Roundtable Reflections on the Rio Olympics, Part 2

This week we’re offering our thoughts and reflections on the recently completed Rio Olympics. Today is part two of our roundtable. It features a Q&A with four of our contributors — Cat Ariail, Josh Howard, Andrew McGregor, and Lindsay Parks Pieper — about their views on the Rio Olympics and its legacy as both scholars and sports fans. Feel free to share you thoughts and answers to the questions in the comments below!

What was the highlight/best part of the Rio Olympics for you?

Cat:

Since I study track athletes in the U.S. and Jamaica, the track dominance of athletes from these nations thrilled me. While I was disappointed that Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce did not three-peat in the 100-meters, the emergence of Elaine Thompson as her successor is exciting. The performance of the U.S. women in the 4×100 relay was particularly impressive. The precision, intensity, and focus of Tianna Bartoletta, English Gardner, Tori Bowie, and Allyson Felix exemplified female athletic excellence. In my research, I argue that U.S. and Jamaican track athletes, both female and male, fundamentally have influenced international sport by destabilizing racialized gender arrangements and understandings in the sports world; developments in Rio suggest this will continue.

Because the Olympics attract both casual and devoted U.S. sport fans, I believe the competence and quality displayed by U.S. and Caribbean track women is especially significant, helping to establish these women as legitimate images of an elite athleticism. At the 1948 Olympics in London, the U.S.’s Alice Coachman and Audrey Patterson and Jamaica’s Cynthia Thompson (no relation to Elaine) and Carmen Phipps introduced black female athleticism to world, with Coachman winning gold in the high jump, Patterson capturing the bronze in the 200-meters, Phipps qualifying for the high jump finals, and Thompson finishing sixth in the 100-meters. These women were notable for their atypical-ness, from how they diverged from and thus disrupted the normative image of an athlete.

In contrast, the primetime Olympic performances of today’s U.S. and Jamaican track women normalize them as elite athletes. While they likely will not surpass the popularity and acclaim of Usain Bolt and their other male counterparts, seeing these women compete and succeed in the same sport space (both in the stadium and on national television) as internationally-celebrated male athletes visually positions them as equal possessors and representatives of elite athleticism. Performances in Rio suggest women from the U.S. and Caribbean will continue to dominate the track and, in turn, influence popular understandings of who is and can be an elite athlete

Josh:

Rugby Sevens was amazingly fun. Track & Field is always great. Basketball, both men’s and women’s, was a bit of a snoozer, but still fun. Nearly all of the individuals who were supposed to perform well did perform well. Wayde van Niekerk was probably the top individual performance for me, along with his amazing coach.

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Andrew:

I’m biased because I’m a track junky, but I also loved seeing Wayde van Niekerk break the 400m record. 43.03 is incredible! His story, his coach, and the long odds from lane 8 were awesome. Then, right afterwards we had the 100m final with Usian Bolt capturing his third consecutive gold medal in that event. It was a great hour of TV. The U.S. women sweeping the 100m hurdles final was pretty cool as well as the 4x100m relay. I also think an under appreciated highlight is the U.S. Women’s Basketball team continuing not just its gold medal streak, but its 49 game unbeaten streak dating back to 1992. They’ve won 6 gold medals in a row, and 8 out of 11 gold medals awarded dating to 1976.

Lindsay:

I really enjoyed swimming and the records (timed and social) set by Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, and Michael Phelps. Something that stood out to me, though, was the Opening Ceremonies. I appreciate that the organizing committee took a few political stands. Opting to break from the self-glorification of past welcomes, the organizing committee waded through Brazil’s history with slavery and highlighted the threat of global warming. The call for sustainability was particularly significant as the Olympics are notorious for environmental damage.

What was the lowlight/worst part of the Rio Olympics for you?

