'There has never been a great Olympics' says former editor of Sports Illustrated

The 2016 Summer Games in Rio are here, and as you may have heard, there are a few hiccups. Some of the issues on the ground include air pollution, water contamination, crime, the Zika virus, and inadequate lodgings for athletes, to name just a few concerns.

Some in the media have called this the biggest Olympic disaster yet, saying that Rio is in a worse state at the start of the Olympics than any host city we’ve seen. But Terry McDonell, the former managing editor of Sports Illustrated, points out that the Olympics are almost always a logistical disaster.

“The Olympics, as well-meaning in the great heart of [America] that they are, have always been kind of messy,” he tells Yahoo Finance. “I was never at an Olympics that worked well. Some work okay, some don’t work as well as okay. There has never been a great one—at least not in my experience, from Athens [in 2004] on.”

Beijing 2008 preview issue of Sports Illustrated
Beijing 2008 preview issue of Sports Illustrated

Will all the problems at the Rio Olympics really matter?

He’s not necessarily exaggerating. Before the start of many Olympics, there are major concerns about whether the host city is prepared. It happened with Sochi before the 2014 Winter Games—athletes were posting photos of their makeshift hotel rooms and toilets with no walls; one bobsledder got trapped in a bathroom and had to burst through a cardboard wall to escape—but then the event went off mostly without a hitch.

That’s what Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising, expects to happen again. “Once the Games start and the competition begins, everything else starts to fall away,” he says. “And as long as that remains pure and scandal-free and Zika-free and pollution-free, all the rest becomes less interesting.”

McDonell isn’t so sure. “I can’t think of anything else that can go wrong,” he says. “I just can’t. And then when you layer in the residual corruption that you see back through the years with doping, especially from the Soviets, it stinks.”

There is also scant evidence that hosting an Olympics has any real long-term economic benefit for a city. Sydney lost money in 2000 from hosting, Athens lost money in 2004, Torino lost money in 2006, and London in 2012 broke even. “And there’s a lot of residual bad will” in some of the cities that have hosted, McDonell points out. In Athens, “all of those great buildings that the Greeks built are empty now. The infrastructure improvement was never quite what it was cracked up to be.”

Unlike in years past, McDonell doesn’t have to go to Rio this time; in 2012 he left his post as head of Time Inc’s sports group. He can watch at home on television like so many Americans will; experts say the number of American tourists expected to visit Rio for the Olympics has plummeted because of Zika concerns.

While fewer American foot traffic is expected, NBC Universal and parent company Comcast are hoping for more eyeballs on the network. But they are also offering the Games, through various free streaming options, on more platforms than ever before, in order to reach people on whatever device they can. And the major social networking companies are doing the same: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat have all rolled out new features in time for the Olympics to establish themselves as the go-to place for social content during those 16 games.

New challenges for media outlets covering sports events

McDonell is uniquely qualified to comment on this rush and how it has changed the burdens for print and digital media looking to cover an event like The Olympics. Prior to his time at Time Inc, he had been the (or a) top editor at magazines Men’s Journal, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Outside (which he co-created). And he has a new book out this month, “The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers,” that is part memoir, part glimpse at how drastically the journalism industry has changed. The book is nostalgic, but not sappy.

“We always wanted more speed, and now we have it,” he says. “But I don’t think that the cries about the end of longform journalism are valid. I think people are still going to read long, serious, hard, beautiful, literary pieces… What I really believe is that good content will draw readers.”

There is not necessarily an easy consensus anymore over what qualifies as good content. And during an event like the Olympics, every digital content creator wants to be both first and best, from traditional print magazines like Sports Illustrated to online-only news sites like Yahoo Sports to social networks that also create content, like Snapchat. And in the sports world in general, more and more athletes use their social media to announce news, circumventing the press. “This is all about access,” says McDonell. “Athletes tweet their own news to make sure that it gets out there, but they don’t want the annoyance of having to talk to some reporter who’s going to ask them perhaps an uncomfortable question. But this will never work, in the end. Because the fans want their press to have access to the athletes that they care about in a way where the athlete is believable.”

Although some sports have already begun, the Rio Olympics officially kick off tonight with the opening ceremony, amidst a lot of noise—from media and from fans. They will take place in a very different digital environment from the Olympics that Terry McDonell has seen.

For more with McDonell, watch the above video. “The Accidental Life” is in bookstores this weekend.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. Sportsbook is our recurring sports business video series.

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