The Olympic Games and the Politicization of Everyday Life
David L. Andrews / University of Maryland
Much has been written about the politicization of the modern sporting mega-event, and with considerable justification. Looking specifically at the Olympic Games–from de Coubertin’s distinctly Eurocentric and masculinist inaugural modern Olympiad in 1896 Athens, through the Third Reich’s Berlin Olympic maneuvers of 1936, the 1968 Mexico games brutally sanitized by the Díaz Ordaz regime, to the scrupulously choreographed spectacle of Beijing 2008–there exists an incontrovertible history of ruling elites looking to use the very delivery of the games as a seductive mechanism for legitimating systems and practices of governance to internal and external audiences alike.
Notwithstanding the Chinese state capitalist 2008 Beijing Olympiad, it would seem that the most overtly politicized Olympiad of recent times was the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games. While on the surface this would appear to be the case, it could be argued that every contemporary Olympic Games, and indeed other commercially mass-mediated sporting mega-events, are implicated in the tacit politicization of everyday life. They are, in Debord’s terms, monumental spectacles responsible for informing the political economy of the vernacular. 1
Coming a few months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and in a complementary vein to the delayed Super Bowl XXXVI which was rescheduled for the same week as the Games’ opening, the Salt Lake City Olympics provided an emotive context for the ceremonial performance of the United States’ wounded but nonetheless newly energized nationalism. Doubtless scripted as a justification for its contemporaneous (Afghanistan) and future (Iraq) military incursions that were, initially at least, publicly trumpeted as seeking to right the wrongs of that “one day in September”.2
Of course, the Salt Lake City opening and closing ceremonies provide an illustrative example of the convergence of sport and politics. However, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the role of the U.S. television broadcaster, NBC, in the delivery and indeed politicization of this and other recent Olympics. As the host broadcaster, NBC played a key role in, quite literally, representing the Salt Lake City Games to the worldwide viewing public. However, its narrativizing of the post-September 11 Olympic spectacle to the American public evidenced the role played by the commercial media in corroborating the political sensibilities and machinations of the moment. That is not to say NBC, or any other commercial national network broadcaster for that matter, necessarily possesses an identifiable and consistent political orientation. Rather, by their very raison d’etre, commercial broadcasters are compelled to seek the maximum possible audience for their corporate advertisers which, whether consciously or otherwise, thereby guides production decisions and content. In order to produce programming with a broad-based appeal and thereby commercial value, network broadcasters thus have to be closely attuned to the “mattering maps” of the national audience at any given time: the “socially determined structure of affect which defines the things that do and can matter to those living within the map.” 3
Attention to contemporary cartographies of affect were clearly evident within NBC’s coverage of the Salt Lake City Games. With specific regard to the all important primetime network broadcasts, the carefully scripted words of Katie Couric, Bob Costas et al, myriad background features, and the overall production aesthetic and orientation, framed the Games in a manner which both engaged, and simultaneously advanced, the then ascendant ideological tropes of “American jingoism, militarism, and geopolitical domination.” 4 Largely as a by product of its commercial impulses, as opposed to any conspiratorial political machinations, NBC’s Olympic representation could thereby be said to have acted as a de facto corroboration of the affective investments in the subject positions advanced by the Bush regime (i.e. those of the uncritical and unquestioning American patriot) in securing its position of authority and justifying its hawkish stratagems. As a consequence, NBC’s Olympic coverage became a seductive agent of popular conservatism, in that its affectively-charged coverage of the games actively reinforced, and mobilized popular support for, the ideological underpinnings of America’s ascendant militaristic and neo-imperialistic order.
The argument herein centers on the notion that national network sport broadcasters contribute to the politicization of everyday life, however, they do so in a manner which belies an ideological promiscuity resulting from the primacy of commercial logics. In this vein, NBC’s coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics confirmed the popular conservatism of network broadcasters, through coverage which to some degree afforded an unstated legitimacy to China’s blend of state socialism and market capitalism. For, if they had chosen to do so, NBC could have used the Beijing Olympics as the catalyst for a considered examination of the Chinese state, with specific references to its well scrutinized economic policies, political organization, and human and civil rights record. Of course such a contextualizing of the Beijing Games on network television is all but unthinkable. While it would placate a minority who long protested the awarding of the games to China, it would doubtless extinguish the interests of the vast viewing majority looking to NBC for its established blend of sporting performance and soap opera melodrama.
