The American Media Machine, the Cold War, and the Olympics

images I love watching the Olympics. For two weeks, I voraciously watch skiing, speed skating, figure skating, and since Torino, short track. I anticipate watching the opening ceremonies and get a thrill seeing athletes from around the globe proudly represent their countries. I get melancholy watching the closing ceremonies knowing that it’ll be another four years before I get to see the pomp and circumstance again.

Being in Kazakhstan, I get to watch KazSport’s abundant coverage of a wide range of events (mostly because there aren’t too many Kazakhstani athletes to cover) and I’m not complaining. And thanks to a friend’s mom, I have also been watching NBC Livestream (when my bandwidth is able to hold up).

But I’m one of those viewers that watches things and then has to find out as much as I can about whatever strikes my fancy. What are the rules of curling? Google. Who is X? Google. Why are they honoring this person? Google. And the day after a great match, I voraciously read the news coverage and analyses to see if I missed something.

But this time around, the American mainstream media is kindof ruining the experience for me. This is mainly due to the weird time warp it seems to find itself in. Members of the media (not all but many) have found themselves transported back to the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, when the SOVIET UNION STILL EXISTED (albeit on its last legs, although no one really knew that then).

And since the Olympics have never provided a complete reprieve or pause in global conflict, drastic escalations in neighboring Ukraine have further fueled the references back to the Cold War.

Without even talking about the men’s hockey game between Russia and the USA, and the # of references to the “Miracle” team of the 1980 Olympics, let’s look at what happened in women’s figure skating. Upon Kim Yuna’s second place score, Twitter and reporters started pumping out Soviet Union references faster than I could track them bleary-eyed at 1:30AM.

Christine Brennan (USA Todayright off the bat goes for the Cold War jugular. Referencing a judge that was caught score fixing in 1998 (note: after the dissolution of the Soviet Union) and the wife of the Russian figure skating federation), she then says,

“Another Olympics, another huge skating controversy involving the countries of the former Soviet Union.”

Seriously? The Soviet Union is now 15 separate countries and has been dissolved for more than 20 years. Most of these countries have undergone aggressive nation-state building processes. There is a generation of university-aged young people that grew up in independent republics. Nope. None of these things matter because when it boils down to it – it is the ideological bond that tied the USSR together that figure skating judges revert back to. Not corruption. Not subjectivity. Not human error. It’s the Soviet Union.

If that wasn’t bad enough, she goes on to write this,

“Two of their replacements were Ukrainian Yuri Balkov, who was kicked out of judging for a year after being tape-recorded by a Canadian judge trying to fix the Nagano ice dancing competition, and Alla Shekhovtseva, a Russian judge who is married to Russian federation general director Valentin Pissev. The two other new long program judges were from Estonia and France, which was the country that conspired with Russia to try to fix the pairs and ice dancing competition at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.”

Yes, a Ukrainian, a Russian, an Estonian (who I guess conveniently now falls under this Soviet umbrella despite being a member of the EU), and a French person formed this alleged Soviet voting bloc. Incidentally, the previous sentence sounds like the beginning of a bar joke (“A Ukrainian, a Russian, and an Estonian… walked into a bar”). In Brennan’s words “the Cold War is alive and well in the Olympic figure skating venue.” Yup. That’s the conclusion we should all draw.

The writer of CBS’ coverage makes this statement in his/her article “But Sotnikova, seemingly far more relaxed than nearly every other competitor, won it all, giving Russia or the Soviet Union 27 Olympic gold medals.” I don’t think that if Sudan and South Sudan entered an Olympic competition, reporters would write “… giving South Sudan or Sudan X # of medals.” Nor do they this when they describe the two Koreas (in the summer Olympics). Or more academically close to home, no one says “Turkey including the Ottoman Empire”. But Russia and the Soviet Union are ok because this is just a matter of semantics.  And then comes the random reference to the Ukrainian judge again.

I don’t think that the women’s figure skating competition will be debated endlessly as Jenkins at the WP states. But in her article, she presents a pretty compelling picture for why the scores fell the way they did.  A team from the NY Times broke it down line by line, with a great infographic to boot. And ESPN’s overview of the night’s events and critique of the system pinpoints the real issue with the judging, which boils down to the need for public accountability and the challenge when grading to a rubric (a feeling I can relate to when I see students who write well get lower scores on their papers because they didn’t read my rubric) – although at any sporting competition, one cannot ever rule out general, run-of-the-mill corruption.

