Several news items during the Olympics have commented on the twin phenomena of less violence than anticipated and the absence of American spectators. Apparently – and it's hard to evaluate this claim without data, as most of it seems to be anecdotal from journalists – fans have attended the games in ordinary or expected numbers from around the world with the conspicuous exception of the United States. The most obvious explanation, discussed in the linked EspnW story above, is the extensive amount of coverage in the American media of Rio violence and the Zika virus.

That makes sense on its face. But it doesn't hold up to much scrutiny.

Stories about the ineptitude of Rio's preparation for the games (shoddy housing, dirty water, etc) were not by any means unique to American media. Since the journalists' housing was among the shoddiest and the earliest occupied, journalists from around the world were all subject to the same conditions with ample time to write listicle-style "Look at this shit!" stories. Second, Rio's reputation for having a poverty-crime problem is hardly a secret. Not only was it written about prior to the games (again, not exclusively by American journalists) but it hardly even needs to be written about. Even in Brazil, where I traveled a bit in 2014 prior to the World Cup, Brazilians I encountered described their country's crime rate as totally overblown – except for Rio. The consensus was that Rio was in fact very dangerous, and not just for tourists. So, its reputation appears pretty well established and merited. Finally, stories about Zika were similarly popular in media outlets American and non-American alike. Tabloid media love a good "outbreak" story irrespective of nationality (Ebola, Avian flu, SARS, etc).

The more likely explanation is that Americans are really bad at traveling abroad in general. No doubt the sensational stories about Rio dissuaded some people who might have considered going, and things like warnings from the CDC and State Department reinforced that. But 64% of Americans do not even have a passport. Few of us have traveled abroad, and a good portion of those who have been to another country have been to places like Canada, Mexican resort towns, and Caribbean cruise-stop islands. Most of us have no paid vacation days. Most of us lack the disposable income for expensive vacations to overpriced Big Events like the Olympics. Most of us do not speak Portuguese and may know that unlike in Europe or even most of Asia, facility with English will be very rare among the population. The percentage of the American population able to go to these Olympics even if they wanted to is small. And if the media dissuaded some of them who were on the fence, it stands to reason that a drop in an already small cohort would be noticeable in the stands.

The scary media narrative isn't outright wrong, but it's deceptive. It suggests a set of conditions that are not in fact unique to the United States but ignores others that are.

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63 thoughts on “STANDOUTS”

  • schmitt trigger says:

    I believe this is also related to the comment of two posts ago, where it was noted how many of the "real America" dwellers have never been outside their counties and vicinity.

  • FWIW, I've noticed through the years that airfares to South American destinations in general, even on sale, are still expensive relative to other continents. In addition, there are the prohibitive event rates at the major hotels and the ticket prices. Throw in the perceptions of crime and Zika and why bother?

    Another factor is that for the price of your monthly cable bill and internet, you can watch any and all events live, up close, and comprehensively. Why pay thousands of dollars to trope around an unfamiliar city seeing only some of them from a distance?

    I'm sure we will see the same in four years in Tokyo.

  • Count me in with people who can't afford to go anywhere right now. I had the good fortune years ago to travel but marriage, a kid and job insecurity over the past 15 years put an end to that.

    Speaking of the Olympics, can we stop with the medal winners doing the stupid "bite" pose with their medals? Photographers need to think of something new.

  • " Most of us lack the disposable income for expensive vacations to overpriced Big Events like the Olympics."

    Well yes, but isn't that true of most countries? Even though the percentage of Americans who can blow a big wad on the Olympics is fairly small, in absolute terms it's still a lot of people, and given recent trends those people probably have more money than they did four years ago.

  • I don't think US sports fan in particular are bad at traveling abroad. Two years ago, in Brazil, the US bought the most tickets for the World Cup outside of local Brazilians. This was also the case for the World Cup held in South Africa in 2010. So there is a precedent for US citizens to travel abroad in large numbers for big sporting events.

  • "Most of us do not speak Portuguese and may know that unlike in Europe or even most of Asia, facility with English will be very rare among the population."

