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How the Olympics Lost Millennials

The International Olympic Committee and its American media partners have failed miserably to bring the Games to where young people live.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Let’s face it: The Olympics is old, man. The median age of U.S. viewers for the 2008 Beijing Olympics was 47, rising to 48 for the 2012 London Games. The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi rang in at 55, compared to 48 for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. These numbers only include TV viewership, which skews older in general, so they don’t tell the whole story. Still, in London and Sochi, a large majority of viewers watched the games on TV (89 and 78 percent, respectively). More recent numbers from Rio show that, in comparison to London, there has been a 30 percent drop in TV viewers between the ages of 18 and 34.

The International Olympics Committee and its media partners like NBC are aware of this problem. They’ve been chasing profitable young audiences for decades in a desperate bid to stay relevant. Their attempts to engage young viewers often result in a balancing act between a desire to appear cool and an impulse to retain total control. The rub is that those two things are contradictory.

Take, for example, the 1998 Nagano Olympics. That was the year when the IOC decided to include snowboarding for the first time ever to reach a younger crowd. While the sport has since become one of the most popular events at the Winter Olympics, its debut was a mess. Snowboarding legend Terje Haakosen boycotted the Games because he believed its rigid rules were at conflict with the sport’s free-wheeling spirit. Martina Magenta, an Italian snowboarder, also refused to attend when the IOC wouldn’t let her use a board made by her sponsor. The committee nearly stripped Canada’s Ross Rebagliati of his gold medal because he was caught with traces of weed in his system.

Figure skater Michelle Kwan’s stuffy reaction to the Rebagliati scandal embodied the predominant attitude of the time: “Rules are rules. You’ve got to follow them,” she told The New York Times. This, even though the IOC only banned marijuana and other social drugs after the controversy, and despite the fact that they weren’t considered performance enhancers. The Dallas Morning News, doing its best get-off-my-lawn impersonation, wrote this brutal takedown: “The IOC was eager to bring in these clowns with their half-pipe antics and alternative music. The idea that snowboarding would enhance the Games turned out to be a pipe dream.”

This year, the Olympics is trying once again to drink from that sweet, lucrative fountain of youth. NBC, which owns exclusive rights to U.S. Olympics coverage, has vamped up its social media presence. Variety reported that, for the first time ever, NBC had hired more than two dozen digital influencers whose followers total more than 120 million across social media platforms. They partnered with BuzzFeed to produce content on Snapchat and even got Ryan Seacrest, the oldest teen ever, to host a “Social Media Opening Ceremony,” which just about sums up how the Olympics has only succeeded in abetting its declining relevance.

According to Variety, NBC’s hope was that “young people will watch the Olympics via their parents’ pay-TV subscription or on broadcast TV, or at least click over to the free content on” However, you can lead a youth to a television set, but you can’t make her watch, especially when her smartphone beckons. NBC only allows for 30 minutes of free streaming before you have to enter a cable TV account. A Time magazine article on how to watch the Olympics without a cable subscription lists three options: Using an antenna (does it go on top of your TV??) or paying around $30 to stream via Sling TV or Playstation Vue—unlikely choices for young viewers who have better things to spend their $30 on.

Combine this with the IOC’s ban of unauthorized GIFs, and you get a highly anachronistic attempt to contain a month-long sporting spectacle within the confines of the NBC universe. GIFs are easily the best way to spread and immortalize important Olympics moments. They present an opportunity to engage a younger generation where they live and get them hooked. Banning GIFs reveals a painful lack of awareness of how the internet works and, accordingly, how young people consume media. (They certainly aren’t eagerly awaiting NBC’s time-delayed coverage.) It has also restricted the ability of news websites of all stripes to drum up interest in their Olympics coverage.

Recently, the IOC announced another tack to draw in youth—five new games for Tokyo 2020: sport climbing, surfing, skateboarding, karate, and baseball/softball. In proposing the sports, “youth” was identified as one of three value-added qualities these sports bring. One argument for the inclusion of skateboarding and surfboarding was that their elite athletes are popular on social media. However, dissension is in the air. More than 7,000 skateboarders have signed a petition asking the IOC not to include the sport in the Olympics, stating, “We do not want skateboarding exploited and transformed to fit into the Olympic program...We feel it would not in any way support skateboarders or skateparks.”

The IOC may not have too much to fear—after all, snowboarding was successfully integrated over the years, producing crossover stars like Shaun White. The fist-shaking has also subsided, even though the old-timey lingo has not. (The Guardian wrote in 2010 that the Vancouver Games had “successfully transposed to the sometimes stuffy Olympic area the razzmatazz and street credibility of the X Games.”)

But whether those new sports will translate into youth viewership is still to be seen. There is nothing inherently “un-cool” about the Olympics. Even aspects that may seem dated—the pageantry, the cheesy patriotism—are tinged with an attractive aura of nostalgia: First-time Olympics viewers can still appreciate that history. And the athletes themselves are young and engaging.

But until the IOC and NBC understand that the Games’ legacy is also made up of the things they can’t control—the tremor of Muhammad Ali’s hand, fists clenched in a black power salute, even Laurie Hernandez’s wink before her floor routine—the Olympics might be in danger of aging itself out of relevance. If that happens, they will only have themselves to blame.