We’re now mere days away from the Olympics, and there’s not much to add to how much of a mess they already are. The virus has already gotten within the Olympic village, it’s within those who are soon going to be at the village, and it’s already waylaid a couple of the biggest stars that were supposed to be in Tokyo. The headline grabber there is Coco Gauff (sorry Bradley Beal), who was going to be the most-watched tennis player, at least in the US, as she looks to be one of the sport’s biggest stars in a couple of years. The Japanese people don’t want it, no one can go to it, even the American audience is lukewarm on something that basically exists to please them (seriously, if the US didn’t have much interest in the Olympics, it’s a real question if they would still exist).
My colleague Jesse has already documented the lengths the IOC is taking, or thinks it’s taking, to keep the athletes from boning to spread the virus, as if the floor wasn’t an option, and generally (though not always) the athletes save their boning for after their competitions are over. That won’t be the problem. If the virus is already in the village with barely a slice of the total amount that will be there over the coming days, it’s quite clear that the IOC can’t keep everyone safe. How many competitors are going to have to be pulled right before their events? It’s going to happen. How many would it take to make everyone feel like the event had been cheapened? It’s not that many. How many events does the IOC and NBC want people saying afterwards, “Well good for them, but so and so wasn’t in this?”
We know the IOC is really driven by NBC, their biggest partner. Americans watch this thing more than everyone else, and NBC is their vehicle. And perhaps NBC doesn’t care at this point, because the ad time and slots have already been bought. That’s what they’re in this for, after all.
Beal doesn’t ruin the interest in the men’s basketball team, and they would need to lose a few more before that was a threat. But we’re almost past the threshold of players being able to be replaced. The women’s team hasn’t had to lose anyone yet. Still, neither team’s prep has been exactly smooth, and if NBC doesn’t get a gold from either, you can be sure they’ll be aggrieved. The USWNT hasn’t had any players held back yet either, but with only an 18-woman roster they couldn’t really afford more than one or two before it had an effect. What would NBC think if a shorthanded US team bounced in the quarters? Unlikely, but not out past the realm of possibility.
Whatever NBC is counting on in terms of interest for the lesser events, those get sullied by any news of competitors having to be removed. You’re less likely to tune into rock climbing or volleyball if you read that a chunk of the favorites had to be removed, even if you know nothing about it.
Still, NBC’s ace in the hole is Simone Biles. She’s probably the main draw of all this, given her dominance, excellence, and uniqueness in achieving both. In wrestling terms, Biles means money. She’s the one NBC executives are quivering about. She’s the one who would send everything into the toilet if she couldn’t compete. You’d have to believe that NBC is encasing her in plastic right now. They’ll assign a team of guards to her to not let anyone else within 10 feet of her.
NBC knows that these Games are already a disaster, probably as much as the IOC does. But they don’t have to care. And Biles making it through unscathed is their great hope. Get out the mounds of cotton wool.