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Olympic media coverage is about the stories, not the medal count

Why do we care about obscure Olympic athletes? It's all in the storytelling.
July 22, 2021

Global Sport Institute CEO Ken Shropshire says end of Cold War scuttled the US vs. Soviet narrative

Starting this week, more than 7,000 hours of coverage of the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo will be broadcast on two networks and various streaming platforms. The NBC network paid nearly $8 billion for the rights to show one of the premier sporting events in the world.

Gone are the days when fans could catch only a few hours of tape-delayed results every evening.

Ken Shropshire, CEO of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University, has long been involved with the Olympics, not only as a fan but also as part of the Games. He was a member of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee from 1982–84, involved in negotiating the sponsor and licensing agreements for those Games, and he managed the Olympic boxing competition.

Shropshire, who also is the Adidas Distinguished Professor of Global Sport, answered some questions from ASU News about the changing nature of the Olympics:

Question: In your years of watching the Olympics, do you think the coverage by U.S. media has become less American-centric and more global?

Answer: In my youth, in the 1960s, the coverage was always the USA versus someone else, and especially the U.S. versus the Soviet Union.

And the medal count was such an important part of the Games. As a kid, I would know the medal count.

We rarely worried about any other countries.

As the Soviet Union fell apart, I remember there was attempt to re-create that drama with the Soviet bloc countries, but that didn’t really work. 

The women's handball team from the U.S.S.R. won the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow, which the United States boycotted. Ken Shropshire, CEO of ASU's Global Sport Institute, says that with the fall of the U.S. vs. the Soviet Union competition, the focus now is on storytelling. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

It’s less country-competitive now. It’s largely the stories. ABC did it back in the day and NBC took it to the next level to have more than just competition filling the space.

To me, that’s the biggest difference. It went from country versus country to the U.S. versus the Soviet Union to the stories of the individual athletes.

Q: Why do you think viewers become so caught up in the success of obscure athletes that they’ll never think about again?

A: The Jamaican bobsled team really epitomized the idea of, “Do we have a story for you!”

And now editors send people out to find those stories.

In marketing, the transition to the individual-athlete endorsement came, oddly enough, with Michael Jordan – “Be like Mike.” Well, nobody could be like Mike. But you had Shaquille O’Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who were so big. Mike also was a big man, but maybe you could be like Mike if you had his shoes.

So you find those stories — the swimmer whose country doesn’t have a pool. And that person is humanized in a way that if they just showed the competition, you wouldn’t have that.

So instead of counting on a good match, or a close medal count, it’s, “I hope this person wins because that would be like me winning, or my cousin winning.”

Q: NBC’s ratings for the Summer Olympics have been declining. What factors do you think might be at play there?

A: Track and field was the big anchor Olympic sport, and track and field has declined in the U.S. There were the Penn Relays and West Coast Relays and they used to be so much larger than they are now. And there were so many more events that you looked forward to.

And back then, everybody knew who the U.S. 100-meter world record holder was, and certainly the world record holder, no matter where they were. If you did a “man on the street” interview now, nine out of 10 people would not know that.

I think there’s been a decline in global interest. I couldn’t name a single Russian runner now.

It justifies all the storytelling because you have to tell who all these people are.

And a lot has to do with how many channels we have on TV. There are so many options.

Before, programming like “The Wide World of Sports” on Saturdays would force you to watch track and field, especially this time of year. Now I can watch anything I want.

Q: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has set guidelines for athletes protesting social justice issues at the Games. Gestures are allowed before competition but not during or on the podium. What do you think about that?

A: If the rules say you can do it, it’s not a protest.

Ken Shropshire, who was a member of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Olympic Games, is the CEO of ASU's Global Sport Institute.

The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) is allowing quite a bit, and the IOC wants them to protest to varying degrees before their competition but not on the victory stand. It’s fascinating that the further they move the line, the further they will push the type of protest that will take place, as opposed to standing firm on what they believe should not happen.

