The headline on the cover story in the New York Times Sunday Review on July 3: “An Olympic Catastrophe.” It was about Rio, of course. About the litany of serious, major problems facing the local organizers of the 2016 Summer Games that begin with Opening Ceremonies on Aug. 5. Among the issues the story addresses:
- A mosquito-borne Zika virus of epidemic proportion.
- A financial crisis that threatens the readiness of venues and transportation systems.
- Security, or the lack of it, for the estimated 500,000 tourists expected to attend. Murder and robbery rates are up; drug traffickers are in fights over turf.
If you’ve followed the news, you know there are other concerns, too, that the early-July Times story didn’t cover, not the least of which are pollution (human sewage, oil slicks) in the bay that is a site for some of the water sports and the terrorism threat that has loomed over the preparations for every Olympic organizing committee in the last half-century or so. Police in Brazil recently arrested 10 people suspected of plotting attacks during the Rio Games.
Then there’s this recent news. With less than two weeks to go before the Opening Ceremonies, the Australian team temporarily refused to move into the Olympic Village because of, among other things, “blocked toilets, leaking pipes and exposed wiring,” according to a team spokesperson.
Gosh ‘n golly gee whillikers, is it too late to book the trip and pack my bags? I mean, what could go wrong?
OK, so like most of us, I’ll be consuming the Games on television rather than live and in person. And, like most of us, I’ll be watching to see Michael Phelps swim, Usain Bolt run, Simone Boles balance and Kevin Durant shoot. But it feels as if I could be watching a carnival sideshow, too, in a rubbernecking sort of way. Webster defines it as “to look about or survey with unsophisticated amazement or curiosity.” Like at a multi-car pileup on the interstate, or a train wreck.
Ahh, but there’s the rub. How much of the calamity that could characterize these Games will we actually see on NBC? It’s possible that, as Gil Scott-Heron wrote some 45 years ago, “The revolution will not be televised.” More on that shortly.
First, let’s back up a bit. The teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing going on about Rio in the days, weeks and months before the Games begin isn’t unusual. It’s a rite of passage for the organizers of just about every Olympics, especially Summer Olympics, over the last decades, although the severity of Rio’s pre-Games predicaments appear to be raising that bar significantly.
In London (2012), the pre-Games concerns were about shortages of security personnel; about terrorism threats; about buses carrying athletes, media and tourists getting lost en route to venues; about advance tickets not selling.
In Beijing (2008), everyone knew smog was going to be a problem. (It was.) But there were also ecological concerns (algae blooms at the sailing venue), human rights issues (the government cracked down on demonstrators ahead of the Games) and, of course, terrorism threats.
In Athens (2004), the worries involved construction delays, security gaps (terrorism again, the constant through all Olympic Games going back at least as far as Munich in 1972) and transportation shortcomings.
There’s more. The lead-up to the Sydney Games in 2000 included protests by Aborigines over past injustices, and serious environmental hazard issues concerning the construction of a volleyball venue on Bondi Beach. Four years earlier in Atlanta, construction delays, technology glitches and transportation confusion marked the days and weeks before the Opening Ceremonies.
All of the above was deemed newsworthy … at the time. Before those Games began. Just as the problems in Rio are newsworthy right now.
Maybe that early-summer, every-four-years cry of “wolf!” is in part a media creation, forged from our tendency to accentuate the negative. I can’t quantify or prove that sort of bias exists, but I’ve been in and around the media long enough to suspect it might, and I won’t rule out the possibility that there might be an element of it in the kind of “news” from Rio being reported ahead of the Opening Ceremonies.
The thing is, when all is said and done and those past Olympics were in our rear-view mirrors, we never seemed to dwell on much of that pre-Games negativity. Instead, from Atlanta, for example, we remember gymnast Kerri Strug’s courageous one-footed vault, Michael Johnson’s marvelous wins in the 200 and 400 meters, Muhammad Ali lighting the torch. From Sydney, we remember Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner’s stunning gold medal win, Misty Hyman’s upset victory over the heavy favorite Susie O’Neill from Australia in the pool, the USA’s victory over Cuba in baseball.
