The Winter Olympics that weren’t

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The last two weeks network television has been dominated by broadcasts from the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022. NBC has held the exclusive broadcast rights for the Winter Olympics since 2002, and the Summer Olympics since 1988, and has a contract that does not expire until 2032.

Most folks increasingly do not rely on live broadcasts for entertainment, as streaming content from a variety of platforms has become increasingly predominant when it comes to market shares and the preference of viewers. While NBC also streamed the Olympics on their platform Peacock, they may be wondering if holding the exclusive rights to Games is worth it.

According to some news reports, viewership was way down from previous years. The ongoing pandemic also continued to cast a long shadow over the events, isolating athletes and journalists alike due to China’s zero-COVID policy.

This year’s Winter Olympics were conflicted for me from the beginning due to their host nation being China. The allegations of abuse and genocide of the Uyghur population in China have been in the news quite a lot over the past few years, which resulted in a number of nations exercising a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Games.

While Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, along with those from India, Australia, Lithuania, Kosovo, Belgium, Denmark, and Estonia declined to send any diplomatic representatives or delegations, athletes from those countries still participated in the games.

In the history of the Games, there have only been six boycotts of the Olympics ranging from 1964 when only three nations refused to send athletes to a whopping 65 countries staying home in 1980. All of these boycotts occurred during the Summer Games.

China’s record when it comes to human rights is fairly dismal, and it is largely seen by many other nations as being run by an authoritarian government that exerts an extreme and undue amount of control over the lives of its citizens.

That by itself is enough to leave a bitter taste when it comes to the Beijing 2022 Games, but there is another controversy that has soured the Games for me, and apparently a lot of other folks.

First, there has been a noticeable lack of coverage when it comes to highlighting individual athletes who identify as either gay or lesbians. While other athletes have had extensive profiles produced by NBC Universal, none of the live broadcasts I personally viewed mentioned gay or lesbian athletes the way did they in the profiles of other athletes.

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For instance, after the ice dancing team of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron won the gold medal on February 14, Cizeron was embraced by his boyfriend. And yet, the commentators did not identify the person hugging Cizeron at all. Unlike other heterosexual athletes who received hugs and support after competing, the commentators were quick to identify whoever was appearing in the frame with the athlete.

Whether this was due to NBC seeking to not offend the host nation of China or for some other reason is unclear. The omission of even saying, “Cizeron gets a hug from his boyfriend” even if they did not identify him by name seemed rather odd to me. Especially considering that Johnny Weir, who is notably “out,” was one of the commentators for the competition. Plus, Cizeron’s being gay is not a secret since he posted pictures on Instagram in May of 2020 of himself and his boyfriend.

And that is just one instance of omission in a long line of many.

However, the sourest of notes when it comes to the Beijing Olympic Games is the scandal surrounding fifteen-year-old Russian figure skater, Kamila Valieva. Blood test results for Valieva came back with her testing positive for several substances that are banned by International Olympic Committee (IOC). To make matters worse, by the time the IOC received the results, Valieva had already competed and the Russian skating team had been declared the gold medal winners of the team event.

Russia had already been sanctioned by the IOC for their past use of banned substances in previous games and cannot compete under their own banner and flag. Instead, they must compete under the name Russian Olympic Committee (ROC).

To further complicate matters, the medals won during the team event are now put on hold until an investigation can be completed, one that will take months. So the athletes from the other countries that took silver (USA) and bronze (CAN) must wait to receive their medals and lose out on their moment of being recognized on the world’s stage. The fourth-place team, Japan, could conceivably be awarded the bronze if the ROC team is disqualified, with the U.S. moving to first place, and Canada advancing to second.

And if all of that is not messy and awful enough, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that Valieva should be allowed to continue to compete in the 2022 Games since Valieva is a minor and the investigation is ongoing. They cited the potential for “irreparable harm” to Valieva if she were to be removed from the competition without the full results of the investigation being completed. This decision was made largely due to her age and being a minor.

Anyone who watched the events that transpired in the final individual free skate program might argue against preventing “irreparable harm” to Valieva. Valieva fell twice during her program in the free skate and seemed wobbly and unsure of herself on the ice–a drastic difference from her earlier dynamic performances at the Games.

Immediately after finishing her routine, Valieva was in tears and clearly very upset which was hard enough to watch but the words of her coach, Eteri Tutberidze, were harsh and seemed to not at all offer any comfort, “Why did you let it go? Why did you stop fighting?”

It was horrifying to watch the scene that played out and was broadcast across international media around the world. From media and sports commentators to the president of the IOC, the reaction was one of shock.

“When I afterwards saw how she was received by her closest entourage, with such, what appeared to be a tremendous coldness, it was chilling to see this,” IOC President Thomas Bach said at a news conference Friday. “Rather than giving her comfort, rather than to try to help her, you could feel this chilling atmosphere, this distance.”

The entire scene was extremely hard to watch with a fifteen-year-old girl sobbing and not seeming to receive much support at all. Meanwhile, the ROC team skaters Anna Shcherbakova, and Alexandra Trusova took gold and silver and Kaori Sakamoto of Japan took the bronze, Valieva who was the last to compete placed fourth.

Sakamoto seemed to be the only competitor who seemed happy with her hard-fought win, as the ROC camp with marred by tears and what seemed like a full-on meltdown from silver medalist, Trusova upset over her second-place win.

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Overall, it lessened my desire to watch much more of the Games. When the attempts to protect young, vulnerable athletes end up doing the opposite as well as harming the other athletes competing, there is a big problem.

The athletes who sacrifice a great deal in order to train for years to be able to compete ultimately end up paying the price for the decisions that IOC makes. And yes, there is no question of privilege–the average person under normal circumstances can barely afford to attend any of the Olympics, let alone the cost to those young athletes who dream of competing.

All of it together has left me disappointed by what used to be one of the global events focused on excellence and often symbolized unity. The one bright spot on this front is the easy camaraderie of the snowboarders no matter what country they represent. They seem to exist outside of the norm and cheer each other on no matter who might win.

If there is one lesson in all of this for me, it is: Be like a snowboarder. Snowboarders are cool.


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