Roundtable Reflections on the Rio Olympics, Part 1

Last night NBC aired the Closing Ceremony of the Rio Olympics, officially ending the Games of the XXXI Olympiad. The contributors to Sport in American History watched many of the 306 athletic events over the past 19 days with enthusiasm and interest. This week on the blog we offer our thoughts and reflections as both scholars and sports fans.

Today’s roundtable post features three rapid response essays focusing primarily on the media coverage of the Olympics. First, Wesley R. Bishop reflects on watching the Olympics inside NBC’s media bubble, and how homogenized mass media and the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) attempt to police political behavior undermines much of the beauty within the Olympic spirit. Next, Cat Ariail ponders the experiences of Lilly King and Gabby Douglas, wondering if the tropes of “apologetic behavior” and the “feminine bargain” changed or evolved during the Rio Games. Finally, based on his anecdotal observations watching the Olympics second-hand (i.e. through social media), Andrew McGregor wonders if the nationalistic model of Olympic broadcasting and fandom is outdated.

Wesley Bishop:

Watching the Olympics, for me, was an interesting experience. The Olympics just so happened to coincide with a personal decision I made to temporarily take a break from Facebook, and other social media. What I’ve found was that over the years (nine in total for using the platform of Facebook) was that social media had become the predominant way I received my news. Updates on politics, current events, and global affairs were almost universally reported to me through my Facebook wall/timeline. Yet, as the Olympics proceeded I did not have this. The result was almost complete reliance on networks like NBC to tell me what was happening in Rio. Gone were the reports of the protesters in Rio trying to disrupt the torch as it made its way to the games. Gone were the critical political analysis from various sites I normally followed. Rarely was there any real discussion (or even mention) of the vital and complex political situation unfolding in Rio. Criticism of the IOC, or the Olympic Games in general, were completely missing.

My partner, who was still on social media during the games, would occasionally give me updates beyond the gaze of NBC, and the difference of how we were perceiving the sporting events was telling. She had an entire universe at her fingertips to read and explore what was happening.

For example, one morning NBC reported on how the Olympic village had been attacked by protesters throwing rocks, yet instead of giving any kind of details, reporting what the protests had been about, why they were happening, or the greater socio-political context, NBC quickly moved onto the sporting events saying something to the effect of “That was scary. Hopefully it doesn’t happen again and no one gets hurt.”

The Olympics are a global event. While the Olympics themselves, obviously, do not create political turmoil, economic inequality, or social injustice, but they do highlight those tensions already in existence. In Rio, we saw this with the ongoing coup, political corruption, economic degradation, and social unrest plaguing the country. In the Sochi winter games, we saw this with Russia’s continued issues toward democratic society, the ability of dictators like Putin to use events to solidify power, and the homophobic and transphobic treatment LGBTQ people face around the world. London and Beijing were no different. Tokyo will be the same.

Why? Because humans in all aspects of their global civilizations face political, social, economic, and cultural problems. The Olympics, aside from being a worthy idealistic venue for internationally peaceful and friendly competition, highlights those tensions because for a few weeks it draws the world’s focus to a single place.

The Olympics, and networks like NBC, often run from this radical potential to create awareness and change. This is reflected in NBC’s poor coverage of the issues surrounding the host city and country, as well as IOC leadership which has repeatedly criticized any insertion of conscious politics into the games itself (see controversy over Obama’s IOC delegation to Sochi which included several prominent LGBTQ individuals).

The games have now ended in Rio, and like the proverbial flame that races from continent to continent to symbolize both the transnational and timeless spirit of the games, so too has the media gaze shifted. Like the slums created by the Chinese government in the now neglected Olympic venues from their 2008 hosting, Brazil’s issues will cede from many people’s attention.

Sports, as far as they are an embodiment of peaceful competition and the human drive to improve through conscious determination, need not be white washed apolitical spaces. Politics inevitably enters into all realms of human existence, as politics is the fundamental question of how we organize and address questions of social power and collective decision-making.

Likewise, it is no accident that the nation’s which performed the best overall at the games were former or current global empires. These empires claim gold, and yet insist that all is equal. Such an understanding requires a diversified sphere of exchange in order to be communicated.

