Going into the snowboarding finals of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Red Gerard’s chances of nabbing a medal looked bleak. He’d bumbled his first two runs, placing him second-to-last amongst the 12 snowboarders competing in slopestyle. But Gerard’s final performance was breathtaking—a series of gravity-defying jumps that launched him to the top of the scoreboard, making the 17-year-old the first American gold medalist of the 2018 Games and the youngest male snowboarder ever to win gold.
It was the kind of surprise win people watch the Olympics hoping to see—that is, unless they saw it on their phone first. While NBC offers a livestream of most Olympic events, on television the snowboarding broadcast aired with a time delay. Which means that many of Gerard’s fans learned of his triumph when outlets like The Washington Post, CNN, and the Associated Press pushed out mobile news alerts. On TV, local affiliates interrupted NBC’s delayed broadcast to report Gerard’s medal in real time. It was as if the national press had transformed into one massive Olympic spoiler.
The Olympics is designed to elicit extreme emotion, most of which is triggered by the experience of not knowing. We want the nail-biting agony of a foiled front-runner and the dopamine high of an unexpected victory. We want to feel like Kobe Bryant, dancing like a sugar-addled child when the Eagles win the Super Bowl.
That’s why sporting events, along with award shows and other contests, are an exception to our on-demand viewing habits. By watching in real time, you assure yourself that you’ll fully experience the event and be surprised by the outcome. But the Olympics is a series of round-the-clock competitions taking place over 17-days, aired in time zones across the world; making it convenient for everyone to tune in live is a logistical nightmare. Maybe the time difference means that the curling finals are happening at 3 am. Maybe the luge qualifiers livestream in the middle of your 9-to-5 job.
Traditionally, broadcast television took care of this problem by airing an easy-to-digest highlights reel during prime time, with condensed versions of the most popular sports. But now the 24-hour news cycle, combined with social media, makes it increasingly unlikely you’ll make it to that after-work hour uninformed. Since push notifications became popular during the 2012 London games—considered the first of the “social” Olympics—media outlets have struggled to cover the games rigorously without spoiling them for fans. Good reporters work as quickly as possible to push out news to their readers first. But this agility comes with consequences. In 2012, a mobile alert informed me that Gabby Douglas had won the all-around gold in gymnastics, several hours before I could get to a television. Or this Sunday evening, my Olympics livestream cut out just long enough for an NBC news alert to let me know that the American skaters I’d been watching had won bronze.
While the web has made it easy to dispense information instantaneously, it hasn’t provided an easy way to slow that information down. And holding news raises more conundrums, like what time zone do you pick when you finally release the result? A few places have tried to implement quick fixes: CNN has experimented with adding “Spoiler Alert” to the beginning of push notifications reporting Olympics news. (Readers pointed out it’s still easy to absorb the news bite that comes after the warning.) For the 2016 games, The New York Times added a separate opt-in channel for readers wanting Olympic news. But that move proved controversial when the Times sent out an alert to their main breaking news list informing readers that the American gymnasts had won the team gold.
“[Those people] had a pretty good argument,” says Eric Bishop, mobile editor who leads push notification strategy for the Times. “It’s like, I chose not to sign up for Olympics alerts, so why am I getting this?” That’s in part why the Times decided to scrap the separate channel for this year’s games and send out alerts that rise to the level of national news through the newspaper’s main channel. (Readers who want more Olympics can sign up for behind-the-scenes dispatches from sports journalist Sam Manchester, through the Times’ app.)
But the Times, like most media companies, is banking on our digital future. “As people become more connected to the minute-by-minute flow of the news, it will become less of an issue,” Bishop says. In other words, as devices and social media become intertwined with our daily lives, Olympic spoilers become inevitable. If it’s not a mobile alert ruining things, it’s NBC’s Facebook post or a friend’s Instagram story. As NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel told my colleague: “The days of Spoiler Alerts are over.”
Which leaves Olympics traditionalists with a choice: Remove yourself from social media and your cell phone and batten down the hatches for a dark Olympics, or accept the end of the Olympic surprise as the cost of 24-hour information.