The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Closing Olympic Observations


August 25, 2008

The Olympics ended about 12 hours ago, but NBC is giving us the tape-delayed broadcast this evening. One last set of semi-structured Olympic thoughts…

Its pretty clear that these games had massive political undertones. China viewed this as a coming out / coming of age celebration and invested accordingly. The infrastructure was impressive (gotta love that water cube), and their performance was impressive, with the top gold medal haul, though the US was tops in overall medals. If you use the Boswell formula, China edged the US in total performance, a big thing for them.

–The political overtones were even clear to the sports columnists who don’t usually venture into the political. In today’s WP, Boswell observed

In decades at The Post, this is the first event I’ve covered at which I was certain that the main point of the exercise was to co-opt the Western media, including NBC, with a splendidly pretty, sparsely attended, completely controlled sports event inside a quasi-military compound. We had little alternative but to be a conduit for happy-Olympics, progressive-China propaganda. I suspect it worked.

Everything that met my eye at every venue was perfect. Everybody smiled. Everybody pretended to speak English. Until you got past “Hello.” Everyone was helpful until you went one inch past where you were supposed to go. Then, arms sprang out to stop you. Everywhere you went, even alone at 2 a.m., you felt completely safe. Because every hundred feet there were a pair of guards — at attention in the middle of the night.

As sports spectacles go, I’ve never seen one more efficiently or soulessly executed than this one.

–Who is Joshua (in the booth with Costas)? Costas’s question to him: where does China go from here? He’s giving all the political tidbits, like the ever so important nugget as the Mayor of Beijing hands the Olympic flag over to the Mayor London, the host for the 2012 games: “Chinese viewers will recall that the last hand-over between these two nations involved Hong Kong.” I know you were all thinking about that.

–The NYT today had a very fascinating behind the scenes look at just how influential NBC really is in the games, emphasizing that though these remain a global spectacle, they are made a spectacle for the American market (which is why China was so adamant at putting on a good show for the Americans). The very structure of the games—when they would be held, when the events would be schedules—was set years in advance to accommodate the US media market. Its not just that the US / NBC asked for this, but its that the IOC and Olympic Organizers though it so important to do so, and were so taken by the intricacies of the American TV ratings game.

Switching swimming and gymnastics to prime time was not the biggest scheduling coup Mr. Ebersol helped pull off. Long before that, during the Games in Sydney, Mr. Ebersol played the central role in a move to alter the weeks when the Beijing Games would be held.

By the summer of 2000, NBC already possessed the rights to the Winter and Summer Games through 2008. The network had made a deal in 1995 to secure them all even before the Games were awarded to any cities — a notion Mr. Ebersol sold effectively to the I.O.C. as a better way to go than having the cities make plans without knowing how much they were going to acquire in TV rights.

But the Sydney Games, which took place in late September, were not doing especially well in the ratings. Juan Antonio Samaranch, then the I.O.C. president, left Sydney after the first day because of the death of his wife. When he returned, Mr. Ebersol related, he visited the NBC broadcast center and observed that the ratings were not what NBC had hoped. He asked Mr. Ebersol if there was anything he could do to help.

“Not for these Games,” Mr. Ebersol said he told him. But he wanted to plant another thought. “I believed China was going to win the bid for 2008,” he said. And he had heard that China planned to bid based on dates similar to Sydney. He asked Mr. Samaranch if China could move the dates of its bid four weeks back into August.

“If you’re into September, you’re going to lose a big percentage of your male viewers,” Mr. Ebersol said. “There’s N.F.L. coverage on Sundays and Mondays, and college football is now on four or five nights a week. All of that goes away if you start in mid-August.”

Also, he said, moving the dates back meant bringing in children who would be in school a month later and thus not allowed to stay up late to see American stars like Nastia Liukin on the balance beam. “The Olympics are about the last event that gets the whole family viewing together,” Mr. Ebersol said.
Mr. Samaranch listened to the arguments carefully. “Forty-eight hours later, when the Chinese made their official bid, the dates were in mid-August,” Mr. Ebersol said.

In both cases when NBC’s desires were accommodated, “no money changed hands,” Mr. Ebersol said. The $894 million that NBC paid for the American television rights was already in a Chinese bank, Mr. Ebersol noted. But the I.O.C. has an intense interest in assuring that its American TV partner has a success with the Games, he said, because American television money accounts for more cash for the I.O.C. than all the world’s other broadcasters combined. (By contrast, he said China paid $17 million for its television rights, while selling $400 million worth of ads.)

It’s a well known fact that US defense spending exceeds the rest of the world combined, and it is a foundational fact in any argument about US hegemony. The parallel with TV money is more than interesting.

–Most important mystery resolved: why the divers shower after the dive. Now, about those shammys… did you get them from Billy Maize?

–Of all the great / rising powers in the world (say the G-7 + BRIC), only one massively underperforms at the Olympics. China launched a special program to up its medal count in sports that aren’t big in China, like rowing and track and field, and with a billion people, you can imagine that at least one or two should have aptitude in these areas. Yet, India, the second largest country on earth, a vibrant democracy and vibrant economy, has a mere 3 medals. Another column in today’s Post opines:

China has set about systematically striving for Olympic success since it re-entered global competition after years of isolation, but India has remained mostly complacent about its lack of sporting prowess. Where China lobbied hard for the right to host the Olympics within two decades of its return to the Games, India has rested on its laurels after hosting the Asian Games in New Delhi in 1982. This is widely believed to leave it even farther behind in the competition for Olympic host-hood than it was two decades ago.

Where China embarked on what its sports leaders call “Project 119,” a program devised specifically to boost the country’s Olympic medal standings (the number 119 refers to the number of golds awarded at the 2000 Sydney Games in what Sports Illustrated calls “the medal-rich sports of track and field, swimming, rowing, sailing and canoe/kayak”), Indians wondered whether they’d be able to crack the magic ceiling of two, the highest number of medals their giant country has ever won. Where China, eyeing the number of medals awarded in kayaking, decided to create a team to master a sport hitherto unknown to the Middle Kingdom, India didn’t even petition successfully to have the Games include the few sports it does play well, such as polo, kabbadi (a form of tag-team wrestling) or cricket, which was played in the Olympics of 1900 and has been omitted ever since.

–The cultural links between what sports are big where remain fascinating to me. Some of this is obviously economic and geographic. There’s a reason that Scandanavian countries dominate the Winter games but not the summer, there’s a reason that Jamaica doesn’t field a real bobsled team (yeah, whatever, that movie was all Disney, though it would be fun to see Usain Bolt on the bobsled). The legacy of the Soviet athletic training programs continue to give Russia a strong team. But, why is water polo so big in Hungary? Why is swimming so big in Australia? In running, why do Caribbean nations excel in the sprints while the African nations excel in distance? And Romania always seems to do well in women’s gymnastics but not too much else. How did China get so good at the precision sports of gymnastics and diving, but continues to be so bad in track, field, swimming, and the like?

–And seriously, what on earth is BMX biking doing as an Olympic sport? I saw one race, and it joins the group of sports I want to see banished. Other members of club DTM include synchronize swimming and rhythmic gymnastics. You might as well replace them with some other legit global sports like Rugby or Cricket or what not. Not that I am a fan of those sports, but they certainly belong ahead of BMX biking.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.