The internet itself has been criticized by thinkers such as Cass Sunstein and others for its tendency to over fragment civil society. The basic reasoning goes like, “What will happen once discourse is capable of never forming a consensus? Will people simply stay in their online echo chambers? Will they only read and see what they want to read and see?” The public sphere, therefore, is prescribed to be an arena in need of homogenization; a place where an assumed hegemonic outlook guides our debate and discussion. Watching these games with such a platform, while my partner was able to experience them through a much more fragmented and confusing lens leads me to believe pushes for homogenization are not only misplaced, but also dangerous.

Such a homogenous sphere of exchange, typical in corporate television, is unwilling and incapable of expressing the messy, confusing, and nuanced world the Olympics exist in. If the Olympics contain any value outside mere spectacle it is in the noble ability to encourage the world’s people to learn of one another through mutual respect and sportsmanship. Noting that rivalries, divisions, and difference need not translate into violent conquest or destruction. Yet, to learn such a lesson we need to be willing to experience those games, and the controversies they bring in a way that does not hide from inconvenient realities.

Cat Ariail:

As readers’ of Sport in American History well know, “apologetic behavior” and the “feminine bargain” have served to police female athletes. Both concepts derive from the belief that female athletes can only earn the public’s affection by adhering to conventionally feminine behaviors, thereby requiring female athletes to perform femininity when not on the court, track, or field. Yet, the actions and attitudes at the Rio Olympics may represent a bellwether moment, when female athletes finally have chosen to break their end of their bargain and behave without apology.

Most notably, U.S. swimmer Lilly King “Mutombo’ed” Russia’s Yulia Efimova, mocking Efimova’s similar action in order to castigate her for her use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). King’s repeated finger-wagging, and subsequent decision to position herself as a vocal opponent of the use of PEDs, earned her much praise and a smattering of criticism from the U.S. media. Regardless of the rightness or wrongness of King’s action, the fact that she boldly expressed her emotions and opinions represents a noteworthy departure. While the female athletes of the twenty-first century no longer deny their effort during competition, caution still characterizes the decisions of female athletes outside the immediate moments of competition.

King, in contrast, did not hesitate to taunt her opponent. And she indicated no regret for doing so. She demonstrated that female athletes can also be just as self-assured and self-righteous as their male counterparts. The fact that the reactions to her were expressed without regard for her gender demonstrates the importance of female athletes who reject “apologetic behavior” and the “feminine bargain.” Female athletes only can be appreciated as simply “athletes” if they confidently resist the gendered demands that have been imposed on them for far too long.

However, the freedom to break the “feminine bargain” does not extend to all female athletes. U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas received much criticism for not expressing sufficient enthusiasm for teammates Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, winners of the gold and silver all-round medals. She received additional flack for not putting her hand over her heart and appearing “distracted” during the playing of the U.S. national anthem. Douglas violated apologetic behavior not by exceeding the demands of appropriate female behavior but by not meeting those demands. Instead of performing perky patriotism, she revealed the complex emotions she was likely experiencing, as her teammates’ successes prevented her from having the opportunity to defend her all-round title.

Contrasting the popular responses to King and Douglas reveal that race represents a significant, or even the significant, fissure in contemporary women’s sport. While white female athletes may now enjoy the privilege of violating gender expectations, black female athletes, especially a black female athlete competing in a sport long-defined by white femininity, clearly do not. Overall, the reception for and reactions to female athletes at the 2016 Olympics demonstrate the continued, gradual erosion of sport’s gendered barriers. Yet, the unjust criticism of Douglas illuminates how the intersection of gender, race, and sport still determines the degree of freedom female athletes enjoy. One can rightly wonder how Simone Manuel, the first African American to win an individual gold medal in swimming, would have been received if she had engaged in behaviors like those of King.

