You may have heard that this is an Olympic year. The every four-year festival known as the Games of the (whatever) Olympiad begin on August 5th in Rio. You’ve no doubt heard most of the talk being centered on the Zika Virus and its widespread effect on Brazil. It’s already scared off some athletes, mostly NBA players who are using rest as an excuse to not worry about mosquitoes for two weeks, and some of the world’s top golfers who were supposed to participate in the first-ever Olympic golf competition. That’s its own story.
But, it does not seem to be affecting athletes who participate in “true” Olympic Sports like swimming, diving, and track and field. The top prize for LeBron James is an NBA title. An Olympic Gold Medal is cool and all, but it’s not the top of his profession and he’s been there and done that. Same with golfers like Rory McElroy who is skipping the Olympic golf competition because he’s worried that he and his now-girlfriend and future wife won’t be able to start a family someday. I don’t know much about Zika, but I doubt it causes a normal healthy male to suddenly start shooting blanks. The bottom line is simple, an Olympic Gold Medal doesn’t mean that much to a professional golfer. His top prize is a Green Jacket or the Claret Jug. But in competitions like gymnastics and track and field, the Olympics is the Super Bowl and virus or not, the top athletes in the world will take a chance to have a shot to be known as the best in their sport.
First, you have to actually make the team and that’s where the other every four year tradition comes in, in the form of the Olympic Trials. Over the next few weeks, the U.S. Olympic Committee and each sports governing body will host a competition to pick its team for the Olympics, even though there’s not much team about it as most of the sports are individual competitions save for a team competition in Gymnastics and a few swimming relays. It’s already underway for diving in Indianapolis and Gymnastics gets started this weekend in St. Louis, but one of the best competitions comes in the pool and it’s “Television Gold” for NBC.
Understand that the Olympic Games and Olympic Sports in general skew on the television viewer side to females and in particular that precious 18 – 49 age group. If you’ve ever known a female from 18 – 49 years old, you know one thing: They love to spend money. Advertisers know it and pay good money to reach that audience during Olympic style events. Local NBC affiliates see the Olympics – which come up every two years alternating between the winter and summer games – as a glorified cash cow. Throw in a political year like this one and NBC Affiliates from WNBC in New York to my alma mater WVVA in Bluefield, WV will be lining their pockets. Just in the case of WVVA, they won’t be giving the employees any of it. Trust me, I know. Capitalizing on that audience, NBC will put most – if not all – of the Finals at the Olympic Swimming Trials in Prime Time each night from June 26th to July 3rd from 8 – 9 p.m. The preliminary rounds will be buried on the still hard-to-find and irrelevant NBC Sports Network, but most of those occur when most of us are working anyway.
For the third time the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials will be held at the Centurylink Center in downtown Omaha, Nebraska. Centurlink Center is an 18,000 seat Arena mostly known as the home of the Creighton University Blue Jays basketball team and the annual shareholders’ meeting for Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Corporation. It’s not a pool and it takes a little magic to make it one. For three weeks workers construct a pool made of prefabricated steel in the middle of the Arena floor. It’s 10 lanes, 50 meters long (because everything in the Olympics is metric), and nine feet deep (because converting depth to metric is just Un-American). As an aside, I seem to remember in 4th grade hearing that we needed to learn about the metric system because we’d be going to that soon and 4th grade was a long time ago. Once the pool is constructed the Arena calls in the Omaha Fire Department to pull out a really big fire hose and pour in some 1.7 million gallons of water. It takes 8 – 12 hours to fill and hopefully during that time there isn’t a major fire somewhere. The water is chlorinated and shazzam (I stole that from Gomer on the Andy Griffith Show) we got ourselves one regulation Olympic size swimming venue in a place not designed for such. It’s kind of cool.
What makes the Swimming Trials so intriguing is that there are approximately 1,800 swimmers entered but a very small percentage will actually make the team. There are just two individual spots in each event and 6 on relay teams. It’s the toughest ticket to the Olympics of any Olympic-type sport.
So what to watch for this week. You can start with the most decorated Olympic swimmer in history, Michael Phelps. Phelps owns 22 Olympic Medals – 18 of them are gold – and was supposedly going to retire. I guess he failed at that because he’s back for another Olympic shot. Don’t expect him to be as dominant as he was in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 when he won 8 medals because he’s now 30 years old and we can outrun a lot in life, but father time isn’t on that list. He’s entered 5 events and expect him to be a major feature of NBC’s Prime Time Coverage. That means that we will once again have to endure those dopey reaction shots from his mother that have been an NBC staple since 2004, but this time she’ll be holding her grandchild as Phelps is now a father. Florida’s Ryan Lochte has been around about as long as Phelps. He seems like the typical life-time “Frat Boy” who you can just imagine slamming beers at the tailgate at age 55 while the current frat members wonder who the heck this guy with the substantial case of middle age male pregnancy actually is. Lochte is now 31 and has 11 Olympic Medals but is back for what like Phelps figures to be his last time kicking the Olympic can. On the women’s side, expect most of the attention to fall on the darling of the 2012 London Olympics Swimming Competition Missy Franklin. Yes, she’s not a teenager any more and we’ll see plenty of shots of her parents who frankly look more like her grandparents. That doesn’t really matter because sometimes older parents are better parents anyway. You know what they say about wisdom and experience. What does matter is that hopefully she’s a little less awkward than the teenager who won a bunch of medals in London because she was clearly your typical awkward high school kid 4 years ago.
There will be other stories that develop during the week, but of all the Olympic Trials, this is in my opinion one of the most enjoyable at a time when there just isn’t that much going on for sports fans. The sport and NBC know that and also know that this is a chance to drive some eyeballs to the set that spend money. And once it’s 8 night run is completed, what happens to all that water? Well, it’s dechlorinized and dumped into the Missouri River and with it will go some Olympic dreams that will have to wait for some for four more years when the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Swimming turn an Arena into a pool once again. .