Cat:

I was dismayed by NBC’s nationalism-drenched coverage. NBC certainly should celebrate the achievements of U.S. athletes. However, supporting the U.S. does not require unquestionably praising the dominance of U.S. athletes while automatically rendering suspicious the excellent accomplishments athletes of other nationalities. In the pool, Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky achieved unprecedented feats. After a disappointing performance in London, Phelps not only reasserted his superiority but also demonstrated notable longevity. Ledecky proved herself a register above her competitors, competing more with NBC’s yellow line than the other swimmers in the pool. The exceptional greatness of Phelps and Ledecky was explained by the fact that they are great. Yet, the achievements of Hungary’s Katinka Hosszú roused speculation about performance enhancing drug usage and/or abusive treatment by her husband-coach.

Similarly, Ethiopia’s and Kenya’s female middle-distance runners were assumed to be performance enhancing drug users. The performances of Genzebe Diababa, Tirunesh Dibaba, Vivian Cherulyot, Faith Kipyegon, and Almaz Ayana immediately were considered illegitimate. In contrast, the uncharacteristically strong performances of U.S. distance runners were explained by dedication, pluck, and grit. The amazing successes of Mo Farah, Wade Van Niekerk, and Usain Bolt (who respectively represent Great Britain and English-speaking nations that once belonged to the British Empire) likewise were accepted as evidence of these athletes’ in-born greatness. These men were celebrated for pushing the boundaries of human potential, yet such boundary pushing potential was presumed impossible female African runners.

As argued by multiple journalists and politicians, the diversity of the U.S.’s Olympic team offered a progressive, pluralistic version of American nationalism, with the achievements of non-white and non-Christian U.S. athletes representing a physical refutation to the white ethno-nationalism of Donald Trump. Although I agree with these sentiments, the potential power of this progressive nationalism has been diminished by the tendency to consider the performances of non-white, non-English speaking athletes suspicious, especially in the prominent Olympic sports of swimming and track. Such suspicions represent a less odious version of Trump’s suspicion of immigrants and non-white and/or non-Christian Americans. Just as Trump and his supporters otherize and delegitimize those supposedly stealing white American jobs, U.S. Olympic fans otherized and delegitimized athletes stealing our medals.

We at Sport in American History know that sport is not separate from politics. As many seek to understand the rise of Trump, sport also deserves consideration as a partial explainer. The attitudes condoned during the Olympic Games expose the broader nationalist ideological context in which Trumpism has festered. Although far from a panacea, equally considering the achievements of all athletes, regardless of nationality, can serve as a small yet needed blow against the grosser strains of American nationalism.

Josh:

Without question, it was NBC’s coverage of the games, especially once I became aware of how CBC in Canada and the BBC in the UK aired nearly all sports with limited interruption and commentary. NBC produced so many promos and packages. None were interesting or entertaining and only served to distract from the actual product. What’s infuriating is the product is entertaining enough to stand on its own. Even my 85-year-old grandmother (NBC’s demographic) who is not a sports fan complained there wasn’t enough actual sports during the primetime coverage. That says something to me.

Also, Olympics boxing is a joke and has been since at least the 1980s. Either end the sport or come up with another way to remove judges from the situation. Olympics golf was a mess that should have never happened.

Andrew:

The whole Ryan Lochte thing, which seems to just get worse by the day. Nylon had a great piece on him, describing him as the personification of white male privilege. Like everyone else, I’m not a fan of NBC’s coverage – from the tape delay, to the sexism, to the nationalistic focus. And, the U.S. Men’s 4x100m Relay, they really need to work on their hands offs. Then, I was shocked at how long it took the commentators (and Twitter) to figure out why they were disqualified. Can we get some IAAF rulebooks in the booth?

Lindsay:

The way the media and other athletes treated South African runner Caster Semenya. First, she endured cruel speculation before the 800-meter final. Press organizations unethically and salaciously speculated about her biology to an international audience. This coverage largely focused on unfounded questions of fairness instead of discussing how prevailing notions of femininity shape harmful gender policies. Then, after the race, Semenya’s (white) competitors denigrated her accomplishment–their unsportsmanlike comments twinged with racism. To top it off, the IAAF now says it intends to push forward in reinstating gender testing.

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What do you think the legacy of Rio will be? Will it be sports based, economics, environmental, political?