It’s going to be very interesting to see what athletes do this year, at this moment in time when there’s been so much activism.

Athletes want to win, so we’ll see what kind of protest they want to initiate. It would be amazing if someone stopped a yard short of winning and pulled out a flag.

Q: There was a lot of coverage of Sha’Carri Richardson, who won the 100-meter race at the U.S. trials but lost her spot on the team when she tested positive for marijuana. What do you think of that situation in light of changing attitudes in society toward marijuana?

A: That’s been a tough one for me. My initial thought was, “Well, you knew the rules. That’s too bad.”

Then it was, “Well, she did it to deal with her biological mother’s death," and I had some degree of sympathy.

I thought, “Who can smoke a joint and run the fastest time in the world?” My amateur impression was that it was not going to help your performance.

But then as I read more, there’s this idea of being relaxed and reducing anxiety and that it can help your performance, although not like steroids.

With all that said, here’s what I wish could happen. The penalty should be imposed but not so severe that she will miss the Olympic Games.

The problem seems to be that there are so many precedents that they can’t override.

There has to be some form of punishment because it is a violation that can be interpreted as impacting her performance, so there is a rationale for it. Why not two weeks? Precedent would not allow that but there’s a first time for everything.

Marijuana was a relatively late addition to the (banned substance) list, added in 2004. If I’m the USOC and IOC and WADAWorld Anti-Doping Agency and USADAUnited States Anti-Doping Agency, I’m going to put out there clearly why it’s on the list. If the relaxation and stress release allow athletes to sleep more deeply, it will allow them to perform better the next day. Give us more on the “why” and there won’t be so many questions in the moment.

I don’t know how much (Richardson) knew about the “why.” Great athletes don’t want to win with some competitive advantage.

Q: What would you like to see more of (or less of) in Olympics coverage?

A: I am so old school that I just want to see the competition.

I will find myself Googling a name as it comes up but I’m not into the whole back story stuff. I want to see the race, the gymnastics competition, the basketball game.

It’s probably not commercially feasible to move back to less storytelling and more events. But now the Olympics are on so many channels that you can move yourself around.

Q: With controversy over the huge costs for the host country, do you think the Olympics are still relevant?

A: There is an intersection I always bring up to people that, in a sort of a negative way, ties the Olympics with the NCAA.

The modern Olympic era started in 1896 and the NCAA started in 1906.

In that overlap, in the beginning of the century, there were two enterprises, the Olympics and the NCAA. The conclusion of both is, “Let’s not pay labor to perform for us.” It was, “Let’s have these sporting enterprises where they’re all ‘amateurs.’"

If you can reduce the cost of labor down to zero, it will be a more profitable venture. There was no ancient Greek society in which athletes performed for the glory of sport alone.

And then there’s the question of, “Why are we doing this in Tokyo this year, in a pandemic?”

But having said all that, I am a fan. Like anything else in life, it can be so much better.

Top image of the Olympic flame by iStock/Getty Images.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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Forks up for Tokyo Olympic Games

July 19, 2021

3 current students among 20 Sun Devil athletes who will be competing for gold in a variety of sports

They may have been delayed a year, but Arizona State University is ready to go for gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which open July 23.

There are 20 Sun Devil athletes competing in Tokyo, representing 14 countries in six sports. Three Olympians — Jorinde van Klinken, Leon Marchand and Jarod Arroyo — are current students.

In addition to these current and former Sun Devil athletes, volunteer ASU swim coaches Hali Flickinger and Allison Schmitt will be competing on the U.S. swim team in Tokyo. It’s the second Olympics for Flickinger, who finished seventh in the 200-meter butterfly in 2016, and the fourth Games for multi-medalist Schmitt, who won bronze in 2008 (4x200 free relay), three golds (200 free, 4x100 and 4x200 free relays) and silver (400 free) in 2012, and gold (4x200 free relay) and silver (prelims swimmer for 4x100 free relay) in 2016.