Hence, from the choreographed televisual magnitude of Zhang Yimou’s opening spectacular, through the remainder of the games, NBC pad scant attention to extra-sporting issues, preferring instead to celebrate the spectacular nature of Beijing 2008, in seemingly equal measure regarding its phantasmagorical built environment (specifically the instantly iconic bird’s nest and water cube stadia) and the superhuman feats of those performing within it (specifically Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps).
What of the forthcoming 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics? In a moment charactered by prolonged healthcare indecision, enduring military sacrifice, purported economic recovery, and attendant Presidential vulnerability, one could expect NBC to use the Vancouver Games as a 17-day dramatic and entertaining escape from America’s woes.
Doubtless this is Dick Ebersol and the rest of the NBC Universal production team’s brief. Nonetheless, even within the throes of Olympic escapism, one is never far from the affective investments responsible for the rightward shift in American life over the past 40 years. Uppermost among these is the preoccupation with abstracted individualism associated with the instantiation of roll-with-it neo-liberalization. 5 Thus, every one of the interminable narrative focuses on individual Olympic athletes’ lives–their trials and tribulations, strengths and weaknesses, failings and redemptions–as a means of representing sporting contests and competitions, inexorably accents the neo-liberal individualism whose hegemonic position has stymied the development of the collective conscience necessary for the realization of a true American democracy. So much for the liberal [sport] media.
1. Olympic Torch Runner, Berlin 1936
2. The “World Trade Center Flag” at the Salt Lake City opening ceremony
3. Performers in traditional costume from the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics
4. NBC’s Vancouver Olympics Logo
Please feel free to comment.
- Debord, G. (1994 ). The society of the spectacle (D. Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). New York: Zone Books. [↩]
- Silk, M., & Falcous, M. (2005). One day in September/A week in February: Mobilizing American (Sporting) nationalisms. Sociology of Sport Journal, 22(4), 447-471. [↩]
- Grossberg, L. (1992). We gotta get out of this place: Popular conservatism and postmodern culture. London: Routledge, p. 398. [↩]
- Silk, M., & Falcous, M. (2005). One day in September/A week in February: Mobilizing American (Sporting) nationalisms. Sociology of Sport Journal, 22(4), 464. [↩]
- Keil, R. (2009). The urban politics of roll-with-it neoliberalization. City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, 13(2), 230-245. [↩]
If Olympic games coverage takes a cue from television syndication and format, then the broadcasting of this spectacle becomes like anything else on television: repetitive. There are heroes and nationalism, archetypal characters and global social patterns. It is similar to Andrews’ concepts in his closing paragraph in which he notes the realization of the individual through the media choices of NBC. We aren’t watching something collective, and when it is, it is this collective vs. that collection…and at times it is a rationalization for our country’s actions in recent history, or at least a temporary break from thinking about them. To further the argument Andrews makes, it is as American viewers that we watch naively, only realizing the work of individual champions, caught up in the spectacle and triumph, without a thought or a word to what is really happening in the world around these games. We may even comment on the beauty of a country’s uniforms without thinking about their collective freedoms abroad. However, it is this style of broadcasting that Todd Gitlin would support in his book Inside Prime Time. The NBC producers are doing what works. They are choosing a conservative broadcast and allowing the games to signify nationalism (or perhaps jingoism) because that has traditionally worked. Syndication favors synthetic forms such as a spin off of the games that were broadcasting in 2002, because these copies are just what the network is looking for. They are hoping to glamorize the Bode Millers of skiing, the personas of snowboarders like Shaun White, and any other American upset in an event we are not supposed to perform well in (meanwhile ignoring the true triumphs of an athlete from the Cayman Islands for example…although based on the movie Cool Runnings, it can be argued we like these stories as well and may actually see documentary specials on such athletes). There is also a sense of narrative transparency that Scott Robert Olson discusses in The TV Studies Review. It is definitely not the appeal of American nationalism and politicizing the Olympic games through sport that is necessarily relatable (although very true), as what people globally relate to through a broadcast is the meta-familiarity of heroic characters and universal structures of using sport as means of globalization (for all countries). Every country seems to allow its corporate sponsors and financial backers to drive decisions. And ultimately, this is the same reason why all of television seems to be conservative and repetitive.
