Ellen DeGeneres

Olympic TV: the time is now


Based in Los Angeles, KIIS-FM — OMG, Ryan Seacrest, he hosts the talent show American Idol, too! — is a pop culture powerhouse that unabashedly plays a loop of hit songs its teenage listeners want to hear, over and again. This summer, as I know well, what with three teens in the house (disclaimer: the oldest turned 20 in April), one of those songs is Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda.” If you are not in the know, let us just say that “Anaconda” is salacious. My 15-year-old daughter, who is a straight-A student and gives her parents zero problems, knows all the words. These include rhymes and riffs that veer from Eiffel to Nyquil to others that are for sure not printable in a family newspaper. The video, with Minaj and a posse of backup dancers twerking and then twerking some more, makes the whole thing all too clear.

When I was 15, Karen Carpenter was making big hits.

Times change.

OBS  chief executive Yiannis Exarchos

Which leads — yes, it does — to the prospect of an Olympic TV channel. To quote Karen Carpenter, we’ve only just begun. You don’t think so? Rewind to the Sochi 2014 opening ceremony. There was the Russian Police Choir covering Daft Punk’s dance floor anthem, “Get Lucky.”

The International Olympic Commitee — indeed, the entire Olympic movement — is trying to figure out how to reach the emerging demographic that is teenagers and 20-somethings.

There are two universal languages spoken around the world.

One is music.

The other is sports.

To be candid, the notion of an Olympic TV channel is an idea that should have come to fruition already.

Like many things in our world, however, this is one of those that is a matter of timing.

Five years ago, the idea of such a channel was floated by Comcast and the U.S. Olympic Committee but then abandoned weeks later when the IOC and NBC demurred.

That was then.

Now, Comcast has acquired NBC, and Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts — who, it should be said, was supportive of the 2009 concept — recently played a key role in the $7.65 billion deal that gives NBC the U.S. rights to the Olympics through 2032.

Now, Thomas Bach is the IOC president instead of Jacques Rogge, and Bach has signaled unequivocally that the idea of an Olympic channel is a priority. Indeed, of all the working groups in his “Agenda 2020” review and potential reform plan, the channel is the one working group that Bach himself is chairing.

The Agenda 2020 process is working toward an all-members session in Monaco in December. There, the channel — along with other items on the agenda — will come up for review.

It’s not a foregone conclusion that the members will approve the channel. Nothing in the IOC is ever such a thing.

But if ever the timing is right — it’s right, right now.

“You mention the example from five years ago and the example from the United States,” said Yiannis Exarchos, the chief executive officer of Olympic Broadcasting Services. “In the last five years, we have seen changes from a century.

“We have seen changes and movements that are really seismic,” he said, adding a moment later, “Everybody in the movement started realizing the importance of coming together under a powerful brand. It adds value to all the efforts, which has a proven record of providing a robust platform for the partners to grow.”

Timo Lumme, the managing director of IOC TV and marketing services, added, “An Olympic channel is not going to solve everything at a stroke. But what it does is put a marker down and put a destination down for what we stand for.

“It’s not just the notion of the Olympic Games — but the values and everything we stand for. And hopefully we can get in there and stretch the Olympic brand beyond the two weeks beyond the huge spike of the Games, and leverage that spike.”

This is it, exactly.

Since early indications are the channel is not about rights fees, there isn’t likely to be a problem with NBC, the BBC, CBC, CCTV or others.

Also, it is going to be— by design — a global entity. NBC, just to pick one, serves the terrestrial interests of U.S. viewers, and is in business to make money. The point of the channel is very different. It’s to enhance the Olympic brand — to make it a 365-day-a-year proposition.

If done right, the channel not only could but should boost the quality and level of corporate partnerships, potentially meaning revenue over the longer term.

But that is not the outset goal.

What is, is telling the Olympic story, Exarchos said: the thousands of hours of sporting excellence already on file in the archives along with promoting the values of friendship, excellence and respect; adopting healthier lifestyles; organizing community events in a sustainable way; social inclusiveness; and more.

“Obviously, we do not believe television should be didactic,” he said, adding, “It should be exciting, moving and engaging.”

He said planners see sports as the “core,” as the “human stories,” ones with “moral paradigms that carry emotions and so on,” adding, It’s a more fuller world we see [with] sports as the moving heart of it, the core of it.”

