Were the Turin Winter Olympics really that boring or was it just the Japanese television coverage?

It’s difficult to believe that there were no interesting stories coming out of the Games, but the failure of Japanese athletes to win medals so demoralized the domestic media that all they could do was ponder this failure at the exclusion of everything else. One got the feeling that the rest of the world’s triumphs and failures were merely a backdrop to the Great Japanese Medal Drought.

The crisis reached meltdown proportions last Monday during NHK’s mid-Games highlights special. Once again, they trotted out the story of ski-jumper Masahiko Harada, who was making his fifth trip to a Winter Games. Harada is essentially a “professional” Olympic athlete, since he manages to secure a spot on the Japanese team every four years. As a news topic he epitomizes the “thrill of victory, agony of defeat” cliche better than anyone. He shouldered the blame for Japan’s failure to win a team medal at Lillehammer in 1994 and then was given credit for the team gold at Nagano in 1998.

Unfortunately, Harada was disqualified almost as soon as he arrived in Turin. Apparently, his body weight was 200 grams lighter than that required for the type of skis he was using. (A guest on NHK commented, “He should have drunk a bottle of water beforehand.”) No participation would normally mean no coverage, but NHK decided to devote 10 minutes to Harada’s career and his disappointment at not being able to compete, which was blamed on his not competing regularly in world ski jump events and thus not keeping up with rule changes. Such is the downside of being an athlete who only seems to appear every four years.

Though more than a hundred Japanese athletes went to Turin, the coverage focused exclusively on a handful of celebrity medal hopefuls, and since all but figure skater Shizuka Arakawa failed to win medals (a figure-skating gold), the coverage couldn’t help but come off as depressing.

It also reflected what was wrong with the Japanese Winter Olympic strategy, or, more to the point, lack of strategy. As even the most idealistic Olympic booster will admit, the chance to win a medal is directly proportional to the amount of money spent on a particular athlete or event. Japan pinned its hopes on its speed skaters because it has won a few speed skating medals in the past, but there is no environment in Japan to foster speed skaters. According to an official interviewed by the Asahi Shimbun, there isn’t even a facility in Japan where speed skaters can practice “all year round”; which makes you wonder what’s happening with the speed-skating arena that was built for the Nagano Olympics.

Yuya Oikawa, whose fourth-place finish in the 500-meter speed-skating event was one of the few bright spots, received little coverage beforehand because no one expected anything of him. His story is exactly the kind of thing sports fans love about the Olympics. After college, he couldn’t find a job with a company with a speed-skating team so he formed one himself at the firm that eventually hired him and became its sole member. His triumph came without the benefit of a coach.

But even after he became a hero he didn’t receive as much coverage as fellow speed skaters Joji Kato and Tomomi Okazaki, simply because the media (not to mention corporate sponsors) had already invested time and money in them. Okazaki also came in fourth, which was quite an achievement, but she had to apologize because it wasn’t high enough for a medal.

Expectations were also high for the snowboard halfpipe event since Japanese men and women did well at last year’s World Cup. What people failed to consider is the fact that the Americans usually don’t participate in the World Cup since they’re busy making money on the pro circuit. They won easily, although the Japanese snowboarders choked anyway.

Such expectations were created by the media. Much was made of the Japan Olympic Committee’s stated “goal” of winning five medals, which was reported as if it were a number the JOC had arrived at scientifically. But that’s the number the JOC hoped for, and not necessarily what they expected. Foreign media painted a more realistic picture of Japan’s prospects. Sports Illustrated predicted Japan would only take home two and AP correctly guessed one, for Arakawa. Of course, the media’s heightened expectations were partly a reflex to their more cautious expectations at the 2004 Athens Olympics, where Japan brought home more medals than the JOC predicted.

Another factor in the downbeat coverage is the inflated expectations that broadcasters had for viewing figures. NBC, the network broadcasting the Games in the United States, saw much lower ratings than it thought it would get. Pundits explained that NBC stuck mainly to taped coverage of events that Americans won, but apparently viewers would have rather watched live coverage of other events. In Japan, NHK did a better job of spreading its coverage around, but with all the other media focusing exclusively on famous Japanese medal hopefuls it was difficult to generate interest in other country’s athletes. In addition, the disproportionate emphasis on Japan’s celebrity Olympic veterans somehow gave the impression that the Japanese have a special talent for ski jumping and speed skating, but, relatively speaking, victories in those events have always been few and far between.

The media also realized that Japan is no longer the Asian country that can hold its own against the West in the Winter Games. The South Koreans have become a powerful force in speed skating and China won medals in a number of events. There are probably some great stories behind these wins, but for reasons that aren’t difficult to guess, South Korean and Chinese successes were all but missing from the Japanese coverage.