    No problem. When American tourists find themselves among non-English-speakers, they merely yell. If still not understood, they yell louder. This must be effective since it's a common practice.

  • Luckily for me, going to a crime ridden city is about a five hour drive.

    I'm currently sitting in my favorite bar, drinking a $1.50 Labatt's draft, eating free popcorn and watching kickboxing and some sort of weird speed kayaking sort of event–both of which are not interesting to most folks.

    As for getting a passport, I think it costs a couple of hundred bucks, or about 130 brewkis at the current rate of exchange at The Press box in Oswego, NY. I will be taking a drive to Syracuse* on Friday, but will leave there before the demon gangstas take over downtown (right around the end of Happy Hour).

    * Voted most dangerous major city between Albany and Rochester in the I-90 corridor.

  • Is there a more corrupt institution on the face of the earth than the IOC? Is there a more crooked human activity than bidding for the Olympics and subsequently building shoddy Olympic infrastructure that will never be used again? I have nothing but admiration and sympathy for the competitors, but I would rather take a vacation in Syria than spend money to attend the Olympics — or for that matter, watch the fleeting glimpses of the games between the wall-to-wall commercials on TV.

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    There's a small number of Americans who can afford to go to Rio, or even take two weeks off work. But those people can *really* afford it.

  • Skepticalist says:

    Are the Olympics as interesting to Americans as in the past?

    I don't know.

    Johnny Carson's interviews of sports figures made athletes interesting. He let them be part of the conversation and didn't focus just on their success. He made them real and now and fun to follow.

  • Yeah my brother who's living in Albania now and has been to everywhere from Columbia to Cambodia said that Rio was the only place he ever felt unsafe.

    Knowing him, that's saying a lot.

  • I've spent most of my adult life flying around the world for work. I hate flying; I hate the stupid pointless non-moving lines at airports, the being-treated-like-a-terroist before I'm allowed to board, the cramped, smelly airplanes filled with drugged, aggressively rude, and downright deranged fellow flyers, and the fact that my luggage goes missing about as often as it shows up when and where I do. I have no desire to go to any Olympics, where after enduring the flight to get there, you can guarantee the price of everything will be jacked up to stratospheric levels and moving from Point A to Point B becomes inpossible because of the crowds. Any sports I'd care to see are priced out of my budget.

    So much better to just watch what interests me on tv; I get a better view than what I could afford to buy a ticket for and I'm not likely to get mugged or raped in my own living room.

  • Sure, I could afford to go to RIO. But I'd really rather buy a replacement for my 12 year old car. TV suits me fine for sporting events. If I ever hit the lottery (hard to do if you don't buy a ticket) I'd go to some of the major sporting events. Olympics, Super Bowl, NCAA BBall final four NBA finals, that sort of thing. Still, gotta buy a ticket and somehow I don't think I'm ever going to win.

  • Emerson Dameron says:


    American's don't care about general-interest late-night comedy shows, either, as much as they did when Carson was on. That format and the Olympics are both holdovers from the three-network era, in a sense.

    But that seems a little too pat and thinkpiecey as an explanation for this.

  • Man I always mix up Owego and Oswego. Owego's the one I've actually spent time in, driving between the Finger Lakes/Southern Tier and downstate so many times over the years. Been up to Syracuse plenty of times since that's where one of my closest friends is from but never Oswego. This state is so damn big, and it's not even the biggest.

  • I was in Rio in 2001 and it seemed pretty friendly back then, though I didn't venture much past the beaches. Fear of crime was evident, but the same could be said for Amsterdam or San Francisco. There were police everywhere, but they always seemed to be chatting with pretty girls.

  • What's this? A progressive liberal pointing an accusatory finger at the media?

    Is this an affirmation that Churchill et al were right when they said something like, "If You Are Not a Liberal at 25, You Have No Heart. If You Are Not a Conservative at 35 You Have No Brain."

    Ah, tempus fugit.

  • Richard M. Nixon says:

    I'm with Katydid.