He also said that while there should be “reference to the big stars and the big stories in the Olympics,” as with “everything in broadcasting … you have to make things locally.” He said, “I strongly believe in the incorporation of locally produced programming so that it can become far more relevant.” While this is “complex,” he said, this factor “will be the key to its success.”

Assuming the members give the go-ahead in December, the channel is likely to get up and running as early as 2015.

Back to Nicki Minaj, and for this reason. At the end of “Anaconda,” she sings about other women she meets in clubs. She is dismissive — I am being gentle here — about these other women.

For those of you who might take offense to Minaj and her lyrics — I direct you to Led Zeppelin and “Whole Lotta Love,” which essentially covers some of the same ground, only 44 years prior. Now that song is considered “classic rock.”

But I digress.

What Minaj creates in her song is a world that teenagers want to be part of. She’s so cool that she shows up on TV with Ellen DeGeneres — host of this year’s Academy Awards, hello selfie shot, which was apparently good enough for the IOC at the Youth Games in Nanjing — and DeGeneres makes a parody video that reduces Minaj to hilarious laughter.

Teens aren’t old enough to go to clubs, at least — in many countries — not legally. But they yearn to be part of something bigger, something so intrinsically awesome that they say, I’m in.

This is what the Olympic Games are about.

This is where the Olympic channel comes in.

Because aside from the two weeks every two (or four) years, the movement is very good at ceding the spotlight to the likes of Nicki Minaj.

And while she has something to say, the movement does, too.

To be obvious, it needs somewhere to say it.

“We have an opportunity right now to build something,” Lumme said, Exarchos adding, referring to the prospect of an Olympic channel, “In today’s day, it would be hard to do it in any way other than this.”


Selfies and the Youth Olympic Games future


In American teen parlance, the word “tryhard” is a noun. It means when someone tries hard to appear a certain way but all that effort does is make that someone all the more contrived. Here is how to use “tryhard”: when the president of the International Olympic Committee posed with a group of young athletes for a staged selfie shot in the opening ceremony of the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, over the weekend, the IOC was being such a tryhard.

The disconnect this moment illustrates is so profound that, in a way, it’s almost a good thing that it happened.

Young athletes taking a selfie with IOC president Thomas Bach at the Youth Olympic Games opening ceremony // photo Getty Images

Because, if the Youth Games really are going to stick around, and that is a serious question for debate, this can be the moment everyone can look at and go, OK, let’s see if we can go forward from here and find something actually authentic that might actually speak to young people instead of trying to manufacture something.

To start from the very top:

There is no question the Olympic movement needs to reach out to young people, especially teens. Everyone in a position of authority within the movement agrees about that.

The issue is whether the Youth Olympic Games is the means and method by which to do so.

It is by no means a sure thing that the Youth Games is a viable concept.

I wrote as much in 2007 when, at its all-members assembly in Guatemala, the IOC authorized the idea in the first instance.

I was in Singapore, a mentor for the inaugural Young Reporters program, for the first edition of the Youth Games, and though the organization of those Games was by every important measure a success, the fundamental problems confronting the Youth Olympic Games then are still the same challenges now, and they are going to be the same going forward.

One, the sports calendar is already completely overloaded. This year, just as it was in 2010 and just as it will be in 2018, we have already had the Winter Olympics and Paralympics; the soccer World Cup; and the Commonwealth Games. Now YOG?

At some point, fatigue sets in. People are, like, what, another multi-sport event?

Beyond which, it’s August. Around the world, soccer — and, in the United States, football — season is starting up again. That’s what most people will tend to care about now for the next several months.

Two, is YOG a kumbaya session in which teens ages 14 to 18 are immersed in “the themes of culture, education and friendship,” or a mini-Olympics? The IOC is trying to have it both ways, stressing the former in its official release but, of course, awarding medals. This is a muddle, and muddles are never good.

Three, while the IOC under the new president, Thomas Bach, is stressing sustainability and legacy, the opening ceremony in Nanjing was thoroughly over-the-top, as absolutely — after the display in Beijing in 2008 — could have been expected from our Chinese friends. If you are Buenos Aires, site of the 2018 Youth Olympics, what are you thinking after watching that ceremony? How do we top that? Should we even try?

