To NBC and assorted media outlets:
I’m writing to thank you for your exhaustive examination of Russia, the host of the 2014 Winter Olympics. You’ve cast an important light on troubles surrounding the Sochi Games, including the Russian government’s hostility toward gays and its corrupt system of crony contracts. You’ve also revealed to us the horror of journalists living without Wi-Fi in their hotel rooms, but hey, not every report has the Pulitzer on its GPS, right?
The world needs to know that the host of these Olympics is troubled, that President Vladimir Putin leads a government that crushes dissent and violates fundamental human rights. Thanks to you, we understand that more.
Now can we have the Olympics back?
We’d like to spend the next two weeks meeting athletes we haven’t seen before and saying hello again to those we haven’t heard from in awhile. No matter that many of them compete in sports we care about for only two weeks every four years. We care about competition and triumph and dreams.
But that won’t do, some say. This week, in advance of the opening ceremony, the Washington Post questioned NBC’s willingness to cover the games “objectively,” which means beating the drum about the laws against homosexuals, the construction backlogs, the “less savory context,” according to writer Paul Farhi. Other media are echoing the cry.
Some groups want to go further. They’ve called for a boycott of Sochi 2014, or boycotting sponsors such as Coke. The clear message: If you engage in the Games, or even enjoy them, you’re tacitly endorsing the country that’s hosting them.
But are we? It’s true that it’s hard to separate the competition from everything else at the Olympics. After all, countries host the Games not because they want to celebrate the joy of sport, but because they want to show off. Putin is far from the first leader who’s used the Olympics to preen on the world’s stage. Adolf Hitler did the same in 1936. China did the same six years ago.
That rarely works, of course, because media dutifully pull back the curtain on hosts. They tell us about China’s repressive past and present. We learn about Russia’s ruthless suppression of dissent. We learn what we should learn, and maybe, if even a little, those hosts are prompted to take a harder look at themselves.
But then there’s the silly stuff. This week, on media front pages and homepages, journalists in Sochi told us about their hotel Wi-Fi issues and oddly colored water. They tweeted pictures of exposed plumbing pipes under sinks and (block the children’s eyes) nightstand lamps without light bulbs. It was whiny and narcissistic, and it reminded me of almost 20 years ago, when I covered the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
From start to finish at those Games, media members complained about how the weather was too hot and the buses too slow and the technology too glitchy. They dubbed it the Redneck Games, and despite spectators overwhelmingly enjoying those two weeks, that bumbling narrative is what’s stayed with the Atlanta Olympics.
With Sochi, there’s still the chance that the competition will become the story. We pray, at least, that terrorists won’t try to make the Games their showcase. People will forever use the Olympics for their own purposes – for their cause, their complaints, their self-promotion. But trite as it may be, these two weeks are also about the athletes. They are mostly about the athletes. Let’s give the Games back to them.