While I’m usually not a fan of news shows that sell neatly packaged stories (which is why I prefer the open format of talk radio to the closed format of NPR), there is one quadrennial event that I think benefits from the package approach, and that’s the Olympics. Back in the day, CBS would present a nightly three-hour package that managed to create an entertaining combination of human interest mixed in with sport’s thrilling highs and sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic lows. In that way, the Olympics were reduced to digestible narratives packed with excitement, drama, humor, and joy.
It helped too that the Olympics weren’t quite so sprawling then. With fewer events and fewer athletes, it was easier to get a handle on the thing.
The modern Olympic telecast, however, is like the party that never ends. You can’t find your friends, the people in the room are looking pretty ratty, and you’re desperate to leave but you’re a little worried that, the moment you leave, something interesting will finally happen. Ultimately, there’s no there there. Instead, there’s just an endless stream of people who during the winter are often faceless because of masks and helmets, zipping down hills, racing across ice, or flying through the air in patterns that become repetitive and, therefore, boring.
That’s been my complaint for years about the Olympics and explains why I’ve pretty much stopped watching them. This year, however, I’ve had a new complaint about the absence of drama. I think I’ll call it the Tom Friedman problem. Some time ago, Friedman wrote a book called The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century.
In his all too imitable, hackneyed style, Friedman’s book points out the obvious, which is that we increasingly live in a world in which people and ideas can easily get around. There are still borders, but affordable travel, mass immigration, the end of the Cold War, and the internet have meant that people in the West, Asia, and Central and Eastern Europe enjoy a freedom of movement never before imagined. For the most part, I think this is a good thing . . . but it makes for bad Olympics.
In the old days, the athletes at the Olympics were tied closely to the country that they represented. Americans athletes trained in America, Japanese athletes trained in Japan, Eastern Bloc athletes trained in the Eastern Bloc, etc. That’s all gone now.
For example, take 18-year-old Yuzuru Hanyu, who won gold for Japan in men’s figure skating. He is simply phenomenal, someone who manages to make all those jumps and turns look simultaneously effortless and powerful. While he began his training in Japan, for the last two years, he’s been training in Canada. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it does make his victory less about his native land and more about his innate ability combined with the best international coaching. In the same way, America’s premier ice dancers, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, train with their competitors, Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. That’s flat earth stuff.
If you track through the list of Olympic athletes, you’ll see that many others train far away from their home countries. Again, there’s nothing wrong with their doing that but, to the extent that the Olympics used to be about nations competing against each other through their home-grown athletes, that tension is increasingly vanishing and, with it, some of the fun tension behind the games is vanishing too.
It’s not just the Tom Friedman-ized internationalized athletes that make the Olympics a bit dull. As Ben Shapiro notes, the end of the Cold War has also reduced the games’ excitement:
In the past, classic Olympic Games have acted as a sort of cathartic battle of nations, in which geopolitical foes duke it out on the playing fields, ice, or slopes. The Lake Placid Olympic Games, for example, married great hockey with high political drama: coming in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and at the low ebb of American power, the Miracle on Ice inspired a nation as a group of college boys took on the mighty Soviet hockey machine. Geopolitical drama lessened but did not die after the Cold War; in 2008, the specter of thousands of seeming automatons banging drums at the opening of the Beijing Games frightened and enthralled the world, reminding us that China was a nation on the rise, a competitor for global dominance.
Considering that Putin eyes world domination and is not friendly to America, you’d think that we’d have some enjoyable competitive tension between nations. We don’t, though. According to Shapiro, the problem is that the focus isn’t on major world issues, such as Syria, the Ukraine, and other areas in which freedom and totalitarianism clash. Instead, says Shapiro, the media has reduced the entire Olympics to a gay rights campaign. And while gays should be accorded civil rights wherever they live, turning them into a major geopolitical flashpoint isn’t flashy at all. Instead, it’s somehow very drab and is a convenient way of avoiding more pressing issues about freedom in Russia and beyond:
The media have centered the Sochi Olympics drama entirely on the question of whether gays and lesbians in Russia can kiss in public – even as Russia continues to fund nuclear development for a country that hangs gays. The truth is that while Russian treatment of gays and lesbians is abysmal, it ranks somewhere near the middle of the pack in terms of global treatment: homosexuality is fully legal in Russia, and less than a dozen people have been arrested under the infamous anti-gay propaganda law. This isn’t quite Kristallnacht.
But anti-homosexual laws are part of a broader problem in Russia: a problem of oppression and corruption, of lost power and attempts to reclaim it. So why not focus on the real problem of Russia? Why not draw a moral narrative pitting American freedom against Russian repression and expansionism?
There’s a rationale for that failure of narrative: were the press to point out Russia is a threat to US interests, the press would have to acknowledge that President Obama is weak. The press would have to openly recognize that Obama has been bested by a two-bit KGB bully. Obama, in other words, would have to lose.
(Please read Ben Shapiro’s whole article here. It’s worth your time.)
Put another way, Thomas Friedman’s entire flat earth theory has been reduced to the flat surface known as a bed, as Western reporters anxiously peer into Russian beds and try to divine who is sleeping in them free from or burdened by prejudice. In our new Flat Earth world, we are no longer riven by nationalities or ideologies. Instead, we’re trying to decide through athletics which country treats its gays best.
Gays, like Jews, are the canaries in the coal mine. They thrive in free societies and suffer under tyrannies. The remedy isn’t to focus narrowly on their suffering but, instead, to attack the tyrannies root and branch. Our media, however, is so busy with the petty stuff that it’s incapable of realizing that doing so gives a free pass to the very circumstances that subject Russian gays to everything from insults to deadly persecution.
Having now complained about the boring, draggy Olympic production, I nevertheless applaud the individual athletes who have given over their entire lives to this moment. As a well-seasoned adult, I think it’s a rather foolish way to spend ones time, but I nevertheless think it’s wonderful that, in free societies, people have the absolute right to engage in activities that require innumerable surgeries or that can see all their efforts thrown away in hundredths of seconds.
My favorite moment was U.S. figure skater Jeremy Abbott’s amazing will power. Having hit the ice with appalling force across his hip and ribs, he nevertheless gathered himself up and completed a near perfect program, succumbing to the pain only when he left the ice. I also really enjoyed the cool pleasure with which T.J. Oshie scored the winning shoot-off goals. Most people would have been sweating bullets were they in his shoes. He just looked relaxed and happy.