But this is just ice skating. Or is it? NPR’s Greg Myre wrote a blog post/article titled, “Why can’t the former Soviet Republics figure out democracy?” According to him, essentially all the republics are failures of democracy, the exception being the Baltics, which he describes as standing out because they “regularly hold fair elections, change leaders at the ballot box and have developed strong democratic institutions. They also belong to NATO.” Not taking into consideration their aggressive stance towards nation-state building, which includes repressive language-identity laws but ok. (Side bar: here, the Baltics are exceptions and standouts from the other Soviet countries whereas Brennan just lumps them all together – sorry Baltics.) This is how he situates what’s going on in Ukraine. “Figure it out.” Great – that’s helpful.

A few articles that I thought provided a much more articulate discussion of these issues than I ever could are: Stephen Cohen (The Nation), Anne Applebaum (WP) who also has an engaging and well-written book on the Cold War that I started reading last week, and Greg Satell (Forbes).

Anyway, what’s getting lost in the media’s careless framing of the Olympics and what’s happening in Ukraine in Cold War terms are the complexities of global politics, a focused, public demand for a democratic government, as well as the inspiring stories of athletes and their determination, courage and tenaciousness, e.g., Mao Asada who amazingly came back from 16th place to 6th place after skating the 3rd best long program or Carolina Kostner, a 27 year-old who finally captured the medal that has alluded her in a sport where 23 year-olds talk about retiring.

I guess my larger concern with all this is the ongoing contribution of the American media machine to the “dumb-ification” of the general public (case in point: election coverage). Framing the discourse in uncritical ways and keeping those discourses alive perpetuates the impression that Americans are geographically illiterate and as a whole, uninformed about what is going in the rest of the world. At work, a few colleagues have even commented on how strange the American media is, with their somewhat obsolete references to the Cold War and the general negative (and at times, vitriolic) language that journalists have been using. And for all the nuanced and insightful articles published in the media, the same news agencies carry the uncritical articles as well and in my eyes, this makes the Media (big M) complicit in this process. “Discursal responsibility” is called for.

When the Olympics began, I was chatting with some students before class and asked if they were excited to watch. Silence. No comment. Granted my class is early(ish) in the morning but no excitement. Total disinterest. It’s actually become an ongoing joke and now, I think my students are not watching just to spite me. But they’re not cheering for Russia (or the Soviet Union) or the athletes from the 14 other republics (or athletes from Kazakhstan for that matter). They’re pretty wrapped up in other stuff (what exactly I’m not sure since for some of them it’s clearly not their research projects – but 18 year-olds, what can you do?) What does this have to do with anything?

As a child of the 1970s and 80s, all I remember of the USSR is a huge pink/orange landmass on a map. No nuance. No details. The USSR was a formidable and singular bloc(k). But actually there was a tremendous amount of diversity that was hidden behind the hegemonic notion of the homogenous USSR. The USSR doesn’t exist anymore. And it’s important to see and recognize that diversity, as opposed to reverting back to one default ideological reference point to frame socio-cultural-political encounters and reinforcing the past homogeneity of the pink (or orange) landmass.  Why? That’s a discussion for another post.

Ok, I’m done and will now enjoy the remaining 36 hours of the Sochi Olympics. 

Update (February 22): Yesterday, USA Today published another article by Brennan (February 21) where she basically dedicates the real estate of the first 1/2 of her article to reiterate her “Soviet collusion” theory by explicitly writing,

“A high-ranking Olympic figure skating official, who spoke to USA TODAY sports on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic, said the geographic makeup of the judging panel “was clearly slanted towards (Olympic gold medalist) Adelina Sotnikova,” adding “this is what they can do.’The nine-person panel for the Olympic women’s long program included judges from four former Soviet bloc nations — Russia, Ukraine, Estonia and Slovakia — as well as France, which conspired with Russia for the Salt Lake City pairs judging scandal in 2002.'”

She later quotes an anonymous judge, who, by virtue of the list she provided is from the US, South Korea, GB, Japan or Sweden “Kim was so much better than Adelina in all aspects. Both Kostner and Kim were better than Adelina.” Could bias color this person’s judgment at all since there is a 60% chance that the judge was from a country that had stakes in the competition? Who knows.

All I know is that no one raised this fuss with the men’s figure skating competition since Plushenko didn’t compete. But why not say that the judges were biased toward Dennis Tan over the Americans as  a skater from Kazakhstan, also part the FSU?

I also love that Ashley Wagner has become a widely circulated voice for the need for transparency in judging and the fact that she was selected over Mirai Nagasu to represent the US in a decidedly unclear and not transparent way stinking of corporate pressure has all but archived in the press. But you know. The magpie-esque attention span of the American media.

One thought on “The American Media Machine, the Cold War, and the Olympics

  1. Argh I just wrote a long comment via cellphone and it got deleted. Annoying! In a nutshell I wrote, good piece, american media sucks~russia is always the soviet union and america think they are at war with asia, like making war analogies about everything asian. Good connection to ukraine coverage.

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