Beijing Olympics: Will Youth Tune In, Opt Out, or Turn On?

Talk about ‘Good Will Hunting’…

If I were a PR person handling the athlete/activist bounce out of Joey Cheek, I’d be mumbling to myself with my head in my hands about now.

Just as the world was struggling to ‘turn the other cheek’ and embrace the Olympic Oath in the name of global good will, the Chinese embassy tosses outspoken ‘Team Darfur’ activist and 2006 gold speed-skating medalist Joey Cheek out of the country before he even gets in. Ouch.

Frankly, it’s China’s prerogative to yank the yank’s visa any ol’ time, after all, politics, pragmatics, and pomp and circumstance don’t make comfy bedfellows when grandstanding foreign activists and youth protests threaten to disrupt a perception of ‘normalcy’…but for the people of China? It adds to an ongoing nightmare of media gaffes and marketing blunders from toxic toys and air pollution to human rights issues in Tibet and ‘genocide Olympics’ name-calling from starpower protesting Darfur.

Whether you’re a communist country or a democratic nation, factoring in the mindset of the masses and messy cauldrons of disruptive opportunity make for uneasy moments in decision-making…

Who’s to say the U.S. wouldn’t do the same thing under the guise of ‘homeland security?’

So, um, ‘people who live in glass houses’ comes to mind…Still, China can’t seem to get out of its own way on media handling…and here’s my question…

Do youth even CARE?

I asked a dozen 12/13 year old teens/tweens today whether they’d watch the Olympics on 8-8-08, what their favorite events were, and whether any of the China controversies would preclude them from engaging.

Comments ranged from, ‘What controversy?’ to ‘Nah, I might watch some, but I don’t follow it really’ to ‘I only watch TeamUSA bball,’ (guy) to ‘I’ll catch the gymnastics and that’s about it.’ (girl) and the classic comment of the day,

“I know, I’m supposed to be all ‘ACK, dude, your human rights suck! But I totally can’t relate. It’s supposed to be about sports, ya know?”

Such is a teeny snapshot of the American landscape of youth…;-)

In my world, the Olympics are a HUGE tradition; familial, cultural, philosophical; so it escapes me how others can be apathetic when so much symbolism is in play…

I’m a total sap when it comes to those media backstory profiles with tales that tug on the heartstrings about adversity and conviction; and even though I wasn’t a ‘jock’ per se…As a child I found the Olympics to be a much bigger entity than athletic prowess or even ‘one world’-ism…

For me, the Olympics always succeeded in associating personal, poignant dreams of amateurs into uplifting hope, triumph and perseverance …Granted, that was before athlebrities, gazillion dollar endorsement deals, pros entering the scene and kids training not-too-long-out-of-diaper-stage (great WSJ blog post here about athletes uneasily co-existing as amateurs/pros)

Still, the potential for peace via friendships/understandings formed through nations continue to be my personal hope distilled into ‘coulds, shoulds and MUSTS’ for planetary survival…and the Olympics is a symbolic representation of same.

I felt this strongly while representing the U.S. at Women Leaders for the World last year (profile forthcoming on this year’s Carrie Ellett, Nat’l Program Dir. of Girls For A Change!) —Speaking freely about our countries at the WLW summit was raw, real, honest, and insightful as we exchanged challenges and predicaments, setbacks and realities…especially in the dorms, late at night, informally, when we weren’t ‘in session.’

Similarly, Jessica Mendoza, a Team Darfur member and U.S. softball player who signed the open-letter of truce described her 2004 Olympic village experience, talking to athletes from different nations, “…about important issues, things that can’t be talked about outside of the Olympic arena…”

Yep, ‘it’s about much more than sports,’ stereotypes and competitive nationalism…it’s inching toward global understanding.

Per the Ypulse post on youth/Harris Interactive feedback,

” Almost two-thirds (62%) agree that the Olympics help to build a better and more peaceful world, four times the amount who disagree (16%) with this statement”…And…”Teens who say they are interested in the Olympics are even more likely to agree that the Games are about more than merely medals and marketing (71%)”

We can ALL relate to youth dreams dashed by politics and strife, like the IOC Olympic ban on Iraq that fluctuates on and off (latest is Iraqi sprinter Dana Hussein at left WILL be able to run)

So I guess I find it hard to fathom that tweens/teens may not be as jazzed or anticipatory of the Olympics in the same way?

