There are 28 Olympic sports and dozens of different disciplines within most of them. The sporting cornucopia is why people are so drawn to the Summer Games. You can watch something that’s always in the public consciousness and one you follow year-round or you can immerse yourself in a sport you don’t see unless it’s the Olympics. It’s what makes these two weeks so wonderful. But of all the sports and races and the over 300 medal events, which sport is the best to watch?
Is it a staple of our sporting diet, like basketball, tennis or soccer? Is it one of the two Olympic behemoths that produce big stars mostly seen and remembered every four years, like swimming or track? Or is it a sport that’s off the beaten path, like, well, almost every other one. The answer might surprise. Though we love watching all Olympic sports, we start by eliminating sports until we get to the one that’s the the king of Olympic TV.
Few love swimming more than me. It’s my favorite sport at the Olympics, and it’s not even close. That doesn’t mean it’s the best though. (If that sounds contradictory, consider this example: A friend of mine’s favorite music group is Counting Crows but he harbors no illusions that Adam Duritz fronts the greatest band ever. Taste is subjective.) So, even though I’m addicted to the sport and follow it as closely as anyone now named Rowdy, I can recognize its faults to those who watch it for one week every four years.
You can’t make out the swimmers when they’re in the pool unless you’re an expert at recognizing Nathan Adrian’s turnover. Generally, a race is only between two or three competitors. If you’re not paying full attention, by the time you figure out who’s in what lane, the race can be over. I know what I’m looking for and still sometimes find myself confused as to who’s where. (Thank goodness for the newest graphic overlays and HD.)
We love sports because of the surprise and unpredictability, but swimming often lacks in those two areas. A 12.5-point underdog can win an NFL game – no problem – and a golfer can come out of nowhere to win The Masters, but the sixth seed isn’t beating Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte in the 200 IM final. Neither is the fifth seed or the fourth seed, for that matter. The swimmers who have the best times before the race are invariably the ones who have the best times in the race.
That’s not to say there’s no excitement. I’d say half the races in the Olympics come down to the final stroke and there are coutntless hold-your-breath moments. There may be no greater win at the Games than Sunday’s 4×100 freestyle relay (which was the rare swimming upset – they happen more in relays). And close finishes and comebacks, like Michael Phelps always seems to have in the 100 fly, make for some of the best Olympic memories. (Basically, Phelps has spoiled us.) And for as fun as it is to see Katie Ledecky dominate, it’s like watching Tiger Woods in 2000. The drama isn’t in who wins gold but in how much she wins it by.
So, again, swimming is wonderful and is a close No. 2, but a sport that has about an hour of actual competition in medal races during a full week of competition can’t be the greatest Olympic sport to watch, as much as I’d like to say it is.
There will be no moment in Rio with more anticipation and hype than on Sunday night at around 9:24 p.m. ET, when the runners for the 100m dash settle into the blocks. The Estadio Olimpico will be electrico thanks to the presence of Usain Bolt – the most charismatic athlete in the world running the greatest race in the world and trying to become the first person in the world to cross the line first at three straight Olympics. The focus of the world will be on those eight runners. It’s the most thrilling atmosphere in sports. And then, 10 seconds later, it’ll be over.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Like swimming, this is no argument against track, it’s just recognizing its issues. Track is the original and most basic of sports. Athletes run. Whoever crosses the line first wins. It’s perfection. (This is also why weightlifting is great. Lift the barbell with the most weight, you win. Plain and simple.) But the races are fast, upsets are rare and if not for a full Olympic program that allows NBC to cut to and from different sports, the downtime in track would bore even the most jaded NFL fans who lament the touchdown-commercial-kickoff-commercial combinations. (Field events are less exciting for the same reason – NBC can’t reasonably show an entire long-jump competition – which is a disappointment because a good long or high jump can be great fun.)
Simone Biles might be the truth, but I don’t need a bunch of dour-looking judges to tell me so. Judged activities are not as interesting as real sports. They can be admired and enjoyed, like opera or ballet, but if you have to wait for judges to weigh in with their subjective objectivity, this makes not an exciting sporting event. Simone Biles might be the truth but I don’t need a bunch of dour-looking judges to tell me so.
Do people enjoy watching the USA’s men’s and women’s basketball teams play in the Olympics? Why? Is the drama of finding out whether they’ll win by 20, 30 or 40 that interesting to people? As a basketball fan, I find the whole tournament sort of insulting. It’s like watching a Globetrotters game except Coach K won’t let any of his players put a basketball in his jersey and then give birth to a basketball.
The road race was pretty awesome, minus the serious injuries. The races in the velodrome are as mentally stimulating as they are physical. Top sport though? Not quite there.
Stop it. This is like gymnastics without the athleticism. That being said, the underwater replays of divers breaking the plane of the surface are awesome.
The only unwatchable sport (besides diving, perhaps) is shooting, not because it’s not interesting, but because despite the best efforts of broadcasters from around the world, it’s impossible to present the event coherently on television. Watching circles randomly appear on a screen just isn’t enticing. Sitting through skeet shooting is like searching for a fly that’s been buzzing around your kitchen. You hear it but don’t know where to look and by the time you do, it’s too late.
So which is the best then? Fencing? (Fun but hard to follow.) Rugby? (Ditto.) Wrestling/taekwondo/judo? (Ditto x 3.) Rowing/canoeing/kayaking? (All great, but no.) Badminton or table tennis? (Too fast to settle in and enjoy.) Tennis, golf or soccer? (Get outta here with that. These are totally acceptable to watch but since the Olympics isn’t the pinnacle of any of these sports, the events are basically glorified exhibitions. Women’s soccer might be the antithesis to that, however.)
Still don’t have it? Here’s a clue: It’s a team sport (an actual team sport, not a combined team sport like gymnastics or archery can be). And since basketball, rugby and soccer are already gone, that leaves handball, field hockey, synchronized swimming, beach volleyball, volleyball and water polo.
Handball is like the opposite of soccer. They score too much. It’s gone.
Beach volleyball is a repetitious yawn. Nope.
Synchronized swimming is judged. Sayonara.
Field hockey is a high-school sport that’s not as fun to watch as lacrosse. Nothing wrong with it, but obviously it’s not our winner. (And, let us say it again; we like watching every Olympic sport. Well, almost all.)
That leaves us with water polo and volleyball and, despite an affinity for both, the answer is clear: Volleyball is the top Olympic sport to watch on TV, by far.
The athleticism is among the best in the Summer Games. The game requires power, grace, speed, movement, smarts and skill. The rules are simple – there’s no need for a refresher course every four years. You can easily identify players and quickly figure out their roles and skill level. Teams can go on runs and games can swing at the bounce of a kill. Volleyball moves at a perfect tempo: the points are long enough to be interesting but short enough that you can’t take your eyes away. There’s not too much downtime in between points. (The group hugs every time do get a little old, though.)
Dig, set, attack. There’s a beauty in the game’s simplicity and awe in its execution. A great spike is just as fun to watch as a perfect roof. Replay shows how brilliant some of the hits, blocks and kills can be. Best of all, the games are up for grabs. There’s no Dream Team beating up on poor Angola or a two-swimmer race that renders six lanes of the pool irrelevant. There are top teams, of course, but there’s great parity. Six countries have won the last six men’s gold medals. The women’s side has seen three different winners in the last four cycles. And, best of all, it’s the quintessential Olympic sport – something you don’t see for 206 weeks out of every four years, then it’s all over your television during the Summer Games and you remember the same thing you thought four years before. “Hey, you know what? Volleyball is pretty awesome.”