The Olympics Are About Athletes, Not Politics

Media critic hand-wringing misses the mark.

Editorial cartoon on Sochi Olympics

Why should athletes lose out to politics at the Olympics?

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The Winter Olympics are over. And that means, thankfully, that we can finally be done with all the media hand-wringing over the media’s coverage of the event.

The games offer a great set of stories, be they the actual performances to the back stories of the athletes themselves -- whether it’s siblings competing, the breathtaking skate of a 15-year-old Russian figure skater with limbs like Gumby, or even the inspiring image of 42-year-old hockey player Jaromir Jagr playing for the Czech Republic with teammates who worshipped Jagr when they were kids and he was their age. These are nice stories. And what’s so wrong with a nice story?

A lot, according to some media critics who complained that NBC and other outlets failed to tell the dark side of the games and the place where they were being held. The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, for example, took NBC to task for avoiding the “controversy” about the games. The network’s travelogue pieces, he noted, discussed Siberia (without mentioning its history as a bitterly cold exile for dissidents), vodka consumption (without mentioning alcoholism) and Russian billionaires (without mentioning the shady way in which they had gotten so rich).

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the 2014 Sochi Olympics.]

Further, media critics said, there was little discussion of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s repressive regime, imprisonment of political foes, over-the-top homophobia and general behavior taking Russia back to its gulag days. And the weather! Too warm for the Olympics. The hotels! Shabby and not yet completed. The food! How many beets can a person eat?

In fact, all of these things were discussed. The coverage of Russia’s virulently anti-gay laws was ongoing. Putin released some political foes (including the band Pussy Riot) before the games started, and while that was welcome, it was also rightly portrayed as a pre-game PR stunt. The weather, too warm for good snowboarding, was also frequently mentioned – and one can hardly blame Russia or Putin for that. As for the hotels: It’s disappointing, but suck it up, correspondents. It’s not about you. It’s about the athletes.

Russia is not an unknown political entity, particularly under the disturbingly repressive regime of Putin. People know he’s a bad guy; we didn’t need the Olympics to expose this secret part of the world. The Olympics offer not just a chance to see the world’s most impressive athletes in action, but an opportunity to learn more about a country’s culture and people. Putin has punished his people enough – should the international press corps insult them further by turning every segment of their lifestyle into an anti-Putin talking point?

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on Vladimir Putin and Russia.]

Imagine if the same standard had been applied to the Olympic games in the U.S. Should the Los Angeles games have been used to tell the world about the terrible smog problem and the car culture that contributes to it? Should Salt Lake City's games have been a vehicle to cast the U.S. as a crazy place with a religious group that once practiced polygamy? And should every U.S.-based Olympics have been used to discuss America’s shocking level of gun violence, and the lack of laws to control it?

The Olympics are not supposed to be about politics. Of course, we should not dismiss the autocratic regime of Putin as mere “politics," but unless the International Olympic Committee is going to deny a country the right to host the Olympics based on the regime, there’s no reason to take away from the performance of the athletes in coverage of the games. If anything, the Sochi games drew more attention to Russia at a pivotal time in Eastern European history. Maybe the world attention will make Putin think twice before doing something dangerous in Ukraine. He’s a dangerous man. But that’s not the fault of the athletes or the Russian people who are under his rule even after the networks and newspaper correspondents have left Sochi.