ASU head swimming coach Bob Bowman will be on the coaching staff for USA Swimming. He served as the Olympic team’s head coach in 2016 and has been an assistant Olympic coach in 2004, 2008, 2012 and this year. Bowman, named ASU head coach in 2015, coached Michael Phelps to 28 Olympic medals over five Games from 2000–16.

RELATED: More info on the athletes | ASU athletes at the 2016 Rio Games

Here's a look at this year's athletes:

Promise Amukamara

Nigeria, basketball

Amukamara played for ASU women's basketball from 2011 to 2015. She is the first ASU women’s basketball player to play in the Olympics. She played in every one of ASU's 131 games between 2012–15, recording starts in 97 of those contests. Amukamara is sixth place on ASU's all-time steals list and third in career steals in NCAA Tournament games. She was selected by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2015 draft, the year she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communication from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Jarod Arroyo

Jarod Arroyo

Puerto Rico, swimming, 200- and 400-meter individual medleys

Arroyo is a current ASU redshirt freshman majoring in exercise and wellness. He won gold in the 400-meter medley at the Puerto Rico International Swimming Open in May; his time of 04:16.63 set a Puerto Rican record.

Chris Benard

United States, track and field, triple jump

Benard was a member of ASU track and field from 2010 to 2012. He earned eight All-America honors from 2011–13. He broke ASU’s indoor triple jump mark and won the Pac-12 triple jump. Benard finished 16th at the Rio Games with a jump of 16.55. He graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts.

Richard Bohus

Hungary, swimming, 100-meter backstroke

Bohus swam for ASU from 2013 to 2017. He has ASU's second-fastest 100- and 200-meter backstroke times. Bohus graduated summa cum laude in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in digital culture from the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. He competed in both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, placing ninth in the 4x100 medley relay and 24th in the 100-meter freestyle in Rio.

Paul Casey

England, golf

Casey played for ASU from 1997 to 2000. He won three straight Pac-12 titles (1998–2000). Casey has three PGA Tour wins and earned his 15th European Tour victory earlier this year.

Carlota Ciganda

Spain, golf

Ciganda was a member of ASU women's golf from 2008 to 11. She helped ASU win the 2009 NCAA title as a freshman and made conference history as the first to win back-to-back Pac-10 championships with titles in 2009 and 2010 and then finished third in 2011. Ciganda was the British Amateur champion in 2007. She finished 39th at the Rio Olympics.

ASU golfers

Four former members of the ASU women's golf team will compete in Tokyo. From left: Anna Nordqvist, Carlota Ciganda, Giulia Molinaro and Azahara Munoz.

Dallas Escobedo

Mexico, softball

Escobedo was a pitcher for ASU softball from 2011 to 2014. She has one national championship and three trips to the Women’s College World Series under her belt. She had a 115-26 record (.815) and a 2.01 career ERA. Escobedo is second in ASU history in wins (115) and strikeouts (1,222). She graduated in 2015 with a double major in family and human development from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and special education from Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and in 2017 with a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, also from the Teachers College.

MORE: More than a game for Sun Devil softball Olympians

Chelsea Gonzales

Chelsea Gonzales

Mexico, softball

Shortstop Gonzales played for ASU from 2014 to 2017. She led the Sun Devils in 2017 with a .353 batting average and 13 home runs and started all 53 games played. She finished her career sixth on the ASU home run list (44) and seventh on the RBI list (183). Gonzales graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in family and human development from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

Leon Marchand

France, swimming, 200-meter butterfly, 200- and 400-meter IM

Marchand will be a freshman at ASU this fall, majoring in computer science, and he is the current French record holder in the 400-meter individual medley. His parents both competed for France in the Olympics.