Cat:

I fear that the Rio Olympics will further embolden the IOC. Despite Rio’s political, social, and environmental instability, the Games proved successful. Rio’s success, like Sochi’s, may convince the IOC that it can conduct a successful Olympics in spite of a city and nation’s mitigating realities. Many hoped the Rio Games would do the opposite; Rio appeared to have the potential to puncture the IOC’s presumptions and produce a new Olympic model. Instead, Rio may have proven the hegemonic malleability of the Olympics, suggesting that future Games will go on in oppressive authoritarian states, unstable democracies, and any willing nation regardless of sociopolitical and environmental circumstances.

Josh:

I really can’t say, but I’m crossing my fingers that Rio will be the beginning of the end for the modern Olympics bidding process. Creating a permanent location (or locations) makes too much sense at this point.

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Andrew:

I think we’re already seeing the legacy being crafted in the media as something of a “Women’s Games,” celebrating American female athletes out performing their male counterparts. For the second straight Olympics the U.S. women out won the men (though by a smaller margin this year). They were joined by 28 other countries who’s women’s teams did the same. NBC took notice, devoting 58.5% of its primetime coverage to women’s events, according to Vox. Many of the top stories focused on the individual performances of women, like Simone Biles, Simone Manuel, Allyson Felix, Katie Ledecky, Lily King, and Monica Puig. With exception of Felix and Puig, these athletes are all also relatively young with the potential to return in 2020. This offers a nice parallel to the other overarching narrative of the 2016 Olympics – it was the swan song for many iconic male Olympians, like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt.

Coming into the games, I saw them as part of a larger tendency by the Olympics and other major international sporting competitions (like the World Cup), to welcome emerging (and non-western) industrial nations to the world’s stage. This narrative has been used to describe the 1964 Tokyo Game, Mexico City in 1968, Seoul, South Korea in 1988, and most recently Beijing in 2008 as well as the 2010 World Cups in South Africa. New countries and new continents were welcomed as civil and safe enough to peacefully host the global spotlight. Recently, however, these narratives have fallen flat when we look at Sochi in 2014, issues surrounding the Brazil World Cup, and controversy of the Qatar bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Corruption and instability undermine the professed noble goals of international sport. I think Rio will likely fall into this second category (joining the 2014 World Cup). While the Olympics likely had a hand in making the ongoing economic, political, and environmental issues of Brazil worse, I think,the role of the Games in these areas will be downplayed or written off entirely as something predating the Olympics. Instead, the short timespan between the World Cup and the Olympics will be scrutinized, leaving us to wonder if Brazil was ready or worthy of an invitation onto the global stage.

Lindsay:

Unfortunately, I think Rio will be remembered as a political spectacle, similar to the legacy of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. In the days leading up to the 1968 Games, student protests over governmental expenditures resulted in a violent clash known as the Tlatelolco Massacre. The political unease in Rio before the games bears a striking resemblance to the upheaval in Mexico City.

What moment or performance we will be talking about/studying years from now?

Cat:

I hope that the much-debated performance of Caster Semenya inaugurates a new era for the Olympics and sport more broadly. While the decision to permit Semenya to compete can be viewed as indicative of IOC and IAAF incompetence, I choose to view it as promising competence. Sport, especially the Olympic Games, has long-served as an arena for bolstering the normative gender binary. By allowing Semenya to compete, the IOC and IAAF implicitly are admitting the falsity of this construction. Rather than propping up gender arrangements, the inclusion of Semenya suggests that the Olympic Games and international sport can become spaces that productively problematize calcified understandings of gender and sex.

Gender and sex belie the neat categorization suggested by gender/sex-segregated sport. Thus, the inclusion of intersex, as well as transgender, athletes in sporting events organized around gender/sex-segregation will produce imperfect solutions. However, I believe favoring inclusion over exclusion represents a progressive step forward. The athletes who compete in the Olympic Games symbolize those who are accepted as global citizens. Allowing intersex and transgender athletes to compete thereby signals the rightful membership of these persons in the global population. Hopefully, Caster Semenya’s 800-meter gold in Rio will be considered a historical turning point for the relationship between gender, sex, and sport.

