We can't help our reaction, really. Part of this is just the news cycle we live in. When something comes around only every couple of years it's a pretty big deal, and so we stop and take notice. More practically speaking, this is what's on TV. The coverage is endless. We can, of course, watch other things; there are other channels. But everyone's talking about the Olympics, in the office, on the Internet, even on the local news—and no one wants to be left out of all that conversation. Plus, the Olympics manage to compile a lot of elements of media consumption that we really, really like. There are extremely fit, attractive people with outside lives that may be a bit more complicated than we'd imagine. These are real people, even as they resemble superheros, and they face things like deadbeat dads and foreclosures and ill-chosen relationships. They aren't perfect.
But we want them to be perfect in our short time with them! We want them to have inspirational stories, we want them to be adorable or handsome, and we (mostly) want them to succeed. It's what we turn on the TV for—perfection or for the massive, cringeworthy fails, because we want character development, too, either bad or good. We want to see Gabby Douglas take gold; we also want to, in some strange way, see McKayla Maroney fall on her butt. It's not that we want her to fail, but if she does, she should fail spectacularly, not middlingly. We want to gasp, in amazement or horror. There should be as much drama there as there was in the Opening Ceremonies. When an athlete does fail (and it's not a "fail" so much as a lack of winning the top prize—Olympians have managed way more than the average person ever dreams of, which is part of why we love them), we also want to judge his or her response. Did he or she behave the courageous, humble, graceful way we'd expect them to upon a loss? Or did they glare at the stadium and competitors with what we've decided was a "Mean Girls" face, or let out a little smile, turning from the cameras, as Aliya Mustafina did after Gabby Douglas' time on the uneven bars, upon realizing that she herself would win? (But seriously, can you blame her?) Few of us can know what it feels to win gold; few of us can understand the pressure, either, of spending years of your life working up to one event...and then messing up, maybe without another chance to try again.
Our relationship with TV is weird in itself, but the Olympics is a rare event, and our relationship with it especially weird. We exist in a world that's made us accustomed to reality TV, and made us expect to see deeply into the personal lives of the characters on our small screen. We want to know everything about them, the whys, the hows, the personalities and psychologies within. Twitter and social media and the Internet help with our obsession because we can be even more immersed than ever before; we can engage in conversations about these people constantly, learn what's happening on a minute to minute basis (even if we don't want to know); even contact them directly and hope they Tweet back.