The Winter Olympics got underway Thursday morning in Sochi, 34 hours before the start of the Opening Ceremony. Why do the games begin before the Games begin?
Twelve medal events have been added to the program since the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The introduction of those events leads to a busier schedule and the necessity to spread things out so athletes can rest and courses can be clear for other disciplines. This is most important in figure skating, which added a team event that has short and free programs for men, women, pairs and ice dancers. (Slopestyle and moguls qualifications also happened on Thursday.)
Even so, there are five off days on the skating schedule during the two weeks of the Olympics. Had organizers truly needed to squeeze every skating event into the 17 days the Olympic flame will be burning over Sochi, they could have.
Television rules all. Adding another day of Olympic competition means adding another day of Olympic telecasts. Thursday is traditionally one of the biggest television nights (along with Sunday). With all the money being paid to cover the Games by networks across the world, turning 17 days of Olympic coverage into 18 days is a nice bonus.
Also, in order to compress the figure skating schedule, the women's free skate, which takes place two weeks from now on Thurs., Feb. 20, likely would have had to move. That's not good for television or sponsors. You want the biggest night of skating to take place on a big night of television, not buried on a Friday or Saturday. By frontloading the schedule, the Olympics didn't have to backload the final weekend.
Scheduling and television are big reasons for the early start, but money is the thing that ties them all together. It's the universal answer for sports queries like this. "Why did the NFL start playing games on Thursdays?" "Why do the NBA playoffs last longer than many celebrity marriages?" "Why is snowboard racing an Olympic event?" It all comes back to the green.
That's a good thing for us. In 1988, Winter Olympic viewers would have been stuck with long stretches of luge in primetime. There were only so many events to cover. It was like watching television back when there were only four channels. Now, there are a number of options for television producers and, as a result, a better experience for viewers. Short track, halfpipe, snowboarding, skeleton, ski cross — these are all made-for-television events that break up the drudgery of endless runs of bobsled heats.
It still feels strange to start the Olympics before the Olympics technically start. There shouldn't be competition before athletes march into Fisht Olympic Stadium on Friday night. Still, it's a small price to pay for the overall improvement of the Winter Games.