I’d like to point out that you don’t need NBC to watch the Olympic games. If you can’t take anymore commercials or nationalism or politics you can turn off the television and go online. I don’t remember this being the case at the last winter Olympics. I remember sitting up for hours waiting for a figure skating final to be aired and having to suffer through an Ice-hockey game. The commercials were brief in comparison. Two thoughts come to mind. Firstly, that in America we are fortunate to have the Olympics broadcast at all. Many countries have only limited coverage. The NBC producers are doing what works for their sponsors. Of course capital controls Olympic coverage. If it didn’t HBO could cover the Olympics. Having said that, for the first time viewers can cut the apron strings and watch the games via internet. I wonder if this is equally the case in other countries. In any case, the internet is the great equalizer and thereby puts the viewer on equal footing with the NBC producers. In fact, viewers have greater independence than the producers because a viewer is independent of a network. Similarly, I found that I could watch the The Grammy’s on the internet, live. The television version didn’t air until several hours after the fact. Why should I wait?
This article provoked several questions for me. First, I was slightly confused by the second paragraph. Although the title and remainder of the text focused on the Olympic Games, paragraph two seemed to argue that many “other commercially mass-mediated sporting mega-events, are implicated in the tacit politicization of everyday life.” I am unsure if it was my reading of the passage or perhaps a simple question of wording, but as it stands, I am not sure it fit with the larger argument. Second, I am hesitant to accept the larger argument unequivocally because I question how closely the Olympic Games are/should be representative of “everyday life.” To me the Olympics have always seemed special or somehow distinguished from everyday life, so perhaps a bit more discussion is necessary to clarify this connection. Finally, on a more general note, this article made me wonder about the presentation of the Olympics in the media of other nations. Is the patriotism reflected more in the media’s presentation of the events, or are the events themselves imbued with patriotism? Are there similar levels of patriotism evident in each nation’s media? I also wonder if/how the American patriotism in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics was shown in other nations. This is indeed an interesting subject which I would like to explore further…
This article was particularly interesting to read after the Vancouver Olympics. I recall much being made about the “politicization” of the Beijing Olympics but I never stopped to invest the very own politicization of the Salt Lake City games or that of the very broadcast. What struck me while watching the Vancouver games is how the Canadian Olympics were somehow reclaimed in the packages and promos on NBC as somehow an American games as well. Canada was constantly refered to as our “neighbors” to the north, “economic friends,” and “political allies.” At first I didn’t know what to make of it, but upon further examination, from the last few Olympic broadcasts on NBC, it seems to be highly politicized event in an arena of sportsmanship and nation building. As Andrews astutely points out, NBC is trying to bring in as large of an audience for its corporate sponsors as possible, but I begin to question whether it is also trying to promote the political agenda of it’s sponsors as well. But as earlier commentators pointed out, the olympic games or rather the modular presentation of it has become a repetitive template of insert name here, where every year there is the familiar storyline of hero, victim, and tragedy and triumph. But depending on where you view the olympics, the same characters play different roles.
The Olympic Games, Winter and Summer, provide a host country with an opportunity to promote one’s self to a global audience in a format that is akin to a long-form travel commercial. It is also an opportunity for a host country to differentiate itself as a character from an ever shrinking world. As evidenced by the games in Atlanta, Beijing and even this year in Vancouver, the Games provide a host country a chance to share their culture, which includes political agendas laced with commercial aspirations. The Games also provide viewers with a glimpse of how the host country wants to be viewed globally. For example as China becomes a larger player on a global financial scale, the opening ceremonies took things to a new level of grandeur and spectacle akin to where China would like to position itself. In Vancouver, rather than trying to top the grandeur of Beijing, it took a more subtle and home grown approach that is befitting of Canadian Culture. Being a Vancouver-ite, it was interesting watching this year’s Winter Games from Los Angeles thinking that NBC managed to give the coverage its distinctly American flavor, and as Andrews points out, is necessary in terms of reaching the largest possible audience. However I also know that the Vancouver organizers made it a point to sell not only the city but also Canada as a whole to the world in the name of tourism and capital investment.
In terms of American coverage of a non-USA hosted Games, I believe it is less about politicizing and more about creating the most palatable programming flow that will reach the largest possible audience as evidenced by the fact that the majority of NBC’s primetime Olympic coverage consisted of taped American athletes performing well. I am curious to know what would have happened if the American Hockey team had not participated in the Gold Medal game. Would it have still been broadcast live on NBC or would it have been pre-empted or relegated to a subsidiary network such as CNBC? Finally the Vancouver Games reminded us all that the Olympic Coverage is an expendable television show, as evidenced by the fact that this year’s closing ceremonies were pre-empted for the premiere of “The Marriage Ref”.
And just to keep you updated, it looks like China lost a medal. But did anybody really think she was just 14? Of course not.
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