In the months preceding the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the news media has been getting into shape for the event by exercising a familiar set of adjectives: “Troubled.” “Beleaguered.” “Disastrous.”
The Rio Games face numerous problems, according to news accounts, and here are just a few: The city’s collapsing economy. Brazil’s political instability. Corruption. Crime. Incomplete and substandard facilities. Zika.
Rather than hailing the quadrennial gathering of the world’s youth in the spirit of peaceful competition and international harmony, the news media has served up headlines such as this: “In Brazil’s Olympic bay, tides of death and ecological devastation.”
It’s not clear what all this portends for the Games, which begin Friday, but it’s also not particularly unusual. Dramatic doom-predicting headlines are all part of the game, or Games, by now. Every Olympics of recent memory, summer or winter, has been “troubled.” It’s practically the modern Olympics’ first name, as familiar as the crack of the starting gun, as cliched as the phrase “going for the gold.”
The buildup to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014 was a carnival of bummers, too, from accounts of shoddy housing to outrage over Russia’s anti-gay and anti-lesbian law to the rampant crony corruption among the friends of Vladimir Putin. London, host of the Summer Games in 2012, was all about cost overruns and traffic nightmares beforehand. The lack of snow worried the media before the Vancouver Winter Games in 2010. Beijing in 2008? Air pollution and government oppression.
Much of this will be forgotten, or perhaps just ignored, when NBC and its allied networks put their golden TV gloss over all the running, jumping and swimming during the next two weeks. If previous Games are any guide — and NBC has covered almost every Olympics since 1988 — the networks’ announcers and hosts may mention Rio’s many problems, but only in passing. A company doesn’t pay billions of dollars to the International Olympic Committee, as NBC has over the past 28 years, to bum out viewers before commercial breaks.
Nevertheless, the news media’s pre-Olympics downerfest is like ozone gas in Beijing, hanging heavily over the proceedings. Writing on her blog, American Olympic rower Megan Kalmoe did a verbal eye-roll recently over the constant questions she receives from the media about the raw sewage in Rio’s water.
“What purpose does it serve to dwell on this?” she wrote. “What benefit can we possibly gain from drilling athletes on their position on the water quality in Rio? None. Or nothing good, anyway. What it seems like to me, is that the media is yet again working really hard to smear the host city, the [International Olympic Committee], and the Olympics as an institution as part of the hype leading in to the Games.”
She added: “Why do we insist on indulging this negativity when there is so much potential for a culture of optimism and positivity in and around the Games? . . . At every turn it seems we are choosing to be jerks.”
Kalmoe’s complaint will sound familiar to anyone who has ever had an issue with the news media, which is just about everyone. But it raises a specific question: Why do the Olympics, unique among major sporting events (and maybe even among major events, period) draw such treatment?
“The Olympics are somewhat easy pickings because they’re not American,” replies Bill Mallon, a historian and the author of 24 books on the Games. “They’re all about foreigners — Italians and Liechtensteiners and all that.” That makes it easier, he suggests, for the American-centric media to bash them.
Few American media outlets have regular Olympic beat writers. Thus, there’s less expertise about the Games, and less commitment, resulting in fewer positive stories to balance off the negative ones, Mallon says. “The U.S. media doesn’t really know [Olympic] athletes and sports, so there’s no balance around it.”
Example: doping. Mallon points out that other sports have drug cheats, but the scandals are more extensively covered around the Olympics (see the ban on Russian athletes). But few stories point out that this may be because the IOC, through the World Anti-Doping Agency, pursues a far more rigorous and extensive testing regime than American sports leagues, whose anti-doping efforts are subject to collective bargaining agreements with players’ unions.
Which is not to say that bad things aren’t happening around the Games.
There are, and have been since the Olympics were revived in 1896; an early scandal involved American marathon runner Frederick Lorz, who “won” the race in the 1904 Summer Games but later admitted he hitched a ride in a car for almost half the 26-mile distance. Media accounts remarking on the civic disruption caused by the Olympics were widespread before the 1908 Summer Games in London, the biggest up to that time, said David Wallechinsky, the president of the International Society of Olympic Historians and the author of “The Complete Book of the Olympics.”
It wasn’t long after the rebirth of the games that nationalism, excessive commercialization and political disputes had become background noise.
The “modern” age of Olympic troubles may have come into sharp focus with the 1960 Summer Games, says David Maraniss, a Washington Post editor and the author of “Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World.”
Maraniss describes a series of controversies, both local and geopolitical, surrounding those Games. Among others, there was a debate about the inclusion of South Africa (apartheid was an issue that flared into an Olympic boycott by African countries in the 1970s), and about whether the IOC would recognize one team from China or two (it chose one; the Republic of China, or Taiwan, marched in the Opening Ceremonies as Formosa under a banner reading “Under Protest”). Despite the postwar division of Germany into East and West, the IOC recognized only one German team “even though they hated one another and the [Berlin Wall] was soon to go up, ” Maraniss says.
By their very nature, the Olympics create “self-fulfilling” media narratives of controversy and potential chaos, said Christine Brennan, a USA Today sports columnist and TV commentator who has covered the past 17 Olympiads. The games are an enormous undertaking, and they start fresh in a new city every two years, she notes, which invariably raises issues about financing, construction, traffic and security.
“It’s the nature of the beast,” she said. “It will always be something.”
If it’s a little messy, well, then so be it, Brennan says. That’s the news.“If people are aware of crime or infrastructure [issues] in Rio, that means we’ve been doing our job.”
Many of the worst fears in the run-up to recent Olympics — traffic armageddon in Los Angeles in 1984, terrorism in Athens in 2004, pollution-related deaths in Beijing in 2008 — never materialized.
So maybe all the bad news about Rio will look overwrought, too, once the Games conclude Aug. 21. “Are we overemphasizing Rio’s problems now?” Brennan asks. “We don’t know. I’ll give you the answer on Aug. 21.”