Four, and the biggest problem, YOG simply doesn’t do what it is supposed to do. The idea is to connect with teens. How, exactly? Big picture: the Olympic scene is a made-for-TV spectacle. YOG is the classic “if a tree falls in the forest, does anybody know about it” deal because hardly anyone sees it on TV, especially not teen-agers.

How would they? YOG’s broadcast reach is hugely limited, especially in major markets. Beyond which, why would teens watch? Who are the personalities? Their back stories?

The IOC wants to believe this is all going to be a social media-driven event.

Gently: we are years away from that.

Maybe we will get there someday. But not now. I remain a huge supporter of the Young Reporter program. As of Monday evening, its Facebook posts were generally reaching 200 to 500 people.

Which brings the circle back around to the on-stage selfie in the opening ceremony.

“Dear young athletes, these are your Games. This is your moment,” Bach said. “So, young athletes, please join me: let us all capture it — so get your smartphones out and let’s set a record for selfies.”

At that, he was joined by five young athletes for his own “YOG selfie,” the IOC reported.

The whole thing evoked the Ellen DeGeneres moment at the Oscars earlier this year.

If one of the young athletes had suggested the selfie, instead of the president, perhaps the moment might have seemed less manufactured.

But, ask yourself — is this something a 15-year-old would do?

Or something that more likely came out of a middle-management brainstorming session? Run by, you know, adults?

I live with three teenagers. Well, technically, two. The older daughter is 20. The boy is 17. The younger daughter is 15, headed toward her sophomore year in high school. Because she has an older sister who is going to be a junior in college, the younger one knows a lot of stuff.

Essentially, the 15-year-old is the IOC YOG target audience.

She lives on her phone, “talking” incessantly with her friends and her sister on Snapchat. They are on Facebook and on Instagram. Twitter, not so much.

Teenagers do not take selfies with, as they describe them, “old people.”

Who is an “old person”? Me, for one.

As the 15-year-old said, “How old is old? When they have visible wrinkles.”

Has the IOC yet figured out that, especially in this context, teenage girls are the knowers of all things? Or at least all relevant things?

Suddenly, she and all her friends are busy — like seemingly everyone in the United States on social media — taking the ALS ice-bucket challenge. She did so Sunday and immediately — to stress, immediately — put video of it up on Facebook, cautioning me that I was not allowed to “like” it until she got a certain number of likes from her friends first because that would not be cool. As for the Youth Games? A world away. Whatever.

Has the IOC, you know, convened focus groups of teen girls to figure out the Youth Games?

The 15-year-old asked, reasonably enough, “Why is there a Youth and a Junior Olympics?” A lot of her friends are geeked up about the possibility of taking part in the JO’s. YOG? What?

Also, the word “Youth.” That, she said, “sounds like it should be for 8-year-olds,” and she is right, because “youth” is not a word that, especially in American English, people use in everyday speech. It just isn’t. It’s stilted.

This is the overarching problem with the Youth Olympic Games. There are so many disconnects on so many levels.

Bach’s “Olympic Agenda 2020” review and potential reform process, headed toward an all-members session in Monaco in December, is supposed to be heavy on what to do about engaging tomorrow’s audience.

The IOC needs to give serious deliberation to the notion about whether hundreds of millions of dollars for a Youth Olympic Games, Summer and Winter, is legitimately the way to go. For a fraction of that money, Michael Phelps, who was a 2010 YOG ambassador, and Chad le Clos, who is a 2014 ambassador, can make a lot of appearances, and reach a lot of teens.

You can make the argument that the modern Olympic Games, launched in Athens in 1896, took a few cycles to gain sound footing.

You can counter, however, that back then the Games had the luxury of time. The world we live in now doesn’t have that luxury. Things are too expensive and move too fast.

Today’s teens have far too many choices. Why should they not only check out but stay tuned in to a Youth Olympic Games? The IOC has to give them not only reason but exciting reason. What is that going to be? Without that, can the IOC articulate good reason for the Youth Games to keep on keeping on?


