A Streaming Guide to Missing the Summer Olympics

Tokyo 2020 has been pushed back to 2021, but if you're looking to fill that void of athleticism and pageantry, fear not!
  • COVID may have derailed this Summer's games, but there's plenty of Olympics-themed content available online to fill the next two weeks and beyond.
    COVID may have derailed this Summer's games, but there's plenty of Olympics-themed content available online to fill the next two weeks and beyond.

    The 2020 Summer Olympics were supposed to kick off this weekend in Tokyo, with the opening ceremonies marking the beginning of two weeks of international competition and a universal excuse to obsess over sports you absolutely haven't cared about for the last three years and 50 weeks of your life. But the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything, and the International Olympic Committee made the decision to postpone the Tokyo games until 2021. Nevertheless, you may still be feeling an emotional void somewhere deep inside, as your subconscious realizes, like anticipating an alarm-clock buzzer that was never set, that you're supposed to be watching the Olympics now.

    So what's to be done? As you're no doubt aware by now, baseball is back, finally giving long-starved sports fans a reason to get up in the morning, and basketball, too, is set to return on July 30th. But we all know regular sports are NOT the Olympics. Regular sports do not feature the same kind of quick-burning intensity of interest, the ability to zip your attention span from swimming to gymnastics to beach volleyball in a single evening, or the inexplicable rooting interests you develop as you, say, fervently cheer on the Japanese team over the hated Romanians.

    We're left with nothing but imperfect solutions, it's true. BUT if you're willing to do a bit of digging, you can definitely curate an experience that can dull the pangs of Olympics withdrawal.

    Phase 1: Get in the Mood

    There is a very specific mood that the Olympics get you into, and it's important to enter that emotional space before attempting any kind of Olympics binge. It's a combination of bombast, cheese, and extreme earnestness, and it's absolutely essential. The last 30 years or so have featured the Summer Olympics commissioning pop singers to record Olympic anthems in the run-up to the games. You might remember Katy Perry's "Rise" from the 2016 Olympics in Rio, a highly dramatic offering that paired perfectly with a flawless Simone Biles dismount. Gloria Estefan contributed a more adult-contemporary anthem with the Diane Warren-penned "Reach" for the 1996 Atlanta games. But of course, all Olympic anthems are judged against the all-time standard bearer, Whitney Houston's "One Moment in Time," a soaring ballad that crystalized the greats of the 1988 Seoul Olympics like Greg Louganis, Florence Griffith-Joyner, and that dogpiling USA baseball team.

    Phase 2: The Opening Ceremonies

    Now that you've gotten properly primed for the operatic glory of international competition, it's time to sit down to the Games themselves. But it would be foolish to dive right into the athletic competition itself. There is a necessary pageantry to the Olympics that the opening ceremonies bring, an artistry that you might call pretentious if you're not in the right mood for it. As the opening ceremonies have become more and more over-the-top, there's a natural resistance to them at first, especially with the host countries trying so hard to present their own brand of nationalism as something noble. But there's an earnest artistry to the best of these that will end up wearing you down. So the recommendation is to queue up one of the recent Olympics opening ceremonies and watch it. All of it. Do what you do when it's the real Olympics: turn on the opening ceremonies and let it just be on TV. Leave it running while you make dinner or fold laundry. By the time it gets to the parade of nations, you're in it for the long haul, but you should let it unfold in full: all these athletes from all over the world, all coming together for this one shared experience. Cheer on the tiny nations with five athletes. Be momentarily rapt with the stories of the national flag-bearers. Rank the nations with the best outfits. The two best opening ceremonies in recent memory were Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, and both are available to watch in their entireties on YouTube. Both offer breathtaking artistry and will absolutely kick off your Olympics binge right.

    Phase 3: The Highlights

    While there's no getting around the fact that we're not getting any new Olympic competitions this summer, you can still settle warmly into some of the great Olympics moments of old. The NBC Sports YouTube channel is a fantastic resource for old Olympic moments, some of which are presented as highlight reels, while others are presented in full. Pro tip: do a search on the channel for "Olympic Games Week" and take your pick of standout moments like Gabby Douglass or the 1996 women's gymnastic team, swimmer Missy Franklin's gold medal run at the 2012 games, or sprinter Gail Devers' triumphs at the '92 and '96 games.

    Similarly, the official Olympics YouTube channel has a playlist called Full Replays that offers entire Olympic events and matches, including everything from cycling to table tennis to games from the 1992 Dream Team basketball run.

    Phase 4: The Time Capsules

    Documentarian Bud Greenspan has been chronicling the Olympic games for over 50 years. His 16 Days of Glory about the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles kicked off a tradition of chronicling the Olympic games in all their athleticism and splendor that would last until his death in 2010. If you have HBO Max, Bud Greenspan's Olympics docs are available for streaming, chronicling the summer games of Los Angeles in 1984, Atlanta in 1996, Sydney in 2000, and Athens in 2004, plus a bunch of Winter Olympics as well. These docs are a marvelous way to sink into the Olympics and either learn about or re-experience classic moments.

    Phase 5: The Movies

    For whatever reason, there are WAY more good movies about the Winter Olympics than there are about the Summer Olympics. Even fewer if you're not in the mood to re-visit the terrorist attacks at the 1972 games in Munich. Still, there is Race, the 2016 film starring Homecoming's Stephan James as Jesse Owens during his defiant triumph at the 1936 games in Hitler's Berlin. And if you're specifically missing the Tokyo-ness of this year's lost games, also on HBO Max is Tokyo Olympiad, a nearly three-hour documentary from 1965 that chronicles the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Directed by Kon Ichikawa, the film is a classic of documentary filmmaking and regularly shows up on must-see movie lists.

    Phase 6: Weirder Options

    By this point you may have sated your Olympic hunger pangs. But if you have an itch that old Olympics footage can't scratch, you could always veer wildly off the path and see if that takes you where you want to go. You might, for example, find old episodes of Hanna-Barbara's Laff-a-Lympics cartoon, where the stars of classic cartoons like Yogi Bear and Scooby Doo compete in Battle of the Network Stars-style team events around the globe. But if you're really looking for something surprisingly that really gets you to that Olympics place of developing fervent rooting interests for a brief span of time over a sport you know practically nothing about, might I suggest the Marble-lympics? It's exactly what it sounds like: a multi-event competition of various permutations of marble races, run on elaborate Lego-type courses by teams of same-colored marbles, each with names and narratives and ongoing standings and, ultimately, a gold-medal winner. Created by Dutch marble enthusiast Jelle Baker, these marble races have been a going concern on YouTube since 2016, and the accumulated thrill of watching enough marble races to have favorite (and least favorite) squads is both baffling and yet... thrilling. You would be shocked at how easy it is to get invested in the fortunes of these zippy little marbles. And the best part is that we're in the midst of the 2020 Marble League right now, so if you head on over to the Jelle's Marble Runs YouTube page, you can click through dozens of videos and familiarize yourselves with the phenomenon.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Summer Olympics, HBO Max, NBC, YouTube