From Athens: Michael Phelps’ six gold medals, Paul Hamm’s win in the all-around competition (the first-ever all-around gymnastics gold for a U.S. man), Jeremy Wariner leading a U.S. sweep in the 400 meters, maybe Marian Jones’ botched baton handoff in the 4 x 100-meter relay. From Beijing … well, you get the picture.
It isn’t the pre-Games problems we remember. It’s the competition, and the visceral way in which we react to Olympian wins and losses in the biggest arena in sports. That’s the way it’s been in nearly every Olympic Games for which most of us have been alive. (A couple of exceptions: The massacre in Munich in ’72 and the Black Power salute by John Carlos and Tommie Smith in Mexico City in 1968 are still fairly prominent in the public consciousness.)
In great measure, that’s the beauty of the Olympics and the Olympic spirit, of course. That’s why I’ve watched in the past, and that’s a big part of what I’ll want out of Rio, too. But don’t think for a moment that NBC (and ABC, too, before NBC began its run of high-priced rights buys for the Games in 1988) hasn’t played a hugely significant role in shaping our perceptions, including mine, of the Olympics, and what we remember about them.
The network needs the Games to be chock-full of feel-good stories (the thrill of victory) and on-the-field-of-play human drama (the agony of defeat) to make those monster rights fees pay off in the ratings; NBC forked over $1.2 billion to partner with the IOC for the rights to broadcast the upcoming Olympics in Rio. Of course it’ll be telling us the stories it thinks most of us want to hear, the stories that will most resonate with a.) the advertisers who paid their own king’s ransom to buy time on the Olympic broadcasts; and b.) the IOC itself, which depends on our continued faith in the ideals of the Olympic movement for its own sustainability. (You know, “to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”) All totally understandable, by the way. I get it.
So … Zika? Human body parts washing up on a beach in front of the volleyball venue? Trouble on the new (and untested) rail line meant to connect Rio’s top hotel district to the Olympic Park? Those sorts of scenes aren’t going to make for the good TV on which the network’s advertisers depend and so on which NBC is banking. Too much of those over NBC’s air, and maybe the IOC re-thinks its relationship with the Peacock.
Will those problems be a part of the coverage, assuming they are realities during the Games? Sure. NBC News will be in Rio and will most certainly be looking into those issues. But it’s a safe bet that there will be, and have been, some high-level conversations taking place between NBC’s news execs and Olympics unit execs about how prominently those concerns can or should be played during the network’s prime-time competition broadcast windows, when most of us are in front of our screens.
Think back 20 years. Through NBC’s coverage, the city of Atlanta presented itself during the 1996 Summer Games as the embodiment of all that is good in the modern South. And yet, Peter Applebome of the New York Times wrote this as those Olympics began with the Opening Ceremonies: “The Games pose the question about just which image is closer to the real South, the exuberant show of interracial regional harmony and shared Southern culture that 3.5 billion viewers across the world saw Friday night or the escalating controversies over the Confederate battle flag and antebellum history that increasingly divide white and black Southerners?”
I watched NBC in ’96, and I don’t remember seeing much about racial strife, or about the destruction of several traditionally black Atlanta neighborhoods to make way for Olympic construction, or about the rampant commercialism that tidal-waved its way through the Olympic experience for visitors to the city.
In Rio, much like in Atlanta, the preparations for the Games have included the sudden removal from their homes of thousands of residents of some of the city’s slums. In many cases, they’ve been relocated to places great distances from their families and jobs. How much of that Olympic legacy will NBC show us?
It’s a fascinating push-pull. How deeply will the imperatives of news coverage impinge on the imperatives of the image-making the network needs to do to keep feeding the Olympics promotional beast? Can we trust NBC to tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the Rio Games?
I’m not terribly optimistic. And yet, I’ll enjoy watching.