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Tokyo 2020 Olympics: Extra Intrigue Or Added Apathy?

The Olympics start on July 23 in Tokyo after being postponed for a year.

The simplicity of some of the marquee events at the Olympic Games is part of what makes them so special. Who can run fastest? Who can jump highest? Who can throw a heavy object the farthest?

We get so bogged down by referees and instant replay and debates over whether something is a foul or a strike or goalie interference that we often forget why we’re watching sports in the first place.

We watch because we want to witness one person beat the person next to them in a dazzling feat of strength and will. The Olympics, (many) political controversies aside, trims away much of that fun-killing fat and leaves the meat of the sport for fans to enjoy.

There is something primal about watching Usain Bolt run the 100 meters. It takes us back to that “race you to the end of the street” kind of feeling that everyone can relate to. And it is that relatability that keeps us coming back every four years.

But this year’s Olympics is a bit different. After being postponed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics will be played without fans in the stands amid calls from many Japanese residents not to hold the Games at all.

Early reports of COVID-19 cases popping up in the village where more than 11,000 athletes are supposed to stay are only adding fuel to that growing debate.

So, who will be watching the Olympics this summer? Is there an added level of intrigue with the calendar year wait, or is there a new layer of apathy added knowing the events won’t have crowds and some top athletes won’t be participating?

To take a bit of a closer look, read on to find out how people feel about the Summer Olympics in general and what the level of interest could be in watching the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games.

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Preference between Winter and Summer Olympics in the U.S. as of March 2021

You will find more infographics at Statista

People seem to be far more interested in the Summer Olympics than the Winter Olympics.

That relatability factor mentioned earlier is a big part of it. Many places on Earth don’t really experience what people in North America might consider a true “winter,” so if you grew up in Africa, South America, most of Asia or the Caribbean, you probably didn’t spend much time skiing, skating or bobsledding.

This chart, provided by Statista, surveyed 2,200 Americans and found 28 percent of respondents prefer the Summer Games while 16 percent like the Winter Olympics better. Thirty-five percent said they liked both equally.

The USA has a world-class Winter Olympic program and is often favored in many of the highest-profile winter sports, yet the number of people who prefer the Summer Games was still almost double those who prefer the Winter Games. We would expect that disparity to be even greater in countries that don’t invest as much as the U.S. in the Winter Olympics.

Average primetime viewership of the Olympic Games on NBC in the U.S. from 2002 to 2018

You will find more infographics at Statista

Another way to gauge and compare the popularity of the two Olympiads is to look at the TV ratings.

This chart, provided by Statista, shows the average primetime viewership on NBC of each Olympic Games dating back to 2000 – a span of 10 events.

Though we know the Summer Olympics are more popular than the Winter Olympics, the Games with the highest viewership in the last 20 years was the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City with an average of 32 million viewers. However, it is reasonable to deduce that those numbers are due to the ‘02 Games being the only ones held in the U.S. since 2000.

The next four most-watched Games in terms of average primetime viewership were all Summer Olympics – 2012 in London (31.1 million), 2008 in Beijing (27.7), 2016 in Rio (27) and 2004 in Athens (24.4) all had numbers that dwarfed Winter Games held outside the U.S.

Viewership numbers for the Winter Games have also dropped three consecutive times. After an average of 24.4 million viewers in 2010’s Games in Vancouver, the viewership dropped to 21.3 million in Sochi in 2014 and then to just 19.8 million in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang – the lowest ratings of any Olympics charted.

The numbers were also down of late for the Summer Olympics as 2016 Rio’s 27 million was lower than each of the previous two Summer Games – although the numbers in the summer had risen steadily for four consecutive Olympics prior to Rio.

Intended viewership of the 2021 Summer Olympics in the U.S. as of March 2021

You will find more infographics at Statista

Level of interest in the Summer Olympics in the U.S. as of March 2021, by age

You will find more infographics at Statista

So, who is going to watch the Tokyo 2020 Olympics? None of the other events had to deal with a year’s postponement or stands without screaming fans.

The top chart shows a solid level of intrigue for this summer’s Games based on a survey of 2,200 people in the U.S.

Twenty-two percent of respondents said they would be watching “a lot” of the Games this year, while 39 percent said they would watch “some.” Sixteen percent said they “wouldn’t watch very much,” but that’s still 77 percent who intend on tuning in to some degree.

Only 16 percent of those surveyed said they would not be watching the Games at all.

The bottom chart shows the levels of interest in the Olympics with corresponding age demographics, and there are a couple of interesting nuggets we can glean.

The 18-24 age group has both the largest percentage of people who say they are “very interested” in the Olympics (33 percent) and the largest percentage (tied) of people who are “not interested at all” (20 percent). It seems the youngest group has an all-or-nothing approach to Olympic viewing.

On the other end of the spectrum, the 65+ age group has both the smallest number of people who are “very interested” in the Olympics (24 percent) and the largest percentage of people (tied) who are “not interested at all” (20 percent).

At 46 percent “somewhat interested” and 30 percent “very interested,” the 25-44 age group has the largest percentage of people showing positive interest in the Games at 76 percent. That age group also has the smallest percentage (10 percent) of people who are “not interested at all.” That 25-44 group is the key age demographic for the Olympics.

How the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics unfolds is anyone’s guess with so many variables that did not affect other Games.

Rising COVID-19 numbers in the city, growing concern from locals and missing athletes certainly puts a damper on what would otherwise have been a much-anticipated Games in one of the world’s greatest cities.

Still, it will be interesting to track the viewership ratings, feedback and potential blowback organizers and athletes face in the most unprecedented Olympic Games in recent memory.