Watching the Olympics on Television
in Latin America

Dara Torres (USA) wins the bronze medal for the 100m freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Olympics

The Olympics are quadrennial sport games in which most of the countries in the world participate.  The games involve tens of thousands of athletes who converge to a host city and compete in a large number of sport disciplines.  Medals are awarded to the top finishers (gold for first place, silver for second place, bronze for third place).  Commercially, the Olympics mean big business because of the large television audiences and sponsorship deals.

A mass spectacle such as the Olympics provides multiple, possibly conflicting, symbolism.  The stated goal of the Olympics is to foster friendship among nations and their peoples.  This is an admirable ideal, but, in practice, the stakes are too huge.  For individuals, an Olympic victory implies a great deal of personal satisfaction, prestige, recognition as well as commercial opportunities.  For countries, Olympic victories can be used for propaganda as a vindication of their political systems, government policies, religious beliefs and social lifestyles.  So we have seen positive stories of individual and group triumphs as well as negative tales of cheating such as fraudulent officiating or using performance-enhancing substances.

Ivan Pedroso (Cuba) wins the long jump gold medal on his sixth and final attempt at the 2000 Sydney Olympics

According to the Los Medios y Mercados de Latinoamérica study, 34% of Latin Americans between the ages of 12 and 64 years said that they watch the Olympics on television when those games are shown.  Obviously, we have to bear in mind that these games only happen once every four years.

Claudia Poll (Costa Rica) wins the bronze medal for the 400m freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Olympics

The following table shows the demographic characteristics of the Olympics watchers.  The viewing incidence is highest in Brazil, which is a major power in many sports (e.g. indoor and beach volleyball), and then Mexico, another major sports power (e.g. marathon running, race/walking).  Actually, the Latin American country with the highest viewing incidence is Costa Rica at 53%.  Now Costa Rica is a small, prosperous Central American country, and does not grab any of the unfavorable headlines (such as human rights violations) like some of its neighbors.  Winning Olympic medals is a way of getting positive global recognition, and is therefore a matter of tremendous national pride.  The Olympic medal-winning swimming sisters, Sylvia and Claudia Poll, are national heroines in Costa Rica.

Across Latin America, the Olympics are watched by slightly more men than women, which is true of most sporting events.  Interestingly, the viewing incidence increases sharply with socio-economic level.  Thus, in spite of the claim to universal appeal, the Olympics are in fact subject to social stratification.  One explanation is that the extensive television coverage, sometimes lasting most of the day across broadcast and cable television channels for a period of several weeks, requires a huge investment in time.  Another explanation is that there are many elitist sports (such as the equestrian events), which can be appreciated if one has learned the arcane rules and regulations as well as familiarized with the sport personalities.

Geodemographic characteristic

% watch the Olympics
     Balance of Central America/Caribbean
     Balance of South America

     Male 12-17
     Male 18-24
     Male 25-34
     Male 35-44
     Male 45-54
     Male 55-64

     Female 12-17
     Female 18-24
     Female 25-34
     Female 35-44
     Female 45-54
     Female 55-64


Socio-economic Level
     Level A (Top 10%)
     Level B (Next 20%)
     Level C (Next 30%)
     Level D (Bottom 40%)


(source:  Los Medios y Mercados de Latinoamérica)

Adriana Fernández (Mexico) leading in early stages of the women's marathon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics

The Olympics include a large number of sports.  These sports differ in their degrees of popularity.  Some of these sports, such as athletics (track and field) are globally popular.  Others are popular only regionally (e.g. table tennis in Asia and Europe, badminton in Asia, taekwondo in east Asia, rowing in Australia, Europe and North America), with some of them being virtually unknown in Latin America.

For some of the Olympic sports, this is the major competition on the calendar.  Every four years, the best of the world in the sport are showcased for the world, and nothing much else is heard about the sport between the Olympics.  Thus, in sports such as swimming, weightlifting, gymnastics and volleyball, the respective world championships for those sports do not enjoy attention worldwide as during the Olympics.

For other sports, the Olympics games is just one of several major competitions.  In the case of tennis, the major tournaments are still considered to be the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open.  Winning an Olympic medal in tennis is undoubtedly an honor, but it is still not considered the equal of winning one of the majors both in terms of prestige and prize money.  Therefore, some of the tennis stars will elect to miss the Olympics (sometimes by developing timely mysterious injuries) and save themselves for the major tournaments.

Finally, for some other sports, the Olympics are not even a significant competition.  For soccer, the major championship is the quadrennial World Cup tournament.  In the Olympics soccer competition, nations can only field their under-23-years-old players with a small number of unrestricted professional players.  This format gives the lesser soccer powers better opportunities to win something of value and does not dilute the central importance of the World Cup.  The same situation exists in the 'amateur' Olympics baseball, which has been dominated by Cuba in the absence of the US Major League Baseball stars.  In the case of basketball, the level of play is much higher within the professional league (NBA) in the United States of America than in any international competition, so the Olympics seemed to represent the joyless coronation of the so-called Dream Team from the USA.

In the following table, we show the incidence of Olympics watching among participants of different types of sports.  We see how viewing is highest among those sports for which the Olympics are the major championships.

Did sports activity in last 12 months % watch the Olympics
Weightlifting 51%
Swimming 51%
Cycling 48%
Gymnastics 47%
Volleyball 44%
Tennis 42%
Soccer 41%
Basketball 38%
Baseball 28%

(source:  Los Medios y Mercados de Latinoamérica)

High jump silver medallist Javier Sotomayor (Cuba) 
at the 2000 Sydney Olympics

100m hurdles winner Anier Garcia (Cuba)
at the 2000 Sydney Olympics 


ECO audience telephone dial-in poll

Many countries believe that hosting the Olympics is a prestigious and profitable matter, though the actual results have been mixed.  While it is true that the Olympics have generated a lot of tourist and sponsorship dollars, the host governments have had to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build the arenas and other facilities.  So the results have not always been profitable at the end.  Mexico was the last Latin American country to host an Olympics.  But the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City were marred by the massacre of hundreds of students in Tlatelolco (see Elena Poniatowska's book  Massacre in Mexico), from which the scars have yet to heal.  A recent television poll conducted just before the commencement of the 2000 Sydney showed that the majority of Mexicans do not believe the case of the Tlatelolco massacre is closed yet.  Here is one quote from Poniatowska's book

There was beauty and a bright glow in the souls of these dead youngsters.  They wanted to make Mexico a land of truth and justice.  They dreamed of a marvelous republic free of poverty and deceit.  They were demanding freedom, bread, and schooling for those who were oppressed and forgotten, and were fighting to do away with the sad expression in the eyes of children, the frustration of teen-agers, the cynicism of older people.  In some of them there were perhaps the seeds of a philosopher, a teacher, an artist, an engineer, a doctor.  But now they are merely physiological processes come to a sudden end inside skins cruelly ripped apart.  Their deaths have wounded each and every one of us and left a horrible scar in the nation's life.

José Alvarado, in an article titled "Lament for the Youngsters Who Died" 
Siempre!, no. 799, October 16, 1968


(posted by Roland Soong on 9/26/00)

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