The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics have seen plenty of crashes already on both the snow and ice, but the most spectacular wipeout of all may be the games themselves.
U.S. television ratings have been historically bad after four nights of competition, putting NBC on pace for the lowest-rated winter Olympics ever as viewers tune out in droves amid calls to boycott the games over Chinese human-rights abuses and censorship.
Coinciding with the ratings debacle are reports of bad food, crying athletes, poor facilities, and in what may be an Olympic first, a ski ramp located in an industrial park beside cooling towers from a decommissioned steel mill.
“You’ve got, like, squalor,” said Dan Gainor, vice president of Free Speech America at the conservative Media Research Center. “They don’t even have snow. It’s all manufactured. It’s a joke. And a fair number of Americans think we shouldn’t be there.”
So far NBC is drawing less than half the audience that tuned in to watch the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. The opening ceremony Friday averaged 12.8 million viewers on NBC, Peacock and USA Network versus 27.8 million average four years ago, according to an Associated Press analysis.
The pre-opening Feb. 3 audience was eight million, the lowest on record for an Olympics in primetime, while Saturday drew 13.6 million and Sunday saw 13.7 million, both less than half of the viewership from PyeongChang.
By Tuesday, the audience had dropped to 11 million, down from 22.6 million from the corresponding day in 2018, Deadline reported.
NBCUniversal has emphasized the positive, pointing out that the Olympics have consistently bested the primetime competition in total viewers and the 18-49 demographic. Finishing second on Tuesday was the Jeopardy! National College Championships with four million.
Multiple factors have been cited for the lower ratings, including the continued decline of television viewership as younger audiences turn to online platforms. Audiences may be experiencing Olympics fatigue after watching the pandemic-delayed 2021 Tokyo Summer Games just six months ago.
U.S. viewership may have also been depressed by a lack of U.S. stars and gold-medal performances, although that may change with recent victories by figure skater Nathan Chen and snowboarder Chloe Kim.
That said, the viewer-boycott campaigns being staged by conservative and human-rights groups over Chinese aggression and abuses are also being credited with driving down ratings, at least on the right.
“NBC is on track for the lowest-rated #WinterOlympics in the history of television. The ratings are down to less than half of what they were four years ago,” tweeted Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby. “Americans are voting with their eyes.”
Rep. Lance Gooden, Texas Republican, tweeted: “The Beijing Olympics opening ceremony drew record-low ratings. Americans aren’t interested in watching the genocide games.”
A Morning Consult poll released ahead of the games found that 49% of U.S. adults said they planned to watch “not very much” or “none at all” of the winter Olympics, more than the 38% who had the same plan ahead of last year’s summer Olympics.
The main reason given was “not interested in events,” which notched 65%, but 40% also said that they “oppose holding Games in China.”
The blowback has also muted corporate sponsors, who have run fewer ads tying their products to the Olympics in “a big departure from Olympics past, when advertisers crafted ads that embraced the spirit of the Games and honored the culture of the host country,” said Media Confidential.
Also tarnishing the games’ image is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As of Monday, 159 athletes and team officials had tested positive since testing began Jan. 23, with 32 in isolation and 50 discharged, said Brian McCloskey, who chairs the Beijing Games medical expert panel.
China has sought to limit transmissions with strict testing and quarantine protocols, but athletes in isolation losing access to training equipment and proper nutrition has become a major behind-the-games storyline.
Belgium skeleton racer Kim Meylemans became an international symbol of poor Olympic conditions when she posted a video in which she said she was taken to a quarantine facility for seven days and then moved to a hotel with the prospect of remaining for another seven days.
“I am supposed to stay here for another seven days with two PCRs [tests] a day and no contact with anybody else. I am allowed to slide alone. We are not even sure I will ever be allowed to return to the [Olympic] village,” said the tearful athlete.
The International Olympic Committee stepped in and helped return her to the Olympic Village.
Other complaints soon followed. Finnish ice hockey head coach Jukka Jalonen accused China of “not respecting human rights” after keeping standout Marko Anttila in isolation for more than two weeks, according to CNN.
Valeria Vasnetsova, a Russian Olympic Committee biathlete, drew international headlines after she posted a photo from the quarantine hotel of her meal, which showed a Styrofoam tray with meager, unappetizing portions of noodles, charred meat, potatoes and sauce.
“This is what they’ve been feeding me for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the last five days,” she said in a photo caption as translated by the AP, adding that she had “lost a lot of weight and my bones are sticking out.”
The Russian Olympic Committee has since said that she has been provided with better food.
German team chief Dirk Schimmelpfennig blasted the conditions after Olympic three-time Nordic combined skiing champ Eric Frenzel and two other athletes were placed in a quarantine hotel, calling the conditions “unacceptable” and saying the rooms were too small and unhygienic.
Frenzel later told Eurosport that conditions had improved.
Social-media mavens have mocked Big Air Shougang, the giant ski jump next to three cooling towers that bear a strong resemblance to the nuclear reactor in “The Simpsons.”
Others have defended the location, describing it as part of an urban redevelopment project.
9News Melbourne Australia reported that “Beijing’s Big Air Shougang Olympic venue is drawing attention for its much edgier, urban setting,” while the CNN story was headlined, “Is that a nuclear plant?”
The Beijing Winter Olympics kicked off Feb. 4 and conclude Feb. 20.
• The Associated Press contributed to this report.