Published August 04, 2012
From the Irish pubs of Stockholm to bustling Koreatown in Los Angeles, expat Olympic fans around the world are following — or trying to follow — their favorite back-home athletes, an often lonely and difficult pursuit in our otherwise connected world.
"Watching the Olympics from here is weird for me," said Beto Capon, a 25-year-old call center worker from Mexico City who's been living in Israel for four years.
At Mike's Place, a popular hangout in downtown Jerusalem where the American, British and Canadian flags fly alongside that of Israel, Capon took in women's swimming. He still roots for Mexico when the Olympics roll around.
"Here I don't have fans to share the experience with," he said.
Steve McCready, 52, was jollier at Dubliner's in central Stockholm for the boxing match between Ireland and Germany.
Fifteen years in Sweden, the construction worker is soaking up six to seven hours a day of the London Games thanks to the pub's satellite TV and the company of fellow Irishmen. Irish badminton? He was watching.
"Of course you want to follow your home country. If Ireland is competing you want to see them, especially if they do well," McCready said Thursday.
But he's not bothered by the Olympic-viewing eccentricities of his adopted Sweden.
"You have to accept that in any country you're living in, they will concentrate on their own teams and favorite sports," he said. "Take handball, for example. The Swedes love it, so there's going to be a lot of that."
Asa Ibrahim, a spokeswoman for the municipality of Sodertalje, said in her area's large Iraqi and Somali immigrant neighborhoods people prefer to watch Olympic events at home — with friends.
"There are places here where just about every balcony has one or two satellite dishes. They do that to get their home country's channels, but then they also invite each other over to watch things together," Ibrahim said. "People here prefer to go to each other's houses."
Aside from pubs and satellite dishes, some sports fans far from their homelands are resorting to video online, thanks to healthy bandwidth and programs like the Expat Shield, which helps users hide their IP addresses to bypass restrictions on who has legal permission to show the games — and where.
James Bosworth, an American blogger living in Managua, Nicaragua, could use some help.
He can watch the games on his local Claro cable TV provider and even some NBC programming, but he can't review the day's video online at his leisure.
"I go to NBC's page, I'm blocked. I go to BBC, I'm blocked. I go to CCTV, I'm blocked," he said. "And when Claro TV's cable went down for four days I was left without anything."
At the It's Boba Time cafe in Los Angeles, immigrants and college students sucked tapioca balls and milk tea through fat straws Wednesday, some looking for the Olympics the old-fashioned way, thumbing through Korean-language newspapers with color photos of judo and fencing stars on their front pages.
Staring intently at his laptop, 49-year-old Joon Ha of Sherman Oaks, Calif., watched the finals of sports South Korea is competitive in — judo, fencing, shooting, archery — via downloads from Korean television websites.
NBC's coverage out of London hasn't included many Korean athletes, but that doesn't upset him.
"The United States is a very big country, and it's understandable that there are so many games they compete in that having the games of this one country on television will occupy all the programming," he said.
That's a sore subject with British expats who were outraged when the BBC blocked non-UK users from accessing Web streams of some popular radio programs due to International Olympic Committee rights demands.
After a deluge of complaints, the BBC announced that it had negotiated with the IOC to allow non-UK users access to all but a few Web streams. The reasoning: Although the shows do feature Olympic content, it isn't broadcast live and makes up a minority of programming.
Ironically, if you're in a country where the IOC didn't sell exclusive rights to broadcast the games, you stand a better chance of being able to watch the events you're interested in than if you're in countries like France, Japan or Mexico where it did. That's because the IOC is providing its own free YouTube live stream of the games in 64 nations across Asia and Africa.
In Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Zambia, Zimbabwe and elsewhere, fans can watch 10 live streams as well as highlights, provided they can access highspeed Internet.
The importance of Internet and mobile viewing hasn't been lost on the IOC. It said in a statement that it expects the number of hours broadcast online and on mobile platforms globally to exceed television coverage for the first time during the London Games.
