Daniel W. Drezner

When sports, international politics, and Matt Lauer collide

When sports, international politics, and Matt Lauer collide

Your humble blogger has a confession:  he’s not a huge fan of the Olympics.  Actually, let me refine that statement a bit:  I’m not a huge fan of how NBC covers the Olympics.  To put even a finer point on it, NBC’s Olympics coverage drives me around the f***ing bend. 

Let’s take yesterday’s Opening Ceremonies as our example.  First of all, NBC didn’t broadcast the event live on any of the 564 channels they’ve commandeered for the event.  It was possible to watch the live feed online, but NBC’s definition of a "simple, one-time" step to do that seemed rather complex to me.  In an age when social media is gonna be all over global spectacles like this as they’re happening, this desire to constrain coverage to U.S. prime time seems laughable.  Especially since it took all of 2 minutes to find an web end-around NBC’s monopoly. 

When America finally got to see the opening ceremonies, they were… um…. well, they very much like a British fairy tale as told by Danny Boyle:  quite riveting, delightful at times, and a small dollop of gruesome.  These kind of events, when sports, entertainment and politics collide, can be fraught with danger for commentary.  So props to SI’s Alex Wolff for some trenchant analysis

[A]rtistic director Danny Boyle smuggled into the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics a worthy and important thing.

He gave us a chance to celebrate protest and dissent.

Four years ago, after a comparable night on the other side of the globe, the rest of the world had a moment of collective sadness for the London organizers. No way could the stagers of the next Olympics possibly equal Beijing’s lid-lifting spectacle. But tonight we learned that if the guy in front of you zigs, it’s best to zag. Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire, spent almost four times less money and deployed roughly one-tenth as many people. But he outstripped the previous Olympic host city by flaunting what the Chinese actively suppressed….

With The Queen in the house, we heard music from the Sex Pistols, the same band whose God Save the Queenwas banned by the BBC. Boyle meant for us to take to heart that line from The Tempest, read early in the evening by Kenneth Branagh: "Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises."

On these isles of wonder, tumult is a good thing. 

Now, others might disagree that the execution was as sharp as Wolff’s interpretation, but that’s OK, that’s a good conversation.  It would certainly be a better conversation than what took place on NBC during the ceremonies themselves.  Indeed, NBC was so keen to avoid any discussion of political symbolism that they edited out the moving dedication to the victims of the 7/7/2005 terrorist attacks (which took place shortly after it was announced that London would host the Olympics).  Bob Costas threatened to go rogue and offer a moment of silence to honor the Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics, which the IOC rejected doing during the opening ceremonies. Instead, he talked about the controversy during the parade of nations.

Ah, the parade of nations.  To be fair, commenting on this kind of event has to be a pretty thankless task.  Still, there has got to be a better way of doing it than having Matt Lauer read from his thinly-researched and geographically spotty crib sheet.  Might I suggest that, next time around, NBC have one of its foreign correspondents on hand to handle some of the more geopolitically sensitive countries?  Or to let them know who Tim Berners-Lee is

Look, I get that the IOC and NBC want to keep politics out of the Olympics — but that’s pure fantasy.  As long as Olympic teams are organized by country, politics will be omnipresent.  There are two ways to deal with that fact:  willful ignorance (which is the IOC position) or acknowledgement and discussion (which is what Wolff did in his column).  Given that this is one of the few events in which the mass public might actually care about the rest of the world, I’m gonna vote for the latter. 

[So you’re saying you want the coverage to be wall-to-wall politics?  Booooooring!!!-ed.  No, I’m saying that politics plays a supporting role that cannot be suppressed, so why bother trying?]  

On the other hand, if the Oympics is ever organized as a collection of independent Olympic athletes — well, that seems like a pretty cool party

Let the controversy about the Olympic Games begin!!!