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Andrew:

We are already seeing scholars – like Lindsay – study issues at the forefront of the Rio Games, such as gender identity and sex testing. Feyisa Lilesa’s demonstration at the end of the marathon will likely be studied as an important political event similar to 1968. The recently announced 6-month ban for Hope Solo following her comments will also elicit further analysis. Some have already placed Simone Manuel’s historic achievement within the context of the history of race and swimming pools, and that will continue. So too will work on the racial and gendered media treatment of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team.

Lindsay:

The barring of Russian track and field athletes for state-sponsored doping. On the one hand, the IOC’s decision was unprecedented. Never before has a national team been banned from the Olympics for doping. Prohibitions usually result from governmental actions, such as South Africa’s system of apartheid and Afghanistan’s mistreatment of women under the Taliban. The doping ban marks a potential turning point. But on the other hand, the pushback also illuminates the difficulties in stopping performance enhancement. Some suggest the Russian state-sponsored system is only the tip of the iceberg and that doping is widespread.

What does the IOC, NBC, USOC, etc. need to improve for 2020?

Cat:

Rather than improvement, I wish NBC would give the Olympics to ESPN. Despite its flaws, I believe ESPN would produce a much better Olympics product. Most basically, due to its more frequent experience broadcasting high-profile sporting events, I think ESPN would improve the viewer experience. The multi-channel, multi-platform viewer experience the network has provided for the past two college football national championships seems like an excellent model to follow for the Olympics, providing broadcast options to satisfy both casual fans who enjoy human interest stories and serious sport fans who desire more technical knowledge.

While ESPN did offer significant coverage of the Rio Games, I believe that if the network had full broadcast rights it would invest fully in covering the Games and offer wide-ranging, high-quality content. Because the company houses a diversity of journalistic voices and platforms, ESPN could feature Olympic-saturated coverage form a variety of perspectives, from the reactionary (Sportscenter, First Take) to the progressive (The Undefeated, espnW) to the investigative (E:60, Outside the Lines) to the historical (30 for 30). This diversity would be a welcome contrast to NBC’s monolithic and uncritical approach. As demonstrated by the successful OJ: Made in America documentary, ESPN has the potential to produce critical and historicized commentary that is entertaining for sport fans and satisfying to sport scholars. The Olympic Games present a plethora of possibilities for similar analysis. However, maybe I am investing to much hope in the World Wide Leader and, let’s face it, I would miss John Williams’s iconic theme song (and, due to the changing sport-media-technology landscape, my fantasy musings may seem antiquated by 2020).

Josh:

What don’t they need to improve? The IOC clearly rivals FIFA in terms of blatant corruption and is in dire need for reform. Yet somehow I still get giddy when Athletics events start… not to mention when Shinzo Abe appeared in the Mario warp pipe at the closing ceremony!

Andrew:

The time zone for Japan might help NBC not seem so bad, but I would still like more live coverage and streaming options where you don’t have to give money to evil cable companies like Comcast. For all the talk about how baseball is dying, MLB has had been doing the streaming thing the right way for 10 years. If I could buy a two week streaming pass for like $10-$20 dollars I would. The U.S. men obviously need to work on better relay hand offs.

Lindsay:

I’d like to see the IOC and USOC add more women to leadership positions. A report by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that only 24.4% of IOC members and 31% of the USOC are women. Including women at the top would hopefully lead to better treatment of female Olympians. In this vein, NBC needs to improve its coverage of women. There were countless examples of sexist coverage, from treating the women’s gymnasts like boy-obsessed teenagers to crediting husbands for record performances.


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.

Josh Howard is Assistant Professor of Public History at Lamar University. Howard has an upcoming article in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography on amateur baseball and “gentlemanliness” in Appalachian Virginia and created The Wendell Smith Papers, a digital archive and exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African-American studies. He is also the founding co-editor of this blog. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter:@admcgregor85

Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College and the Book Review Editor of Sport in American History. She can be reached at pieper.l@lynchburg.edu and can be followed on Twitter @LindsayPieper. Check out her website atwww.lindsayparkspieper.com.

One thought on “Roundtable Reflections on the Rio Olympics, Part 2

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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