Furthermore, it is possible that the fact that King forthrightly defended “clean” sport, a concept associated of white femininity, against a Russian athlete in a moment when Cold War-esque tensions are percolating in sport and politics contributed to the absence of gendered evaluations of her. In other words, her action, while not conventionally feminine, still did not transcend the boundaries of appropriate athletic femininity due the specificities of the historical moment. Thus, the Rio Games simply may highlight the reconstitution of the “feminine bargain” and “apologetic behavior.” These concepts are malleable; they conform to contemporary social and political conditions to police the actions of female athletes. As the differential reactions to King and Douglass illustrate, this policing fractures along lines gender, race, and sport.

However, the Rio Olympics also have revealed how to continue to erode these racialized concepts. The increased diversity of female athletes in all sports productively troubles outmoded associations between specific sports and certain female athlete identities. “Apologetic behavior” and the “feminine bargain” may again reconstitute to meet such changes, but the need to accommodate increased complexity will continue to weaken these concepts. As the uncharacteristic boldness of Lily King’s reveals, real progress has been achieved. With more opportunities for female athletes of all races in all sports, such advancement can continue, leading to a future Olympiad when female athletes fully defeat “apologetic behavior” and the “feminine bargain.”

Andrew McGregor:

I was a little hesitant to participate in this roundtable given that I am a cord-cutter and didn’t get to watch very much of the Rio Games on TV (though by all reports, NBC’s coverage left most wanting more). Yet, as someone who spends entirely too much time on social media, I still felt connected to the Olympics. Not only did I watch highlight videos posted by NBC and USATF of my favorite events and races, but I caught myself following many-live tweeters with eager anticipation. Between live-tweets and highlight reels, my friends sometimes commented on other aspects of the Games. While my observations are entirely anecdotal and unscientific, one trend I noticed surprised me. Nationalistic allegiance did not always determine rooting interest, or interest at all.

The Olympics make many of us go sports crazy. In a lot of ways, they are the Netflix binge of the sporting world. They’re two weeks of non-stop action. They’re an entirely different kind of sporting spectacle than the usual grind of televised professional and big-time college sports.

Part of that is that they are different sports. Sure, there’s soccer, tennis, and basketball, which many of us regularly watch. But there are also obscure things, like handball, race walking, and trampoline. Mixed in are sports that, I think, most Americans don’t view as sports, events like table tennis, canoeing, and dressage. Then there are the sports that many of us participated in, once upon a time, like swimming, track and field, and wrestling. The Olympics give us a chance to indulge in the foreign and obscure as well as see elite athletes compete in the familiar.

As I’ve gotten older, this familiar component has become more pronounced for me, and I see it in my former teammates and friends too. We can relate to the post race exhaustion. We understand the technicalities of the rules. We can intuitively sense the elite nature of the athletes without the talking heads.

Yet, NBC described Olympic viewers, especially female viewers, as “not particularly sports fans” who are “less interested in the result and more interested in the journey.”  A mentality that seemingly suggests only baseball, basketball, and football fans are real sports fans, and perhaps that the Olympics aren’t real sports. Indeed, NBC views the Olympics themselves as “the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one” rather than a premier international sporting event. This might partially explain their poor coverage, which according to Vox is based on an outdated and sexist narrative model.

While this is certainly true, I think they also rely on another outdated model: nationalism. NBC wants to continue broadcasting jingoist pageantry to housewives eating TV dinners and drinking Tang. Based on my observation, most viewers hated it.

Within the first two days of the Rio Games, one of my friends complained on Facebook, “NBC! For gosh sakes, show some other countries! It’s not the American Olympics! Just saying!” Perhaps this set the tenor for my observations, but during these past two weeks I saw some fractures in the overarching nationalistic-based consumption model of Olympic. NBC, of course, thinks nationalism is the best way – perhaps the only way – for us to make sense of these unfamiliar athletes and sports.

One reason why nationalism works, beyond patriotism, is because it helps reify geopolitical tensions in the world. During the Cold War this was the way we viewed the world. For many, China has emerged as the U.S.’s new rival, continuing this legacy. NBC, and really the IOC itself, continues to construct nationalistic narratives for our consumption. It provincializes the Games, following lazy, cookie cutter narratives. While I recognize we can never tear down these “imagined communities,” I think the media coverage could and should do more to deemphasize it (or create new imagined communities, like they did with the refugee team). Even if Olympics coverage is inherently about the journey, why does it have to be only an American one?

