Is There a Sporting Event in Sochi?

Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. He is the author of the best-selling "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning," the basis for the eight-part ESPN mini-series. He also wrote "The Challenge," the winner of the 2009 Scribes Book Award, and "Death Comes to Happy Valley."
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It's not a good sign when, as the Winter games begin, most people can tell you more about the state of the bathrooms in the Olympic Village than the lineup for the opening ceremony.

The Olympics are basically a quadrennial reality show: Athletes you've never heard of appear on the biggest stage in the world, their performances punctuated by NBC's pre-produced, soft-focus video packages about the personal challenges they've overcome.

But the Sochi games are turning into a whole different kind of spectacle, one in which the audience may very well be less focused on the feats and back stories of the breakout stars than on, say, how those twin toilets are working out. Sure, you can spend some time studying Sports Illustrated's guide to the games, figuring out which events you want to be sure to watch. But wouldn't it be more fun to read the latest posts on the Twitter feed #sochiproblems? Have they managed to find pillows for the athletes yet? How are they doing rounding up those stray dogs?

Thus far, the biggest "Olympic story" to come out of Sochi is the news that one of its few recognizable American stars, Shaun White, was withdrawing from the slopestyle event because the course was too dangerous. (Fellow riders have called the course "sketchy," its jumps "obnoxiously tall.")

As the games get underway, there will be new distractions, like whether the hastily constructed facilities will collapse on themselves, or if a Black Widow suicide bomber has managed to penetrate President Putin's security zone. Oh, and how are gay athletes, tourists and reporters being treated in a country with strict laws against "homosexual propaganda?"

What, you say there's a sporting event going on? Where?

The opening ceremonies take place tomorrow, and events have already begun. We should not underestimate NBC's ability to capture and manufacture human drama. But at this rate, the network may need to radically alter its Olympic-broadcast formula if it wants to cover the most compelling stories at Sochi.

(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanmahler.)

Corrects start of Olympic Games in first paragraph.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net