The Localised Olympic Games
February 16, 2010
The Vancouver Olympics were on last night at our house, I was watching the highlights of men mogul skiing where Canada took its first gold on home soil. M. walked into the room and said “What sport is this?! I’ve never seen this before!” which I thought was odd as mogul skiing is pretty routine fare for the winter Olympics. But then I remembered an insight I had during the Beijing 2008 games, which we watched while in Italy that August: there is no such thing as “the Olympics,” unless you’re physically at the games watching a random distribution of events. The Olympics you see on TV are highly dependent on what country you’re watching from and the broadcasting network that has rights to them.
I realised this when the Italian coverage of the 2008 Olympics was light on gymnastics (something Italians are not very competitive in) and heavy on fencing (in which the Italians won 2 gold and 5 bronze medals). I realised that M. had probably never watched moguls because the Italians aren’t good at it. In fact, I checked it out and not a single Italian man qualified for the moguls, and just one Italian woman made it through the qualification round.
Least you think this is solely an Italian phenomenon, I remember as a kid thinking that the US won a medal in every single event. In retrospect, while it is true that Americans win a lot of medals, I’m sure that the coverage was particularly oriented to the sports Americans are most competitive in (which reminds me of an episode of 30 Rock where Kenneth the Page realises that NBC has created fake Olympic sports – like teatherball and octuplets tennis – to boost perception of American medal standing). And last night, BBC Three was featuring the 34th ranked British downhill skier rather than broadcasting figure skating. Could it be because just one British pair featured in the programme?
So the Olympics are politicised and nationalistic, no news there. They have been so since the US and other Western nations boycotted the 1980 Moscow games, the Soviets / Eastern Bloc boycotted Los Angeles, and before. What’s interesting is that despite the world shrinking through the process of globalisation, where you’re watching still matters in determining the Olympics that you see. And that seems to me to be a nice anachronism: all Olympics are local.