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Byline: Tony Castro

Staff Writer

Even as the historic Beijing Olympics begin today, Angelenos and many other Americans may already be over them.

While international attention has focused on everything from China's air pollution to human-rights records, a more apathetic national mood has emerged over these games.

Americans simply aren't buying the Olympics the way they did years ago when the U.S. feared the growing threat of the Soviet Union, when television coverage was still relatively new and before fans became accustomed to cheering on multimillionaire sports stars, according to opinion polls and TV ratings.

"I don't think selling sports as some kind of nationalistic jingoism works anymore or, at least, not the way it used to be," said Richard Stratton, a 47-year-old Van Nuys businessman who just may typify the modern-day sports fan in Los Angeles.

Stratton bought season tickets to the Galaxy soccer team after the arrival of English superstar David Beckham. He became a born-again Lakers supporter after the team traded for popular forward Pau Gasol of Spain.

And last weekend, after a two-year absence from Dodger Stadium, Stratton was back and decked out in Dodger Blue -- all because of the acquisition of dreadlocked slugger Manny Ramirez of the Dominican Republic.

"I enjoy hearing the national anthem as much as any other American," Stratton said. "But sports nowadays transcends national borders. (The Olympics today) isn't like we're cheering on Jesse Owens against Hitler's Germany."

And therein lies the modern-day problem for the Olympics, say experts.

"What the Olympics used to mean, what it became to the country, the feeling of nationalism when its athletes won and 'The Star-Spangled Banner' was played, has changed and gone in a different direction," said Elizabeth T. Adams, a professor of popular culture and folklore at California State University, Northridge.

Adams and others say the popularity of the Olympics in American popular culture reached its height in the period after the Cold War buildup, when Americans saw themselves as the good guys against the Soviet Union and the communist bloc countries.

"I really think the Olympics meant a lot more 20-plus years ago," said attorney Greg Caplan of Porter Ranch. "There seemed to be a lot more patriotism for the United States, and the athletes seemed to be competing in the events for the sportsmanship of it, not because they wanted to capitalize on the commercial aspects later on.

"People really admired Mark Spitz, Bruce Jenner, Mary Lou Retton, Carl Lewis and other Olympians of past days. The public was glued to the TV for the events, and when the games were in session, it was all people talked about, kind of like when the Lakers were in their top form in the late 1980s.

"It doesn't seem like that same excitement exists today."

Egalitarian crusade

The Olympics were also endowed with being part of an egalitarian crusade, especially the 1960 Summer Games as they helped press the civil-rights struggle in the United States.

"It was very difficult for the U.S. to go around the world proclaiming itself a beacon of freedom with these star black athletes helping them along the way while these same athletes were treated as second-class citizens in the United States," said David Maraniss, author of a new book on the Rome Olympics, which made stars of young boxer Cassius Clay, decathlete Rafer Johnson and sprinter Wilma Rudolph.

But today, such dramas play themselves out almost every night on national television, are covered in exhausting detail on ESPN's "Sports Center" and have become the subject of instant commentary on thousands of blogs.

And in Los Angeles, even though the Olympics likely will be a viewing staple at some bars, the games face a particularly tough sell against star- laden major league baseball teams competing in pennant races -- not to mention the entertainment and lifestyle distractions of the region.

"It takes a lot to tear Southern Californians away from their Starbucks and frappucinos," said Dr. Carole Lieberman, a celebrity psychiatrist, "and apparently the Olympics is too far away from our consciousness, literally."

Heads in the sand

"It's all part of Americans sticking their head in the sand and hiding from the world around them, because so much of it is anti-American, depressing and frightening."

Not that there aren't diehard Olympics fans like Ed Thompson, 77, of Glendale, a retired publishing executive who attended the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley.

Thompson also attended the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 and will be in China next week with his wife, Vicki, to see as many events as they can.

"The Olympics means America to me," said Thompson, who won the trip in an AT&T "How Are You Connected" sweepstakes. "There's too many politics in the Olympics but that's what we have to live with."

But Thompson is in the growing minority, according to independent ratings and polls.

Although the International Olympic Committee cites its own ratings showing global TV viewing rose for the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, those ratings were based on total viewers in an ever-growing potential audience and not a market share, which has been in steady decline.

According to independent studies, the most-watched Olympics were the 1976 Games in Montreal, when Romanian gymnastics pixie Nadia Comaneci made history with a series of perfect-10 scores.

One in five U.S. homes watched those Olympics, but viewership in the U.S. for the 2004 Athens Games was only one-third of what it was for the 1976 Olympics.

Many Americans are more like video producer Peter Rothenberg of Northridge.

"I'll probably watch some events, but just when I happen to be home in front of the tube," said Rothenberg. "I don't intend to rearrange my schedule to see specific events."

Maddening tape delay

Others also complain about the incessant Olympics propaganda and how tape-delayed telecasts are maddening.

"One reason people pooh-pooh the Olympics is that even when they were in the United States, very little of it (on television) was live," said Marilyn Grunwald of Canoga Park.

"It is the strangest phenomenon that television executives on all networks see nothing wrong with showing events hours after they have happened, all the while filling their broadcast time with the ubiquitous noninteresting life stories of our athletes.

"Of course, they are driven by sponsorship needs. Shame on them for not doing better by their consumers."

In Europe, interest in the Olympics has also waned. A BBC poll in England found only 36 percent of residents "interested" or "very interested" in the Beijing Games, compared with 52 percent who said they were interested in the Athens Games.

And in Canada, one in three people does not know that the Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games will be held in Vancouver in 2010, according to a poll there.

Adams says the hope for the Beijing Games is that an athlete -- or perhaps more -- will emerge as a darling. Someone such as leading American swimmer Michael Phelps, who brought home six gold medals in 2004 and who will be trying to become the first to win eight gold medals at a single Olympics.

"Whether a lot of Americans buy into these Olympics will depend on how well his story gets across and how well he does," said Adams.

"It will take someone like that to make Americans care about the Olympics as they once did."

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 8, 2008

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