Has it become too complex and nuanced with commercial media and marketing agendas or are kids just distracted by so many other ‘channels’ of media influence out there?

As I wrote in Using Media to Inspire All Ages about swimmers Lia Neal and Dara Torres, it seems like digital platforms would open up access even FURTHER to kids, making personal connections feel very intimate, turning social media Web 2.0 dialogue into hands-on fan factor potential for heroes and inspiration!

Read, Write, Web is exploring this in depth, from the use of online video snippets to marketers deploying branded gaming tactics and sophisticated media tools to ‘go for the gold’ in a different manner.

Alas, my perplexing anecdotal samplings matched (perhaps for the first time?) the findings of the Harris Interactive poll of youth on Summer Olympics 2008…even though my dozen kids were narrowcast to 12 to 13 year olds only, whereas theirs were 8-18.

Here are distilled stats Ypulse reported about today…

– Just under half of 13 -18 year olds in the U.S. express an interest (46%) in the upcoming Olympics

– Only one quarter (27%) say they are extremely or very interested (yougawdabekiddinme!?)

– Older teen boys (ages 16-18) show the greatest interest and represent the only age group where over half of youth are interested in the sporting event

– Teens overall are a larger audience for the Olympics than tweens (ages 8-12) who report only a 28% interest

– Overall, teens say they are most interested in following swimming (40%), gymnastics (38%) and track and field (33%)

– The top three Olympic sports that teen boys are interested in watching or reading about are track and field (35%), swimming (34%), and basketball (34%)

– Gymnastics, on the other hand, holds the attention of teen girls, with over half (56%) most interested in following this sport, followed by swimming (46%), and diving (35%)

– Six in ten (59%) say that they plan to watch Olympics sporting events on TV

– A far smaller number of teens are interested in reading about (22%) or watching (14%) Olympic sporting events online

Sigh. Why IS this so? Do tell, kids…I just don’t ‘get it.’

As for the Joey Cheek story, his experience is an ongoing reminder that the Olympics are indeed NOT all about ‘medals and marketing:’

“I am saddened not to be able to attend the Games. The Olympic Games represent something powerful: that people can come together from around the world and do things that no one thought were possible. However, the denial of my visa is a part of a systemic effort by the Chinese government to coerce and threaten athletes who are speaking out on behalf of the innocent people of Darfur.”

I’m not quite sure why anyone would be too surprised China’s government would revoke his visa…frankly, I’m a bit stunned he got one in the first place.

I’m sure old enough to remember the end of the Cold War in 1989, with poignant recollection of how tough it was for me to get a visa to travel to Russia having the same surname as my former anti-terrorist naval intelligence officer dad!

We all know China’s not wild about dissent in their country, so pulling Cheek’s hallpass was completely within their right, especially since he’s not a competing athlete. (unwise from a timing/public opinion media spotlight standpoint, but still within their right!)

After all, he’s been a thorn in their side for awhile now, after winning the speedskating gold in the Torino Games in 2006, Cheek publicly donated his $25,000 USOC bonus to Darfur and encouraged his sponsors to do the same. He also founded Team Darfur, is responsible for the open-letter of truce signed on by 130+ athletes, and has been vehemently vocal on human rights atrocities…

So I’d add one thing to those Harris Poll stats…They don’t remotely reflect the outpouring of collegiate righteousness and ideals, where youth play a huge role in forming opinions with trickle down reverb…

This three-parter by Suzie from College Candy gives a snapshot of youth in full cause-driven verve…

Will tweens, teens, collegiate youth watch the Olympics? Will you?

What would your own ‘Olympic oath’ be? (fun question for kids!)

How will new media’s ‘Tivo’ effect and social media’s mass reach (Twitter, etc.) impact your viewing? (not to mention results coming in from different time zones in insta-real-time style!)

With SO much inspiration and opportunity for positive play in a very public arena, I can’t imagine NOT tuning in, delving deep, and exploring ways we can use global efforts like this as change-making moments!

Citius. Altius. Fortius.



  1. Maya Sandifor says

    Hi Amy, We’re a new blog set-up to engage youth in this dialogue. Haven’t officially launched but check us out and consider linking to us. Thanks! Maya

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