Sports and Politics: Jingoism and the Olympics

This piece was originally published on Righteous Anger just prior to the 2012 London Olympics.

It’s nothing new that the Olympics are an arena of political and nationalist chest-beating.  Whether it was Hitler in 1936 or the U.S.-U.S.S.R. during the Cold War, sports are a prime tool for propaganda.  Medal counts where propped up to prove whose economic and political system was better.  Athletes from the “enemy” side were accused of having unfair advantages or cheating.  Every facial expression was analyzed to prove the athletes from the U.S.S.R. or their allies were unhappy.  The women, especially, were targets of nasty comments.  The Olympics were politics.

  So, has anything changed?  Not one damned bit.  The coverage of sports is still highly colored by political rhetoric and propaganda.  The Olympics are one of many places it comes to the fore.  All the while, the U.S. media will demand that politics be kept out of it.  What they really mean is that other countries shouldn’t use the Olympics as a political platform; the U.S., as in every other arena, is exempt from its own demands.
  It will start with the Opening Ceremony.  It has been the habit of NBC to allow their on-air “talent” to do a running political commentary regarding each country that marches out.  We will hear about their wars.  We will hear about squabbles between other countries.  We will hear about internal political strife.  But it will always be about “them”; they are not to bring up our own political issues.
  Any controversy that arises will be viewed through red-white-and-blue glasses.  Nothing presents a clearer example of this than the coverage of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.  Those Games saw the infamous figure skating controversy that led to a complete re-write of that sport’s rules.  It was also at a time when the U.S. was going through its “freedom fries” and anti-Russian hysteria because the French and Russians refused to support the invasion of Iraq.  A disagreement over the winner of the pairs figure skating competition led to accusations of collusion between the Russians and the French.  The U.S. media went into full-blown hysterical mode demanding it be rectified.  In an unprecedented move, the governing body for International Skating Union decided to award a second gold medal post-competition.  The U.S. sports media would ride this controversy and the resulting rule changes for all they were worth for several years after the event.
  Another judging decision also created hysteria, but it was in South Korea and could, thus, be ignored. This was also in a sport governed by the International Skating Union–short track speed skating–but the benefactor of a judge’s decision was American.  South Korean Kim Dong-Sung crossed the line first in the 1500 meter competition.  Shortly before that, American Apolo Anton Ohno reacted as if Kim had interfered with him.  Kim was disqualified in a decision that one competitor called “absurd”.  The U.S. media didn’t question the behavior of Ohno; instead, they attacked the person who won and his country.  In the 2002 World Cup, the South Korean team would celebrate a goal against the U.S. with an homage to Kim.  They and their country would again be scolded by the U.S. media for both the demonstration and the perceived “anti-American” attitude of the South Koreans.
  Two years later, another South Korean would be on the short end of the stick, and would again be dismissed by the U.S. media.  In the men’s gymnastics competition, American Paul Hamm took a hard fall on the vault.  In fact, he almost fell off the podium.  Pictures show the judges putting their arms out to keep him from tumbling onto their table.

  South Korea’s Yang Tae Young had a golden opportunity to take the men’s all-around gold medal.  In fact, he should have taken that gold medal because, the South Koreans said, one of his routines was underscored.  They reported having pointed this out to the officials on the floor, only to be told to file an appeal–in the required English language–later.  So, they backed off and Hamm was given the gold medal.  This decision, and the American defense of it, would set off more anger in South Korea.  It would go all the way to the Committee for the Arbitration of Sport (CAS), but Hamm would be allowed to keep the gold medal.  Since this was, again, an American who benefited, the U.S. media would dismiss and scold the South Koreans for being “anti-American”.  The resulting re-write of the rules of gymnastics would not be given the same kind of attention by the U.S. sports media as the similar occurrence in figure skating.  In fact, when mentioned at all by NBC, the comments are uniformly negative.

During the Sydney Olympics, yet another example of extreme hypocrisy reared its ugly head.  Throughout the Games, the U.S. media openly accused the Chinese swimmers of doping.  It was a topic of endless commentary.  The irony would unfold when it became known that Marion Jones, one of the U.S. stars of those Games, was stripped of her medals for doping.  In fact, one U.S. track athlete after another has been stripped of medals for cheating.

The demands that other countries “just move on” when these things occur doesn’t extend to the U.S.  During the Athens Olympics, Doug Collins brought up the U.S.-U.S.S.R. basketball game that took place 30 years earlier.  He went on and on about the unfairness of it all.  Time was given on-air to rehashing the end of the basketball game, and the righteous nature of the U.S. team’s refusal to accept the silver medal.

So, as the Olympics begin, expect to see jingoism and flag-waving.  Expect comments to be made on others’ “nationalism,” while Americans celebrate their “patriotism.”  Expect controversies to always be seen through the lens off that American nationalism.  And expect plenty of shit-talking about the Russians.  I hear they’re opposing another U.S. war party these days.

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