    I speak more than one language, have a passport, and would not attend a cluster-bomb like the Olympics if they were being held in, say, Kansas City.

    So many sports and crowd events are better on television. I recently attended a concert by a famous rock star in a large urban venue (dragged by the women in my life). We had box seats just above the stage with all the amenities. I got to see a four-inch action figure with the sound system turned to "11" go on for two hours. Of course, parking was $50, beers were ten bucks and hot dogs eight, but that was the least of my concerns. I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

    I can imagine slogging around Rio to watch the semi-finals in dressage and shudder. If I'm going to spend the money, I'd really rather tour Provence.

  • My first thought was 64% of Americans have no goddamn money. But why should we bother traveling when the media assures us that we live in the best of all countries in this scary scary world?

  • The one sporting event I've been to that _cannot_ be represented on TV is the Indy 500 (and by extension any of the nascar races). I was overwhelmed by the sheer noise and speed of those cars. I needed ear plugs and shooting muffs to get the dBs down to tolerable. And 200 mph is just insanely fast as they go by. Now, going to one of these is sufficient. I believe the saying is "There are two kinds of fools: One has never climbed Mt. Fuji. The other has climbed it more than once."

  • @mago

    Yes, pre-civil war (mid 70s) Beirut was one of the world's more precious jewels, a stunning place to visit from late Winter through early Spring.


    The guns won.
    Humanity lost…

  • Oh jeez, carrstone with the "liberal media" thing again.

    The media's liberal but everybody watches Fox.

    This has been another episode of "conservatives wanting to have it both ways".

  • @ Jen
    That's why I said 'et al.'. The saying is appropriate in this context as is the attribution of the saying to Churchill, arch-conservative that he was. And since when do regressives care about historical accuracy? I mean, look at the re-writing Hillary Clinton's doing!

    @Major Kong
    I can't recall commenting on the liberal media. But, whatever floats your boat; just keep drinking the Soros kool-aid.

  • @RichardNixon; maybe I'm just getting old and cranky, but I just don't enjoy the arena experience anymore. Concerts, sports, amusement parks…you pay to park, pay to get in, fork over obscene amounts of money for lousy food and/or bottled water…and usually don't enjoy the experience because you didn't pony up the mortgage payment to be allowed into the "actually able to see anything" zone.

    I had a heck of a great time a couple of years ago, on vacation in Ireland; I rented a car and just drove around to random places for two weeks. With 20% unemployment there, many people offer their homes as B&Bs (both registered and not). Of course, you have to fly there (my luggage never did catch up with me and is still out circling the globe somewhere, years later…) and have a passport, with all the soul-crushing drama involved in getting and maintaining a passport (you mail them a certified copy of your birth certificate because there's NO WAY that could get "lost" (most likely sold to someone) in the mail, right?

    Summary: why don't most people travel abroad? Assuming they have the passport and the money to do so, they're usually so freakin' exhausted from the hassle of working to make the money that the last thing they want is the hassle and further expense of air travel/lodging/food on top of it.

  • Oooooh Soros scary………

    How is that every conservative can tell me what George Soros had for breakfast that day but have never heard of the Koch brothers, who outspend Soros something like 40-1?

  • The Dark Avenger says:

    Major Kong, Soros bought out reality so that it now has a liberal bias.

    Didn't you get the memo?

  • "Most of us do not speak Portuguese and may know that unlike in Europe or even most of Asia, facility with English will be very rare among the population."

    Err, what? I lived in Brazil for awhile about 20 years ago, and the population was completely obsessed with learning English. Speakers of excellent English were so common and they were all so delighted to have a native speaker to practice with that that I struggled to get enough people to speak Portuguese to me and I never properly learned to conjugate verbs.

    Now, there are some class differences in that, certainly, and you wouldn't expect every single Brazilian to speak English, but pretty much everyone working in shops targeted at tourists, restaurants that aren't tiny local holes-in-the-wall and hotels will speak perfectly good English in Brazil.