Beyond my friends calling for more diversity in coverage, I noticed that many of them actively rooted for and watched other countries. To be sure, some of this was due to the lack of an American competitor, but it also reflects the very fact that they are sports fans and enjoyed watching events to find out the result. I saw this most prominently in three events during the Rio Olympics.

The first was men’s basketball, where the internationalization of the NBA has extended our rooting interests for multiple teams. Pao and Marc Gasol lead the Spanish team, the Australian team features Matthew Dellavedova and Andrew Bogut, Manu Ginobili plays for Argentina, and so on. While these rooting interests did not necessarily displace nationalism, it expanded interest in the Olympics beyond just the U.S. team. It felt sort of like the World Cup, where you, of course, cheer for the U.S. but have a second team for once they are eliminated. Indeed, the fact that the U.S. men’s team didn’t qualify in soccer didn’t stop many of my friends from following and tweeting about the Olympic soccer tournament. Rooting for other nations was also quite common in the more obscure sports, where they easily recognized good athletes and good games.

Next, I saw a lot of interest in the journey of Wayde van Niekerk, who broke the world record in the 400m (from lane 8!). Not only is the South African unconventionally coached by an elderly woman (not his great-grandmother, but a great-grandmother), but his mother was unable to compete internationally due to apartheid. Even with his long shot chances, his story is appealing and important beyond nationalistic narratives.

Similarly, Monica Puig fit this bill. Her amazing match caught the attention of my entire Twitter feed for an afternoon. The unseeded Puerto Rican won Gold in women’s tennis, which offers a chance to speak not just about her long odds but the fact that Puerto Rico even has an Olympic team. In this case, the journey is complicated, fascinating, and educational. It challenges notions of nationalism, sovereignty, and the nation-state.

Finally, I was somewhat surprised by the number of people who openly cheered for Jamaican Usain Bolt instead of American Justin Gatlin in the 100m final. Conventional nationalism teamed with Gatlin’s underdog position would usually have been enough. Of course, Gatlin’s past doping bans, which Lilly King took clear aim at days before, and Bolt’s quest for an unprecedented third consecutive gold medal in the event muddied the waters. Bolt’s affable personality and extreme popularity further bolstered his support, making him a sprinting superstar that transcends the nation. The preference for Bolt is understandable, but I wonder if it is unique to him or if other athletes can attain a similar status. Mo Farah has, who trains in the U.S. and is coached by an American, to a certain extent. Does it require a close proximity or connection to the U.S.? Do you need a big personality or smart marketing? Probably. But the potential is there, and media plays a key role.

As Bolt, and many of other superstar Olympics athletes, retire, we have a chance to tell the journeys of and promote a new generation of global athletes. It is an opportunity to continue seeing beyond national boundaries. Rio has shown me that many fans are already on board because they really are interested sports and care about the result regardless of what flag is raised. They are Americans and they are sports fans, and those identities don’t always have to be united.


Cat Ariail is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Miami. She researches women’s sport and race in the late-twentieth century Americas. You can contact her at cat.m.ariail@gmail.com.

Wesley R. Bishop is a PhD student at Purdue University. He studies the history of the American labor movement, social reform, and cultural representations of the working class. He can be reached for question, comment, or debate at bishopw@purdue.edu

4 thoughts on “Roundtable Reflections on the Rio Olympics, Part 1

  1. Well done. Even though I taped most of what I watched, I am surprised no one addressed the excessive commercials that if clocked (I am sure someone did this) would show an excessive amount of time given over to commercials. Took away the enjoyment of watching.

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  2. Andrew, to your point on nationalism, I’d add, having spent the last month and a half in France, is that the French broadcast was even more nationalistic. Announcers were openly rooting for French athletes to win, and during medal events, the color commentator was reduced to a role of shouting “allez, allez!” in an attempt to will their compatriot to victory. Obviously I didn’t get to watch NBC for comparison, but I was quite surprised by the broadcast- at times, the announcers sounded more like fans in a student section of a college football game than announcers (though I must confess, their language was much more polite).

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