Wrestling: now, the spotlight

Russia massed troops and armored vehicles Thursday in at least three regions along Ukraine’s eastern border, the New York Times reported. In Washington, the Obama Administration deferred a request from Ukraine’s interim government for arms and ammunition, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Here in Los Angeles, the Ukrainian and Russian men’s freestyle teams are poised to wrestle this weekend as part of the year’s biggest tournament, the 10-team World Cup. Sports diplomacy, such as it was, was left to dinner late Thursday. At a pre-meet news conference at a hotel near Los Angeles international airport, the Ukrainians weren't on hand, leaving it to the Russian coach, Christakis Alexandridris, to hit the right notes. He said, speaking through a translator, “We live in a world where we can not do about politics, nothing. From our side, all the country, our politics is wrestling. That is the main goal — to be here.”

eam leaders Christakis Alexandridis of Russia (right) and Eduard Nosadchyy of Ukraine shares smiles over dinner in the Team Dining Room, prior to the 2014 FILA Men’s Freestyle World Cup of Wrestling. // photo courtesy USA Wrestling

For a sport that a year ago was literally struggling just to stay relevant, Olympic wrestling — yes, wrestling — is all of a sudden one of the most captivating, dynamic, provocative things going.

This weekend’s World Cup — at the newly renovated Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, where the Lakers used to play, you know, when they would win — is action-packed with storylines.

The annual dual-meet competition has returned to the United States for the first time in 11 years.

Last year, the meet was held in Teheran. The Iranians won. Just to set the scene — the Iranians have been first or second in the last five World Cups, seven of the last eight.

In Teheran, the Russians came in second, the Americans third.

The Ukrainians were not there. They qualified for the LA World Cup by finishing in the top 10 — fourth — at the 2013 world championships, held in Budapest. Ukraine is back at the World Cup for the first time since 2011.

Russians tend to be very big on wrestling, and if the promoters were smart, they would have made sure that in particular the Russian-speciality stores around Fairfax and Melrose avenues in LA were big boosters of this event. No less an authority than actor Billy Baldwin,  the honorary chair of the weekend event who will be working the TV booth for Universal Sports, declared at the news conference that “half a million” people with some connection to Russia call Southern California home.

Another current: relations between Russia and the United States. Note that while President Obama and the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, bet some beers on the outcome of the men’s and women’s hockey games at the Sochi Olympics, Mr. Obama and Vladimir Putin — not so much.

Alexandridris, again: “Our federation, our team have the best friends on the American team. They are our partners. Every political change in Russia, they have always been our friends. And we are their friends. This will carry on in the future.”

Putin, of course, played a vital role in ensuring wrestling stayed on the Olympic program, the International Olympic Committee reinstating it last September through an all-members vote.

“We are here to make sure wrestling stays in the Olympic family,” Alexandridris said, adding a moment later, “That is what we have to strive [for] — all the teams here.”

The Turkish coach, Adem Bereket? A Sydney 2000 Games bronze medalist, he spoke not Turkish but Russian at the news conference, saying he brought a young team, acknowledging that in Pool A, “Our group is very strong. We have America, Iran. We try our best.”

Were it not for the escalation of tensions between Ukraine and Russia, certainly much more attention would be paid to the matchup — Saturday evening — between Iran and the United States, again in pool play.

More background:

The 2013 World Cup in Teheran took place just after the initial IOC executive board decision to yank wrestling off the Olympic program.

Jordan Burroughs, the U.S. middleweight gold medalist at the 2012 London Games, said Thursday he had originally been scared to go to Iran. He also allowed as he had watched the movie “Argo,” about the covert operation to rescue six U.S. diplomats from Teheran amid the 1979 hostage crisis, which exacerbated his concern.

Just to make things all the more interesting — in London, Burroughs had to defeat Iran’s Sadegh Saeed Goudarzi for the gold.

As it turned out, Burroughs said, the scene in Teheran was “awesome,” the Iranian fans “great,” treating him “better than I had ever been treated in my entire life.”

Last May, as part of the Olympic reinstatement campaign, the Iranians wrestled in New York. Then they were supposed to fly directly to LA for more wrestling. Didn’t happen. They flew right back to Iran, never really explaining why.

Asked what happened, the Iranian coach, Ali Reza Rezaie, an Athens 2004 Games silver medalist, didn’t really explain why — again.

Through a translator, he said initially, “The conditions were not prepared to bring the Iranian team at that time to Los Angeles. The goal was to come to New York. After competing in New York, [we] decided to go back to Iran for some conditions.”

