The Rio Olympics ended a few weeks ago to great fanfare. Despite pessimistic forecasts fueled by controversy over the Zika virus and Brazilian corruption scandals, the events proceeded without serious mishap. A satisfied world now looks forwards to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Also excited are the Americans, who have just come off with a 121 medal domination of the field, almost double the nearest competitor. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, dominating the Olympics has become Team USA’s modus operandi and has become expected by the American population. This expectation is reinforced by the chief broadcaster of the Olympics in the US: NBC. By virtue of this power, NBC becomes the arbiter of when and what sports to air to the American audience. Although NBC did offer access to all events on its online streaming platform, the majority of American viewers saw only the events that NBC chose to air on its TV channels, especially those featured during prime time. The inordinate power NBC wields over what Americans watch in turn gives the network an extended control over what Olympic feats their viewers discuss and care about. Unfortunately, NBC wields this great power in a way that almost exclusively emphasizes US athletes’ prowess while underplaying the achievements of athletes from the rest of the world.
The way NBC runs its Olympic coverage reinforces a disproportionately false sense of American athletic superiority over the rest of the world, which may in turn be generalized beyond athleticism alone. Athletes of other nations, especially those from Russia and China, were treated more negatively, less as individuals, and more as figureheads for their countries than American athletes. The portrayals of American Justin Gatlin and Russian Yulia Efimova illustrate NBC’s double standard. Both had been convicted of doping in the past, yet Efimova’s history of doping was demonized and dogged her entire stay at Rio, while Gatlin’s sordid past went with little mention. This disproportionate treatment creates the unconscious impression among viewers that Americans are almost by definition ‘good’, while athletes from the other parts of the world must maintain a spotless record in order not to be demonized. Despite the fact that Olympic athletes are supposed to be above politics and only be judged on their abilities, the American media cannot help but reflect Americans’ stereotypes and prejudices, which clouds an objective analysis of the competition.
In addition to this unfair framing, NBC primetime coverage featured cherry-picked replays from earlier uncovered events that disproportionately reflected America’s dominance in sports. Events that Americans excelled at, especially those in which they performed better than expected, were more likely to be featured. Similarly, events that Americans lagged behind in or underperformed at were largely hidden, such as the case with burying certain men’s gymnastics event coverage to after midnight due to poor performance, or the exclusion of covering men’s beach volleyball over previous Olympics. NBC’s approach to coverage plays into nationalistic sentiments and dismisses the accomplishments of foreign athletes. In an attempt to create a happy ending, NBC, like a feel-good movie, artificially manufactures tension to a higher degree than what exists and positively rewards the audience with an American triumph that is supposedly more remarkable than the triumphs of other nations’ athletes.
There is no doubt this method draws American viewers and brings them back every four years, yet American athletes dominate so often that we are indeed growing tired of winning, at least compared to many nations around the world. While an American winning an event may provide a momentary pleasure to Americans, it rarely has a national, euphoric, validating effect, as is true for most nations participating. Victories prove on an international stage that one’s nation, no matter how small, deserves to be treated as an equal. Nevertheless, out of the 207 participating delegations at Rio, 120 walked away without a medal; 72 have never medaled. When athletes from these delegations do win, they become national heroes to an extent we Americans can hardly envision with our high yearly medal count: the Fijians’ embrace of their flag in support of their sevens rugby team to win their first medal (gold) inspired Fijian President Bainimarama to halt the move to redesign it, Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin becoming the first Iranian woman to win a medal (bronze 57kg taekwondo) proved to Iranian women they do not live in a man’s world, Majlinda Kelmendi won the gold medal for women’s 52kg judo in Kosovo’s Olympic debut, demonstrating to the world that nascent state of Kosovo deserves to be internationally recognized as an equal to others in the world. The Olympics represent a time in which the world comes together and interacts with each other in high camaraderie, and although NBC’s Olympics generates high ratings, it lacks this convivial celebration and mutual appreciation.
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