Anyone who has a TV could see that the attendance at the Athens Olympics has been spotty at best. Scalpers have been practically giving tickets away.
The stands may be empty, but that doesn’t mean the venues and the Olympic village are. There is a greater number of participants than ever before and even more security personnel: The ratio is seven guards for every athlete. And then there’s the media.
It was announced during the first week that the 2004 Summer Games had already broken even, which, considering the lousy ticket sales, meant that revenue from television and other media rights was very high. From the Japanese perspective, NHK alone sent more than 200 employees to Athens, and each of the commercial networks was represented. Effectively, the Athens Olympics has been one big TV studio, which means it mattered little where they actually took place. And bear in mind that the vast majority of people who enjoyed the Games were of the type who could watch them on high-definition TVs in air-conditioned comfort drinking the beer of their choice. Poorer countries couldn’t afford coverage: In Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, only badminton was broadcast.
Japanese reporters and analysts, pleasantly shocked by Japan’s medal haul, have constantly tried to explain the reason for the success. The inescapable and unabashed conclusion was that more money was spent on the athletes. For example, the general feeling among sports pundits is that the Japanese gymnasts won the team gold because they benefited from mistakes made by the other teams and new scoring rules that favored Japan’s risk-free strategy. However, some reporters even thought the team benefited because it was decided to change their seats on the flight to Athens from economy class to business class. The gold for Ryoko Tani in women’s judo might not have been a surprise, but she benefited from being individually sponsored by Toyota Motors, who reportedly paid for anything she requested. They put her up in a luxury hotel in Athens with five judo students to practice with. Toyota also gave Japanese tourists in Athens free tickets to Tani’s bouts and “cheerleading equipment” (in pink, Tani’s favorite color) at her request.
In an interview with Aera magazine, one anonymous official from the Japan Judo Association said that providing special treatment to one member of the team was against everything the association stood for — but added that you couldn’t argue with the results.
One couldn’t get through an article or TV spot about Tani’s win without being told she was the first Japanese married woman ever to win a medal in judo. After she competes in the world championships in Cairo next year, she says she is planning to get pregnant so that she can be the first Japanese mother to win a medal. As the saying goes, having a goal is the first step toward victory.
Inevitably, the celebrities attracted the most coverage, but for once they justified the attention. Koji Murofushi, the scion of a family business that seems to be the hammer, earned a silver; and swimmer Kosuke Kitajima, who has made more money this year exploiting his portrait rights than most actors and idols, came out with two golds. Still, Tani was the undisputed star, much to the bemusement of fellow judoka Tadahiro Nomura, who won the gold in the men’s 60-kg division for the third straight Olympics. During an interview in Athens with comedian Sanma Akashiya, Nomura mentioned that he won his gold the same day that Tani won hers. Her photo was blown up and plastered across front pages all over Japan, while his was so small as to be almost insignificant. The same thing happened in Atlanta in 1996, even though Tani (then Ryoko Tamura) only won the silver while Nomura won the gold. “My picture was very small,” he said, “like a photo ID.”
The major disappointment for Japan was the failure of “Nagashima Japan” to secure the gold medal in baseball. Shigeo Nagashima, the team’s charismatic manager, wasn’t in Athens due to the stroke he suffered last spring, but the main reason the team lost seemed to be that they underestimated the Australians.
That wasn’t the only baseball failure during the Olympics fortnight. Nagashima’s old team, the Yomiuri Giants, which traditionally has a lock on TV ratings, managed to attract, on average, a measly 5 percent viewer rate while the Olympics were on — even lower than a lot of other commercial TV programs that competed with the Games for audience share. The night of Aug. 17, when veteran Kimiyasu Kudo won his much-publicized 200th game in the Japanese majors, Nihon TV, which is owned by Yomiuri, only managed 9 percent for the game. Some media pundits, however, think it had less to do with the Olympics than the appearance of plain-speaking fortuneteller Kazuko Hosoki, known as “the queen of viewer share,” on two variety programs that same evening. If the Yomiuri Giants can’t even compete with a soothsayer, what hope is there for Japanese professional baseball?