The follow-up question — what about now? He didn’t answer directly, saying, “There is not any specific reason. But since we came to New York, we decided not to come to LA.”

A third try: “There is not any particular problem to come to LA. Right now, here, we are here for World Cup. LA is hosting. So we are here to compete for World Cup.”

Did anybody expect anything different?

Making the Iranian pull-out last year all the more mysterious is that there absolutely, positively are hundreds of thousands who claim Iranian descent in Southern California. Indeed, Iranian fans were waiting to welcome the team — the wrestling team! — upon arrival at LAX.

Understand — in Iran, wrestlers are the soccer team in Spain, or NBA or NFL stars here in the United States.

“We really enjoy coming to the United States,” Rezaie said, adding a moment later, “We really feel at home. We don’t have any problem coming here.”

Which is why, for the United States — again, third last year in Teheran — winning the 2014 World Cup is a priority.

“This is a bullseye for us,” the U.S. coach, 1991 world champ and Barcelona 1992 silver medalist Zeke Jones said. “We want to win this competition. Make no mistake.”

And for lots of reasons:

— To grow wrestling in the West, and especially in California. Contrary to the widespread American imagination, which might fix wrestling as something done in places such as Iowa, Michigan or Pennsylvania, California is USA Wrestling’s biggest membership state, Jones said.

“If we can have just one kid be inspired,” by the likes of Burroughs or Tervel Dlagnev, the U.S. super-heavyweight, or "even by an Iranian or a Russian wrestler, it inspires them to say, ‘I want to be an Olympic champion,’ and in California, that’s a place we can do that. We have had a tremendous legacy and tradition. Stephen Abas. Dave Schultz. Mark Schultz. I mean, the list goes on and on of our great wrestlers in California.”

— To promote wrestling itself. Even though the sport saved itself last year — that was so last year. Everyone involved understands wrestling has to keep proving that wrestling is, indeed, vital.

That’s why, for instance, Burroughs appeared Wednesday night on Arsenio Hall’s talk show. It’s why, too, he had this to say Thursday:

“We definitely need to kind of portray our sport as the great sport that it is. You watch ESPN and you see poker on ESPN more often than you see wrestling. I think — I don’t think people aren’t interested in wrestling. Wrestling’s a very interesting sport. It’s a great sport. It’s extremely exciting to watch. You just have to give it to the people where they have viewership, they can see it, they can be interested in it, follow it, do a lot of different aspects of social media, be on the internet, television and all those different kind of outlets.”

Wrestling could not ask for a better spokesman than Jordan Burroughs. The man is exceptionally thoughtful and well-spoken. He also had this observation when asked what the sport needs:

“It’s going to cost a lot of money, probably, but I would put us on on TV. I would take our best athletes and just put them on a large media [platform] — 'Mike & Mike' in the morning, ESPN, 'Pardon the Interruption,' all these different shows, the Ellen DeGeneres Show, Oprah Winfrey, whatever it is. A lot of different stuff. Because wrestlers are interesting personalties and are very appealing to general audiences.

“You know when you see a football player outside of his helmet, it’s like, those sports are getting recognition. Ask a guy what he did in high school and he probably played football or he wrestled. We’ve got a number of professionals who are successful people. We’ve got a number of connections through people who understand that, who recognize it, who give us the respect that we deserve. We have been asking for it. But it’s like — we don’t have to go out and beg for attention. You know, it’s like a dog. You go to your owner and you beg for food. We don’t want to be like that. We just want to do what we do  — that’s wrestle at a high level. Hopefully the recognition will come our way.”

And when, at an event like this weekend, there’s an overlay of perhaps potentially profound geopolitics?

“This is wrestling,” Jordan Burroughs said.

“Outside of all the politics, this is my occupation. I think the media kind of portrays a number of ideas on the actual event. Outside of everything that’s going on around the actual event, it’s a wrestling match. I’ve been wrestling since I was 5 years old.

“Regardless if I don’t like the guy across from me, regardless if our governments are arguing, we’re going to go out there and do what we’re best at, and that’s wrestle. We try to keep it within the circle. That circle is all that matters. Everything that’s going on outside, the turmoil, problems at home, problems with politics and governments and all that good stuff — it’s out of our reach, out of our grasp. So we just go out there and compete.”