  • I still like the idea of a permanent Olympics site at Olympias, Greece, that gets used every four years. Not sure about where to put the Winter Olympics, though. We may be running out of reliable, predictable winter environment.

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    @Major Kong:

    I went to college with two very big fans of the psychedelic pop group Os Mutantes, but they were outliers.

  • Skepticalist: sometimes Carson's sports guests were *too* interesting. Watch Season 7, ep. 269 (1970, Amazon et al stream it): Willie Mays and Bob Hope take Johnny apart, as deftly as if they'd been a comedy team for years — and Mays takes the lead much of the time.

  • @ Jacq

    Point well made.

    I know many a second or even third language speakers [like me] who speak better English than mother-tongue speakers of that much mangled language; a sort of converts being more Catholic than the Pope.

  • Skepticalist says:

    Monte D:

    I hope that particular Carson show is rerun on the rf channel I watch. I'm still catching up on many of them. We were glued to the TV when he was on…so many years ago.

    The only time I saw Willie Mays (other than his ruining the day of so many ballplayers) was a on a rerun of "What's My Line?" on YouTube.

  • I'm guessing most people in Angola speak tribal tongues? (Portuguese serving as a lingua franca?) Throw in Mozambique, then, as well?

  • schmitt trigger says:

    Never been to an Olympics event, but have been twice at Soccer World Cups.

    I would assume that they share a similar trait: there are a few select competitions which everyone wants to see, and the rest is essentially filler material.

    There is no way you can acquire a reasonably located seat at a hot competition unless you go the scalper route. And pay a premium on top of the hefty prices.

    The filler competitions are usually attended by a few citizens of the nations which are competing, and by cheap stragglers like me.

    The nice things about it, is that these second-tier competitions sometimes prove to be far more interesting than the premium ones. And…If the match proves to be disappointing, then one hasn't lost too much.

    OTOH, if you paid north of $1000 to see a competition where the opposing team ends up TOTALLY murdering yours (for instance, if you had been a Brazilian fan and saw Germany massacre it 7-1 at your own turf) then that loss will really hurt.

  • The Dark Avenger says:

    The Azore Islands contain a variety of dialects according to the Wiki. One of my great-great grandmothers came from Macau, which was also a Portuguese posession at one time, although I doubt they speak a dialect of Portuguese there today.

  • In case someone hasn't already pointed it out, in many countries paid vacation is protected by labor law. Therefore even a country like Russia has an industry for package tours that allow even people with modest income to travel to Turkey, Egypt, Montenegro, etc. Turns out when people physically can go abroad, businesses step in to fulfill the demand.

    @carrstone, what exactly is your strategy here? It seems like you carefully select the stupidest things to say and post it with this ridiculous smugness as though you're actually proud of yourself. I mean on some level you must at least suspect that you're a bit slow, right? If anything, nothing is more infantile that the conservative mindset. Hell, it's even implied in the term conservative, which suggests one opposed to change.

  • @Kovpakistan
    Strategy? I don't need a strategy to comment on what I see here or anywhere else.

    Talking about infantile, what could be more infantile than believing we need "Big Government", like Santa, to shower us with goodies? Or adhering to the orthodoxy of democratic values while Detroit and Milwaukee burn? Or 'respecting the pronoun' – what can smack more of schoolyard bullying?

    Not that the right have done such a great job, but why not at least try to put your own house in order?

  • Skepticalist says:

    Just curious. Carrstone:

    Which political party is more responsible for what happened to the economy of Detroit?

    Just about everybody likes the idea of less government. Too many people also have no idea what a Libertarian is. The ones we hear from are "Me Libertarians." Should a fellow traveler support any little thing they don't like…(air traffic control, pro choice, for example) they believe they should be drummed out of the corps.

    The Tea Party and Libertarianism are about as far apart as it gets. Libertarianism is big.

  • @Katydid, I'm with you. The older I get the more I just don't wanna go to crowded events. In fact, for the most part, the travelling itself is more trouble than it's worth. Living in China I feel obligated to travel around China a see "the sights". Went to Xian a few weeks ago – except for the "been there done that" aspect it was really a miserable trip.

