That said, the fact that I can physically run 100 meters doesn't make me enjoy world-class runners doing it any more. Same for swimming or bike riding or any other "normal person" activity.
I should note that while I live in a region with a cold winter, other than hockey, there aren't many winter sports that I personally play, or would even want to try. (I've been skiing exactly once; I made it down the mountain without breaking my neck, so as far as I'm concerned, I won at skiing.) In the Olympics, I want to see amazing feats I couldn't possibly imaging doing myself; I don't want relatable. Have you seen ski jumping?! It's bonkers, and you couldn't pay me enough to do it.
Leitch: I can say with 100% certainty that the Winter Olympics are a LOT more dangerous than the Summer Olympics sports. In Sochi I saw ski jumping and slopestyle, and it strikes me as patently insane that any human being would ever do either of them. It reminds me of seeing Cirque du Soleil: I can't believe people in those events aren't constantly dying. (That tends to be saved for the poor souls building the structures where these events are held.) If you want to see someone die, you're more likely to see that at the Winter Olympics than the Summer Olympics. So you have that, Joe!
All told, though, I feel like we're sort of going around in circles here. I enjoy some Winter Olympics sports, but not all of them, which means the Summer Olympics by definition have to sort of destroy them, because there are SO MANY. Sure, I can't keep track of everything, and there's not a guiding principle to watch the games in total -- other than "the Olympics are so, so bad for the country that hosts them" -- but that's a feature of the Summer Games, not a bug. I'll dip in when I want, and dip back out when I'm ready to leave. For a casual August spectacle, that's perfect.
Plus, I can't wait until Trump tweets something about women's gymnastics. You know he will.
DeLessio: Let the record show that I do not, in fact, want to see someone die. But this isn't America's Next Top Ski Jumper, where some schmo who doesn't really know what he's doing is jumping off a mountain. These are seasoned pros who somehow make these impossibly hard, often scary athletic feats look easy. That's a beautiful thing.
You're also veering into a "quantity over quality" argument there. The Summer Olympics are undoubtedly bigger, but that doesn't mean they're necessarily better. And don't get me wrong, I like some Summer Olympics sports, too. Track and field is basically a test of human athleticism in its purest forms, and I dig that. But I'll take the totality of the Winter Games over the totality of the Summer ones.
You bring up something else I want to mention: the timing. Yes, the Olympics are good summer programming for a casual viewer. But February in sports is kind of the worst. Football's over. Spring training is barely under way. The NBA and NHL are in the dog days of their seasons. And college hoops is a few weeks away from March Madness. It's the perfect time to drop in a largely self-contained sports spectacle every four years. Late-ish summer is a pretty slow time on the sports calendar, too, but at least I can, you know, go outside then. Those of us at the mercy of the seasons don't really have that option in February.
(As for the Olympics consistently being terrible for the host city, the more I think about it, the more I'm on board with Barry Petchesky's "Olympic Island" concept.)
Leitch: I think you're on to something about the sports calendar, though I'd argue that "going outside" in August where I live in Georgia is as bad or worse than going outside in New York in February. But this is a lovely benefit to the Olympics across the board: they come on the time of the sports -- and cultural, and entertainment -- calendar in which we're in most need of distraction. This is a lesson the World Cup is going to learn the hard way in 2022, when the weather in Qatar forces them to move that tournament to November. We need it now.
I love the Olympic Island idea, too, which reminds me of the perfect way to wrap all this up: the great Onion video from 2014, "Olympic Village Tour: See Where the Athletes Live, Train, and Fuck Each Other."
The best part: it's all eco-friendly!
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.