(Feb. 8) – THE Winter Olympics are off and running, and the media focus is about the threat of terrorism, Vladimir Putin’s motives in holding the expensive games, and why a backward town in the old Soviet Union that has been a center of human rights abuse for years is somehow – surprise, surprise – not up to the luxury standards in Los Angeles or Park City, Utah (especially for reporters who bitch the most!)
As the Guardian noted, “every Olympics experienced pre-Games jitters: in London there was the last-minute panic over security guards that resulted in the army being called in; in Vancouver there were street protests and a fatality on the luge course; and the runup to Beijing was clouded by human-rights protests during the torch relay.”
The politics of it is always conspicuous by its presence; the economic agenda behind it conspicuous by its absence. Every day, the stories are more and more absurd: The Russians are blocking a delivery of Greek yogurt for our figure skaters or rounding up stray dogs — features like that.
In most media, the critique is all about Putin’s motives. He is portrayed as the Darth Vader of Russia, a non-rational player who is a hosting the games only to feed his personal megalomania.
Walter Brasch writes on OpEd News: “It’s a carefully orchestrated propaganda opportunity to try to showcase the nation’s athletes and show the world a Russia that, even with its great culture and arts, may exist only in the imaginations of those who believe in restoring the country’s previous grandeur.”
He adds adding how much it has cost: “Under Putin’s personal direction, Russia spent more than 1.8 trillion rubles (the equivalent of about $51 billion U.S.) to build the Olympic village, with its buildings, stadiums, and infrastructure. This is a greater cost than all previous winter Olympics combined. It also includes cost over-runs and various forms of corruption.”
Lest the Russians be blamed for all sports corruption, most of the U.S. media does not remind us of the bribery scandal when the U.S. hosted the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2002. Tainted by the scandal, those games had to be bailed out with the help of more than $1.3 billion in federal subsidies.
An article on the International Olympic Committee that owns the games reminded us, “a scandal broke on 10 December 1998, when Swiss IOC member Marc Hodler, head of the coordination committee overseeing the organization of the 2002 games, announced that several members of the IOC had taken bribes. Soon four independent investigations were underway: by the IOC, the USOC, the SLOC, and the United States Department of Justice….
“As a result of the investigation ten members of the IOC were expelled and another ten were sanctioned. This was the first expulsion or sanction for corruption in the more than a century the IOC had existed. Although nothing strictly illegal had been done, it was felt that the acceptance of the gifts was morally dubious.”
That’s a concept we don’t hear much any more: morality!
Much of the money spent for the Sochi games, of course, has been a stimulus for a reeling Russian economy, offering money for construction and jobs. It is scandalous when the big bad Russian bear does it, but not when Obama recommends financing infrastructure investments here, a measure most economists say is desperately needed to spike the economy. (Anyone notice that the new jobs report did not reach expectations.)
Yes, there’s a lot of money involved, but it is only one piece of a relatively under-covered aspect of this circus: the economic stakes.
Here the commissars of Comcast – owners of NBC Universal – are playing footsy with Putin, shelling out a small fortune to snag the rights to broadcast the event in order to sell advertising to multi-national companies.
Money – that’s what the Olympics are really about. And it’s not just the U.S. that’s buying rights in a country that increasingly denies rights to sectors of its population. This is a world event.
NBC Universal spent $1.18 billion on U.S. rights and, according to a New York Times report, is quickly recouping. This is the most any network has ever paid for an Olympics, so you can bet they have a stake in keeping the excitement up and focused on sports, and only sports.
A year ago, the New York Times reported that NBC was looking for a “big pay-off,” adding: “So far, sales appear to be off to a strong start. Seth Winter, the senior vice president of the NBC Sports Group, said last week that national advertising sales for the London Games were just above $900 million.”
“We’re in extraordinarily good shape,” he said. “This is my third Olympics overseeing sales for NBC Sports, and this is the first Olympic Games that we’ve had a healthy economy. Sales have already exceeded the $850 million for the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, for which NBC paid $893 million to the International Olympic Committee to buy the broadcast rights.” [A healthy economy, huh?]
NBC uses the Olympics to promote its other programming, and new technologies, as Cable Fax reports: “The Olympics are TV everywhere’s moment to shine, and Comcast NBCU is doing what it can to get even more people to sample live streaming. All viewers will get a multi-day temporary pass to access live streaming content on NBCOlympics.com.”
Vulture, the pop-culture website, wrote during NBC’s broadcast of the last Summer Olympics: “If you’ve watched even an hour or two of NBC’s coverage of the London Olympics, surely a few things have stood out: the intense jingoism, the overabundance of Seacrest, the unusual arrangement of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ used in the medal ceremonies. (So bouncy.) But in between all those rippling muscles and thrills of victory, another consistent presence emerged: that of the endless NBC promos.”
The website points out that most of the new programs NBC launched with so much hype to take advantage of the big show failed, but that doesn’t stop them from trying again. They are addicted to presenting big events as a cornerstone of their seemingly unchanging playbook. The real game – extracting big bucks from sporting events – goes on, Olympiad after Olympiad.
There is a note of humour this year, however, added by the Progressive Magazine that speaks of the Olympics as a model for political pundits, offering a comic look at what would happen if political pundits became sports commentators:
“The 2014 Sochi Olympic games are upon us, and that got our friend Ian Murphy thinking: What if America’s worst political talking heads had their own sporting events?
“This savage and horrible thought led him to create the comic that follows. We can only hope that the official overseers of the next Olympic games will take Mr. Murphy’s proposals under advisement. After all, Alex Jones playing ‘false-flag football’ is bound to be more entertaining than synchronized swimming…”
For more, check out the “Pundit Olympiad.”
* News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at NewsDissector.net and edits Mediachannel.org. His latest book is Madiba AtoZ: The Many Worlds of Nelson Mandela (Madibabook.com). Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org