    And just finished watching Michael Moore's "Where to invade next". 8 weeks of paid vaca in Italy, and they get 13 months' salary on top. Yeah, no wonder they go places.

  • "It seems like you carefully select the stupidest things to say and post it with this ridiculous smugness as though you're actually proud of yourself. "

    He's a Libertarian. It's what they do. Just go with it.

  • @Skepticalist
    I don't think either party deliberately set out to destroy Detroit. But as it happens, Detroit has been governed by Democrats since 1962 in cahoots with the trade unions -no demagogic 'blame Bush' tactic possible.

    The 'big government' meme, the pc-mentality, the progressive 'fair share' mind-set brought to the city is pure democratic thinking aggravated by an unwillingness to deal with the graft in all sections of its government.

    And guess which party governs the five US metro areas with the biggest financial problems?

    "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

  • @April; I had heard that Xian was a must-see. I'm disappointed on your behalf that it's not. I was in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s (just before it was turned over to China) and thought it was a vibrant, beautiful city…but everyone said I needed to travel through China and see the sights, that there was so much more worth seeing.

    My own travel these days often boils down to the question, "Is this going to be worth the hassle and expense?" Sometimes it's yes, sometimes it's no. Any Olympics would be a "no" for all the reasons listed by all the posters above. China, on the other hand…sounds intriguing. I understand the entire country is a madhouse for the moon festival, but I'd think there would be good times to travel.

  • @carrstone

    The automaker inability to innovate is what destroyed Detroit and surrounding environs. Having lived in Michigan in the late 90s, I can tell you the rise of the SUV was a boon to the carmakers and they gladly made money hand over fist (seriously, the Ford River Rouge plant at one point was making more in profit than the GDP of many small to medium sized countries) but they continually refused to innovate, unlike their foreign counterparts, and when the price of gas went up in the mid-2000s and the popularity of the SUV declined, they crashed and burned.

    The relocation of plants accelerated the demise of the cities in the 70s and 80s, not "big government". Once jobs left the cities, the population of the inner-cities were left without access to meaningful jobs and income sources. Combined with the red-lining of the 50s and 60s meant that the creation of ghettos resulted in jobless poverty, which reduced the social structure of the neighborhood and led to the rash of drug-dealing and violence that accompanies it. William Julius Wilson's "When Work Disappears" showed that the loss of jobs and access to jobs led to the rise of the poverty and breakdown of families, not the other way around. And the current state of Appalachia, in places like PA Coal Country, show that once the jobs leave, the social problems follow, including drugs and crime, etc. Turns out it's not a "urban" (i.e., black) issue, but a lack of job issue, regardless of location the political stripes of the area. Countless rural areas have voted Republican for decades, but no one blames the politicians for the rise of heroin in those communities, do they? It's a lazy generalization to blame it all on single political party.

    Also, NAFTA, etc., may have accelerated the closing of plants, but the economic forces that lead to the loss of manufacturing jobs started way before NAFTA was passed. Companies have always tried to reduce costs, and "globalism" linking the world (the internet, reliability of transportation, etc.) always made those things inevitable. After all, the steel industry in Pittsburgh crashed and burned in 1978, long before NAFTA or WTO was ever passed. The idea of "globalism" isn't exactly new either. Consider that the Silk Road and the exploration of the Western Hemisphere was driven by the desire to find cheaper ways to import spices and silk to Europe rather than pay the traders that made their living transporting those goods from East Asia. Also consider that the potato, tomato, pepper, etc., are all "New World" foods brought to Europe after 1492. Globalism has always existed in some fashion, it's just that every generation thinks they invented the wheel.

  • Detroit is one of my regular trips.

    The other pilot, usually from some place like Texas or Mississippi, is usually surprised that it isn't the post-apocalyptic hellscape they were told to expect.

    I point out that there's plenty of money in Detroit, it's just all in places like Novi and Farmington Hills.

  • @Khaled
    Well, pat my bottom and call me Nellie.

