Solidarity, fair play, and globalism – these utopian buzzwords are closely associated with the Olympic games and the “Olympic spirit” that the games seek to uphold. The Olympic Charter even defines the games as “competitions between individuals and team events and not between countries” – the goal is to celebrate athletic excellence, not to stroke national egos. But, like it or not, the Olympics have long been a catalyst for intense patriotism, particularly when viewed through the lens of national media coverage.Is this patriotism in media coverage compatible with or antithetical to the purpose of the Olympics?
Last week, the sports news website Deadspin published an article analyzing NBC’s Tuesday night Olympic coverage – they found that the United States accounted for 46.5% of all participant mentions during the broadcast. The United States only won two of the 24 medals handed out on Tuesday and none of the gold medals, yet NBC chose to devote nearly half of its coverage that day to American athletes. In a follow-up article on Thursday Deadspin reported similar trends in CBC coverage of Canadian athletes and BBC coverage of British competitors.
This nationalistic media focus makes a lot of sense on a commercial level – patriotism sells. Successful Olympic athletes often become celebrities in their home countries and bankable stars for commentators to focus on. NBC is strategic to center their Olympic reporting on Shani Davis and Sean White – names that are far more recognizable to American viewers than the Netherland’s Stefan Groothuis and Switzerland’s Iouri Podladtchikov, despite the fact that Groothuis and Podladtchikov beat Davis and White to the gold in Sochi. Most Olympic viewers want to see and hear about athletes from their own countries, particularly when they come from countries with a large delegations competing in the games like Canada, the United States, and Russia in the Sochi Olympics. It can be argued that nationalistic Olympic reporting is simply giving viewers what they want.
This patriotism on its own isn’t inherently incompatible with the Olympic ideals of globalism and international solidarity; it’s possible for countries to be proud of their own athletes while simultaneously respectful and appreciative of foreign competitors. At its best, patriotism can be an inspiring and unifying force. But, in excess, nationalistic coverage can drive countries apart and disparage talented athletes who have poured their lives into preparing for the games. For example, during the London Summer Olympics, NBC received flack for implying that the Russian women’s gymnastics team, the main competitors to the American women, was composed of “divas” and editing the floor routine of Russia’s Ksenia Afanasyeva out of the broadcast in favour of footage of the American team warming up. In attempting to sell the Russian-American gymnastics rivalry to their home audience, NBC cast aspersion on a groups of young Russian women who were every bit as dedicated and accomplished as their American competitors.
National pride is acceptable in moderation, but blatantly biased coverage is not so benevolent. When NBC paints the Olympics as an us-versus-them battle between American athletes and their foreign competition, they fuel jingoism and encourage American viewers to perceive the games as a showing of American strength rather than a forum for international cooperation. And this problem is amplified by NBC’s monopoly over Olympic coverage within the United States – American viewers only see the Olympics through one warped set of eyes.
The Olympic games offer something unique amongst major sporting events - the opportunity to celebrate human sporting achievement on a global level. Fans of franchise and college sports teams are often too wrapped up in the success and failure of their own team to appreciate the athleticism and talent of their rivals. The Olympics are a rare chance to rise above these biases and celebrate athletic achievement across domestic and international boundaries. Which is why it’s so disappointing when national media squanders this opportunity by presenting jingoistic coverage. Despite what the Olympic charter might say, national pride is an engrained part of the Olympic games and it's not going anywhere. But the press should do a better job of balancing patriotism with respect and accuracy in their Olympic broadcasts. Just as Olympic athletes constantly push to better themselves - to be faster, higher and stronger – so must Olympic media coverage.