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Watching the Olympics or sitting on the remote?

Inflation is a feature of Olympic Games. Not just in cost. Sochi’s Organising Committee chairman, Dmitry Chernyshenko, predicts a 17% rise in tv viewing figures to a total of 3.4billion viewers for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

So how does he get to this ridiculous figure? He starts with, of course, the ‘official figure’ from the last Winter Olympics, Vancouver, of ‘around 3billion’, and adds a hypothetical increase of 500million based on the supposition that ‘we are observing a trend of rising TV audience, so we can expect such figures’.

These absurd claims are regularly trotted out for every Olympic Games. Companion of Dishonour Coe claimed 4billion would watch the London Olympics opening ceremony. The Huffington Post demonstrates the inflationary ‘logic’ in its extrapolation of the numbers watching NBC’s primetime broadcast of the London Olympics, which averaged 31.1 million viewers. The HP then rounds this up to a total of ‘more than 219.4 million Americans’. This is seriously misleading as it suggests that more than two thirds of the USA’s population of 314,159,265 watched the London Olympics. Actually what It means is that somewhere in the region of 30 million Americans watched bits of the Olympics over and over again.

Sporting Intelligence points out that the most watched event in history was the Beijing opening ceremony with 984million viewers. Of course, one explanation for this enormous number is that China has an enormous population of around 1.3billion. Subtract the alleged (these figures are not based on the numbers of tvs switched on to a particular programme but speculation about the number in each household who may be watching) 842million Chinese veiwers infatuated with their own event and you are left with a not so impressive 142 odd million from the rest of the world. As very few of those Chinese viewers will bother to watch Sochi’s opening ceremony that 142million may be closer to the mark for Sochi’s opening ceremony.

If Dmitry and Coe are right with their grandiose assertions, then 3.5billion viewers would mean roughly half the world’s population of 7billion will be watching the Sochi Olympics. Given that 2.5billion people don’t even have access to a tv that would mean an audience of almost 80% of those with access to a tv. Even more absurdly it would mean hundreds of millions, billions, would be watching when they should be at work or asleep. It may well be that a few hundred million around the world will watch bits of the Sochi Olympics but even this has to be treated with caution. For the Chinese who watched the Beijing opening ceremony there are two different figures, 593million who watched the whole event and 842million who watched some of it, a difference of some 250million, roughly the population of Indonesia. That, of course, does not tell us anything about the whole or partial viewing activity of the other 142million non-Chinese. Given that the opening and closing ceremonies are the big draws the events themselves will attract much smaller audiences.

Of the few hundreds of millions who may watch the Sochi Olympics a fair number will just have sat on their remotes and switched on the Olympics by mistake.

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