    You are the first ever in this comment column to proffer anything other than insults in reply to anything I have said. That's so refreshing and beats any kool-aid, no matter who supplies it.

    Your contribution does not meld with what I think I know but it's interesting enough for me to research some of your points. And that's great, thank you.

    Could this be start of something big?

  • What did you expect on a liberal blog carrstone?

    "Your well reasoned arguments and witty libertarian quips have totally convinced me! I'm headed downtown to register as a Republican today!"

    Tell ya what.

    Head on over to Breitbart and suggest, just suggest mind you, that maybe Donald Trump isn't the savior of America and see how you get treated.

    I can assure you you're getting the kid-gloves treatment here in comparison.

  • @Katydid If you've seen any films about Xian warriors then really, you've probably seen them better than you can see in person, except, of course, you aren't actually "breathing the same air". But in order to see them there is a one hour bus ride, and about a two mile walk over mostly pavement with no tree cover. And really, that one building is the only thing worth seeing. And the city of Xian itself is UGLY UGLY and dirty even by Chinese standards!

    The thing about China (for this American anyway,) is that we have a fucking beautiful country, and if you've travelled it to any extent then really there is nothing the Chinese call beautiful (lakes, rivers, mountains) that we don't have, have more of, and almost certainly in cleaner and better shape. The thing we don't have, of course, is ancient Chinese streets and ruins, and those are certainly worth seeing. I currently live in the old part of Linhai, and I'll admit that's really cool. And Chinese markets are fun. I think China is worth a visit, but you have to know where to go and what to do.

  • Thanks, April, for the heads-up. The breathtaking age of China's civilization–written records go back to 1500 BC–and the variation of the country–caves, flatland, mountains, rivers, etc. just make it so fascinating. I envy you for getting to live there.

  • Let me help you out here, Carrstone:

    "Talking about infantile, what could be more infantile than believing we need "Big Government", like Santa, to shower us with goodies?"


    "Or adhering to the orthodoxy of democratic values while Detroit and Milwaukee burn?"

    Can't decide if strawman or incoherent red herring. I'll leave it up to the gallery.

    "Or 'respecting the pronoun' – what can smack more of schoolyard bullying?"

    Obviously you've never dealt with schoolyard bullies. Probably because you were hiding in your safe space or something. Nobody's forcing you to respect any pronouns. Feel free to offend people all you want. Just accept the consequences and negative reactions of your argument.

    Again- libertarianism and conservatism are infantile, and you just proved it.

    As for the insults you receive, this is largely because you don't merit any more than that. I mean if someone comes in here whining about chemtrails, after you easily debunk their poorly constructed arguments what should you do if they insist on making the same tired old claims again and again?

  • Nobody commented on the initial statement of the post: That Americans were less present in THIS Olympics. That means theorizing why fewer Americans might travel to Olympics in general (lack of vacation time, money, etc) do not go to the key question. As to that, if it isn't Zika, I have no idea what it could be. But if everyone else around the world went anyway, that suggests Americans are abnormally paranoid over thinks like viruses. This would be the only explanation if news coverage of Zika was in fact similar around the globe.

    Libertarianism: Otherwise known as Darwinism or as close as we can get to Anarchy- which is in the end rule by the largest and most powerful/ best armed. Might makes right! Everyone loves small government until they need roads or protection from Zika and/or armed militia/ gangs or their banks not to rob them blind and social security and and and. The fact that government is not always perfectly done in no way diminishes the fact that the small and weak need as much government as they can get, and the average also benefit tremendously.

  • Retired from a union job. Okay pension, keeps us in the middle class. Lots of places we'd like to visit, almost none of them within the United States. However, medical insurance premiums and co-pays that eat up 35% of my fucking pension kind of get in the way. (I'm about a year short of Medicare.) Certainly, citizens of other industrialized democracies can afford to, and do, travel, making them a cosmopolitan and sophisticated bunch. Most of them, however, aren't having money scooped out of their paychecks and pensions with an eight-ton loader each month to pay for medical necessities. Wonder why that is.

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