The Olympics Need A Villain, And Russia Fits The Bill
The Olympics needs a villain. Not only should the IOC allow the Russians to compete—it should consider them a godsend.
Photo by EPA
"Whom shall we hate in next year's Winter and Summer Olympic Games?" This was the question the New York Times's Richard Sandomir asked in 1991 as the Soviet Union crumbled. After dismissing Iraq, Libya, and Cuba as too small-time, Sandomir shrugged and reported that CBS, then the Olympic rights-holder, would take a new approach: they'd be nice.
Sympathetic human interest stories have been the name of the Olympic game ever since. Political reporter David Von Drehle mocked the breadth of these soft-focus segments in the Washington Post magazine in 2000: "A near-fatal disease is good, or a dead relative. A failed family farm, mangled limb, learning disability or snit with a coach. Short of these, a loving grandmother, blind dad or sexual identity crisis might make good fodder for an up-close-and-personal moment." It's all part of the Olympic-industrial complex which Von Drehle colorfully but accurately referred to as "a commercial orgy."
Sixteen years later, nothing has changed. If anything, the relentless torrent of disingenuous feel-goodery has intensified. For the past several months, my inbox has been flooded with PR pitches about Olympic hopefuls, each with a story of hardship, of conquering the odds to fulfill his or her dream. The stories bleed together into an amalgam of identical narrative arcs, which typically end with a request to plug their product.
But we are finally on the verge of reversing this lame spiral. The Russian doping scandal has once again given us a powerful villain to root and compete against. This time, the battle isn't communism versus capitalism; rather, it's clean versus dirty. The IOC will decide on Friday whether the Russians will be allowed to compete in Rio. There is only one right-thinking way to go. Not only should the IOC allow the Russians to compete—it should consider them a godsend.
If anything, Russia's participation would return the Olympics to its true calling. For most of its history, the Olympics was, as George Orwell famously put it, "war minus the shooting." Von Drehle convincingly argues that the modern Olympic founder, Pierre de Coubertin, was motivated in part by France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. The Olympics was a way to prove national superiority in an arena rather than the battlefield. Naturally, there was significant crossover. In 1928, the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee was General Douglas MacArthur, who later commanded the Pacific Theater in World War II.
The 1936 Olympics in Berlin was a time for Nazi Germany to demonstrate its self-assumed genetic superiority, and for the rest of the world to prove otherwise. For many Americans, it was a chance to fight back against the Nazi narrative at a time when all-out war seemed impossible. For several decades after World War II, the Olympics were just another front in the Cold War, in which entire ways of life were pitted against each other to determine which was better. Mike Eruzione, who scored the game-winning goal against the Soviets the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" hockey match, the seminal American Olympic moment, described the Games as "a way to test which was the better nation." Not "the best" nation but "the better" nation. There were only two choices.
The stakes were high. Before the Helsinki games in 1952, Arthur Daley wrote in the New York Times that Americans had to be more invested in the Olympics to beat the Soviets. "There will be 71 nations in the Olympics at Helsinki," Daley continued. "The United States would like to beat all of them, but the only one that counts is Soviet Russia. The communist propaganda machine must be silenced. In sports, the Red brothers have reached the put-up-or-shut-up stage. Let's shut them up."
The United States Olympic Committee was formed not long after, in 1961, specifically to improve American performances in the Olympics against the Soviets, because every event was a referendum on the two nations' respective economic and governmental systems. Every Soviet gold was trumpeted by their propaganda machine as "irrefutable proof of the superiority of socialist cultures over the decaying culture of the capitalist states," as one typical example read.
Fans ate it up. The seminal example, of course, was the re-broadcasted version (the game wasn't aired live) of the Miracle on Ice, viewed by 34.2 million people, an astonishing audience for a hockey game in 1980. For comparison, the 1992 semifinal between the US and the Unified Team (consisting of 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics) was viewed by 11.7 million people.
In general, US ratings for the Olympics have dipped since the Soviet era, the exception being London 2012, which surprised nearly everyone, including NBC. (Note that the network's official numbers can be misleading, as they tally "total viewers" without taking into account the vast increase in hours of broadcast time in the past decade.) This was largely due to America's high medal count and a favorable time difference for curating prime-time coverage; social media also played a role in dictating to NBC what events fans cared the most about in real time. But London is the exception, not the rule. Since the end of the Cold War, Olympic viewership has been consistently lower than expected.
As much as some people might welcome a jingoism-free Olympics, most seem to be bored of it. NBC launched a $100 million marketing campaign this year—33 percent larger than the one for London—to remind us the Olympics matter. (They certainly matter to NBC, which spent $1.23 billion on the media rights for Rio.) The commercials mostly focus on individual personalities. Again, the "good stories."
But the Olympics doesn't need good stories. They need bad people. People to root against. Sports fans concoct stories out of thin air just to give us someone to hate; Cristiano Ronaldo, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and LeBron James are just the first names that pop into mind as sports personalities that we despise simply for the hell of it.
The Russian doping scandal is the answer to our Olympic prayers. It re-ignites a fierce sporting rivalry that drove Olympic interest for most of its modern existence. The Russians are ready-made villains again, this time under the taint of a state-sponsored cheating program that goes all the way to the top.
Banning the Russians in any capacity would squander the greatest opportunity the Olympics have had in decades to be relevant again. The farcical attempt to keep sports clean is a failure at every level, so it's time to abandon the charade. While it's unfair for clean athletes to have to compete against dirty ones, the competitive imbalance is no greater than the resource imbalance between countries that invest millions upon millions of dollars annually and those from smaller countries with wire-tight budgets. It also conveniently ignores the reality that dirty athletes have been competing against clean ones for decades. If it's not the Russians, it will be someone else. (Including Americans!) The Olympics is a multi-billion dollar industry funded by advertisers and broadcasters to make profit. This is not cynical; it is the plain, obvious reality.
It's time to start treating the Olympics like the entertainment product it is. Let's embrace the clean vs. dirty narrative, even if it's merely a narrative. As Von Drehle wrote 16 years ago, "people want a fight, not a hug."