Fans of American sports such as baseball and basketball have long found ways to get around territory restrictions by using so-called proxy computers in the U.S., or signing up to U.S.-based virtual private networks, or VPNs. Such networks make computers appear to be in the United States, for a charge of about $10 per month.
Colin Manning, an Irishman who has lived in Germany for more than a decade, remains an avid fan of Olympic sports back home. He has turned to the gray area of VPNs to access the Irish broadcaster RTE and fumes about the restrictions as "completely mad in the digital age."
"They are still operating in this broadcaster mode where the signal is completely controllable," said the 51-year-old computer scientist as he sat in a Berlin cafe. "There is no concept of saying 'Colin Manning is in Berlin and he wants to buy this package from us. Let's sell it to him.'"
At the Chinatown branch of the San Francisco Public Library, 22-year-old Kevin Liao is all about broadband for the Olympics. Flipping through a Chinese comic book, the Chinese emigre of two years had no complaints about the U.S.-centric coverage during NBC's prime time.
"NBC is on the TV. I don't like watching TV," he said. "On the Chinese sites, I can get my full coverage of how Chinese teams are doing but still get a little bit of how American teams are doing."
Miao Liu, a 21-year-old sophomore at American University in Washington, D.C., and a native of Shenzhen, China, said she gave up on NBC's coverage because of the decision to broadcast the opening ceremonies on tape delay. She, too, has been watching the Olympics online, streaming coverage from China's CCTV network, and she's been pleased with it.
"They show the entire competition, but obviously they will talk more about our athletes," Liu said.
NBC's coverage could benefit from a more international approach, she said. "It seems a little weird since America is an immigrant country and so diverse."
While the commentary on NBC is U.S.-focused, customers at The Australian, a sports bar with kangaroo steaks on the menu in Manhattan's Garment District, can watch Australian commercial television.
That's just what four 20-something vacationing friends from Down Under were looking for. They sipped drinks and munched on lunch Thursday, waiting for Australian swimmer Mitch Larkin to compete while the rest of America was honed in on American Ryan Lochte.
"A lot of bars claimed they were showing everything, but it was just NBC," said Ian Anderson, a 27-year-old from Perth.
Tasari Wossen, a 73-year-old native of Ethiopia who lives in Washington, D.C., said he was dismayed by NBC's focus on American athletes — and not optimistic that he would get an opportunity to see his countrymen compete in distance-running events.
"For a country that says it's about freedom of speech and balanced coverage to completely ignore the rest of the world goes against the Olympic spirit for me," said Wossen, a freelance journalist. "I don't think it benefits the American public. It's very narrow-minded."
Though he doesn't speak Spanish, Wossen has turned to Spanish-language channels to watch soccer.
One place where viewers in the U.S. can follow more international teams is on Telemundo. The Spanish-language network owned by NBCUniversal has exclusive TV rights in the U.S. to Olympic coverage in Spanish.
"We are only showing trials that are relevant to Hispanics in the U.S., and that doesn't just mean U.S. Hispanics, but to the broader Hispanic community," said Telemundo spokesman Camilo Pino.
That has meant following athletes ranging from Cuban-American gymnast Daniel Leyva of Miami to Argentine tennis player Juan Martin Del Potro, and Mexican synchronized divers German Sanchez and Ivan Garcia, who took home a silver, the country's first medal in the sport.
German native Rosmari Pernisz, a retired teacher in Midland, Mich., has lived stateside for more than 30 years. She's not an avid sports fan but does like watching Olympic gymnastics and soccer.
"There are endless interviews with American athletes and shots of their faces and all of their parents and so forth. It's all about Americans," she said of the NBC coverage. "It doesn't matter what I am. I would like to see things from all over the world."
Blake Sobczak in Jerusalem, Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Frank Bajak in Lima, Shaya Tayefe Mohajer in Los Angeles, Verena Dobnik in New York, Ben Nuckols in Washington, D.C., Fenit Nirappil in San Francisco and Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this report.