Call it an International Olympic Conundrum: the more dispersed the audience, the greater the yearning for a breakout character, a star of the Games.
[Slideshow: Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt]
When everything is ratings and pageview driven, the Olympics need a singular shining star who can take sport above its normal reach. It is truer of the Olympics, a 16-day pick-and-choose spread of sport spanning from mainstream fare featuring multi-millionaire performers on through to obscure pursuits. Otherwise, everything becomes scattered into little niches.
Think back to just four years ago and how people zoned in on seeing whether Michael Phelps would go 8-for-8 in the pool. Or whether Usain Bolt would break the 200-metre record after setting a new 100 mark. Think back to the Donovan Bailey/Michael Johnson debate in Atlanta. Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and FloJo in '88. Lewis in 1984. Mark Spitz a dozen years prior.
You get the idea. One week into London 2012, that title is there for the taking. Perhaps, though, that says more about how we observed the Olympics more than athletes who are being observed.
With regard to what Phelps has done and what Bolt could do (teammate Yohan Blake will have something to say about it), the problem is obvious: we saw it before from them in Beijing. Each has a tough enough job living up to what people have come to believe about him, never mind someone else.
Lochte overshadowed by Phelps
Phelps' three-gold, two-silver showing is still damn solid, especially as a third-time Olympian in a sport where most competitors hang up their swim trunks after going through two quadrennials. Lochte has ended being considered a semi-bust after also winning five medals but only one individual gold, not counting the unofficial one jealous guys will give him for having untold smart, educated North American women willing to spend an evening with him on the guarantee that Lochte not talk during the entire date.
Lochte and Phelps ended up cancelling out each other. Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old triple gold medallist, kind of came up the middle to take some of their thunder. At the end of the day, though, she won as many individual golds as Lochte did.
[Related: Phelps nabs 17th Olympic gold medal]
Olympic stardom demands simplicity, a sport with a straightforward objected. Just as soccer is the world's No. 1 team sport because it's easily relatable university, that's why the Games' headliner is almost always a swimmer or sprinter. The concept is easy translated: he swam or ran faster than anyone else. That's also biased in favour of athletes in events of relative brevity. The winner of the 10,000 metres probably has less inborn ability than the 100 champion, but the average Jane or Joe can imagine grinding out all those kilometres better than being able run 27 miles per hour.
What about Bolt?
If there's going to be star of the Games, Bolt or Blake are among the lead contenders. The men's 100 is the glamour event in track and analysts believe there's room yet to improve on Bolt's three-year-old world record of 9.58 seconds. North America might be indifferent to track, but the Brits are eager with anticipation. Of course, Bolt has been hurting in recent months. Another red flag is London's climate might not furnish Bolt and the field with the conditions he had at the 2008 Games or a year later when he ran 9.58 in Berlin, Germany.
Even then, though, it could just come off as a sequel. Never mind that the Olympic 100-200 double is rarely repeated. Or Yohan Blake, in North American eyes, could be Roger Maris to Bolt's Mickey Mantle if he wins.
Honestly, though, part of the reason for the feeling the Games haven't had that transcendent talent who's the thread tying it together is the way it's presented. The Olympics are on so many platforms that a lot gets lost in the shuffle. There's a lot for the person whose sporting tastes run to the eclectic or eccentric. Soccer's World Cup, by comparison, is much better water cooler fodder even in North America because it's easier to follow; just a couple games a day. In contrast, in Canada alone the Olympics are being aired on four networks, with 15 web streams available. It's possible to follow almost everything happening in one sport without even owning a television.
The traditional Olympic mythmaking is giving poor chase to the long tail. Perhaps the reason previous Games had one hero stand out is because there was so much less choice for consumers. You saw what TV producers and directors decided what was important. Invariably, that tended to be focusing on a male North American star or the occasional female who seemed to be from another planet, like Joyner-Kersee or 2000 Marion Jones, before the fall. In this scenario, the ever-expanding dominance of China and its nonstop assembly line of athletes kind of becomes a fourth wall.
In 2012, it might harder to earn that much attention. Gabby Douglas, the double gold medallist in gymnastics who broke new ground for African-Americans in a traditionally lily-white sport, might be the most important U.S. Olympian of 2012. But star power is closely guarded by the media gatekeepers; who's going to be venerate a 16-year-old girl over everyone else? Great Britain's Jessica Ennis will be a national heroine if she wins the women's heptathlon on Saturday, but it's hard to imagine North American fans going gaga for an Englishwoman beyond offering hearty congratulations and hoisting a few pints in the hosts' honour.
Like the torch lighting itself, the pedestal might be shared. But hold off on declaring that until after Bolt does his thing.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.
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