Lena Mihailovic

Australia, water polo

Mihailovic was on ASU's water polo squad from 2015 to 2018. She had 131 goals, finishing her career in the top 10 in program history. She played for Australia in the 2017 FINA World Championship. Mihailovoc graduated cum laude in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Giulia Molinaro

Italy, golf

Molinaro was a Sun Devil golfer from 2008 to 2012, where she was the 2012 Pac-12 Golfer of the Year, only the fourth Sun Devil to earn the honor. She graduated magna cum laude in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in tourism development and management from Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. She tied for 53rd at the Rio Games.

Azahara Munoz

Spain, golf

Munoz golfed at ASU from 2005 to 2009. The 2008 NCAA champion earned the title with a 25-foot putt on the first playoff hole. She led ASU to the NCAA team title in 2009, the year she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Munoz finished 21st at the Rio Games.

Christabel Nettey

Christabel Nettey

Canada, track and field, long jump

Nettey was on the ASU track and field team from 2010 to 2013. The 2011 Pac-10 champion in the long jump finished second at the 2013 NCAA Championships and is a three-time long jump All-American. She holds the second-best long jump in school history with a mark of 21-07.25. Nettey graduated in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies  from the College of Integrative Sciences ans Arts. She finished 11th at the Rio Games.

Anna Nordqvist

Sweden, golf

Nordqvist played for ASU from 2006–08, where she was the Pac-10 co-champion and the Pac-10 Player of the Year in 2007. She has eight LPGA Tour wins and three victories on the Ladies European Tour. Norqvist won the 2009 LPGA Championship and finished 11th at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

Anna Olasz

Hungary, swimming,10K open water

Olasz swam for ASU from 2013 to 2017 and graduated magna cum laude in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in business communication from the W. P. Carey School of Business. She placed 14th in the 10K open water event at the 2016 Olympics.

Sashel Palacios

Mexico, softball

Palacios played softabll at ASU from 2014–17, hitting .322 in her senior year and starting all 53 games. She earned Pac-12 All-Defensive honors in 2015 and was the Pac-12 Player of the Week on March 28, 2017. Palacios graduated cum laude in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in family and human development from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and in 2019 with a master’s degree in higher and postsecondary education from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Jon Rahm

Spain, golf

Rahm golfed for the Sun Devils from 2012 to 2016. He won 11 collegiate events at ASU in that span and has since won six times on the PGA Tour, including his first major at the 2021 U.S. Open. Rahm graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in communication from The College. Tokyo is his first Olympics.

Jon Rahm

The 2021 U.S. Open champion, John Rahm played for ASU at the 2016 NCAA Division I men's golf championship.

Fanny Teijonsalo

Finland, swimming, 50-meter freestyle

Teijonsalo was a member of the ASU swim team from 2017 to 2018 after transferring from Florida Gulf Coast University. She has the second-, third- and seventh-best ASU records in the 50-meter freestyle, the third- and seventh-best in the 100-meter freestyle, and four of the top 10 Sun Devil scores in the 100-meter butterfly. She graduated magna cum laude in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Jorinde van Klinken

Jorinde van Klinken

Netherlands, track and field, discus

Van Klinken, a current ASU graduate student in global management, took the world lead and broke the Dutch discus record in spring 2021, days before the NCAA West preliminaries. She went on to win NCAA gold in the discus. She was the Pac-12 Women’s Field Athlete of the Year in 2021, after her first season with ASU.

Rowie Webster

Australia, water polo

Webster played for ASU water polo in 2006. Her 63 goals and 82 points that year put her at the top of ASU’s freshman record books. She placed sixth at the 2016 Olympics and earned the bronze medal at the 2012 London Games.

Kelsey White qualified to play water polo for South Africa but announced on July 14 that she would not be playing for COVID-19 reasons.

Top photo: ASU alumnus Chris Benard, shown here competing in the 2017 World Championships in Athletics in London, will be representing the United States in Tokyo in the triple jump. Photo by Omar Mota/ASU