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THE OLYMPICS COULD BE GREAT WITHOUT THE IOC … FORGET IT
As long as there are superpower dictators to glom onto — and networks such as NBC to feed the monster with billions — the Olympic movement is protected from disruption that could revive the Games
We live in a time of dreamers and disruptors. Why can’t a few come together, with their billions and brainpower, and reimagine the Olympic movement? The International Olympic Committee wears the unusually haggard look of vulnerability, in all its corrupt bulbousness, to the point only two cities bid for a Winter Games that are underway — or so I’m told — in Beijing, where the snow is as fake as the government.
The world is still hungry, I’m convinced, to watch humble athletes who’ve trained in obscurity for their one moment. “I think the beauty of sports and beauty of Olympic sports is really needed right now more than ever, and that’s the story we want to tell,’’ said Pete Bevacqua, chairman of NBC Sports, which again is bringing skaters, snowboarders and skiers into our living rooms and telling their stories. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the IOC’s toxic exhaust was fumigated from the tableau, allowing us to enjoy the fairy tales as we try and shake off a pandemic?
But the Olympics, as we fondly remember them and would like to embrace them again, are protected from such an outside takeover by the same forces that perpetuate the terminal illness. That much was evident when, only hours before the cauldron was lit in the Bird’s Nest stadium Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin all but chest-bumped and did a spirited singalong to either David Bowie’s “China Girl’’ or the celebration song “Gongxi Ni Facai,’’ which translates to “wishing you prosperity,’’ particularly when Joe Biden is 7,000 miles away in a diplomatic boycott. Our planet is too splintered, and America too divided within that fissure, to think any motivated group of moneyed miracle-makers could construct a unified athletic festival without a geopolitical pox smothering the joy.
“Friendship between the two states has no limits,” Xi and Putin said in a joint statement after a chummy red-carpet ceremony in west Beijing, as Russia prepares to invade neighboring Ukraine and 3,000 U.S. troops converge on Eastern Europe.
Superpower alliances allow the IOC, appropriately based by a lake in Switzerland, to remain entrenched as a shameless sycophant. Russia can sponsor an elaborate doping program worthy of a death penalty, yet the IOC still bows to Putin and shrinks a “four-year ban’’ into a farce in which his country’s athletes — 215 in these Games — still compete under a Russian Olympic Committee banner (ROC), which allows Putin to rock and roll. Then there’s Peng Shuai. When the Chinese tennis star accused a former top Communist Party official of sexual assault, then disappeared from public view for weeks, it was incumbent upon the IOC president and old gold-medal fencer, German lawyer Thomas Bach, to at least launch a formal probe. Instead, he’ll play a role in a likely government charade by agreeing to meet with Peng inside the “Closed Loop” that separates the COVID-bubblewrapped Games from the outside world.
“It must be her decision,’’ Bach said of an IOC inquiry. “It’s her life. It’s her allegations.’’
Don’t expect news briefings, beyond pleasantries.
Yeah, in the archives of sports disruptions, a radical transformation of the Olympics wouldn’t be quite as easy as the NFL-AFL merger. You’d first have to pry the lips of the NBC peacock off Bach’s ass, and as long as the “Network of the Olympics’’ defines itself by the five-ringed logo placed on its screen for months ahead of any Games, the TV billions will enable the IOC’s continuing authority and influence in the global sphere.
Which is why the Olympics have returned to China so quickly — 14 years after I was amazed by the country’s architecture and technology and spooked by its surveillance — despite many reasons not to move ahead with what seems a historically bad idea. The Games are locked down behind walls, so strictly controlled by “zero-COVID’’ restrictions that athletes must fight against mental meltdowns. That assumes they’ll be allowed to compete, with any athlete who tests positive confined to an isolation facility for an unspecified period — ask Belgian skeleton racer Kim Meylemans, who wept on a video about her week-long ordeal. Doing so on social media probably wasn’t a good idea after the FBI, in a warning to U.S. athletes, said hacking tactics by the Chinese government are even “more brazen’’ than anticipated.
Even the privileged ROC athletes are complaining about isolation conditions. “My stomach hurts. I’m very pale and I have huge black circles around my eyes. I want all of this to end,’’ biathlon contestant Valeria Vasnetsova dared to post on Instagram from her quarantine compound. “I cry every day. I’m very tired.’’
She blamed the food for making her sick. “My bones are already sticking out.’’ she wrote. Joining the chorus was the German delegation head, who ripped the quarantine process as “unreasonable’’ after three-time Nordic combined gold-medalist Eric Frenzel tested positive.
And we’re even remotely shocked? Why wouldn’t visiting athletes be compromised when China’s human rights record is hellish, including the assumed mass genocide of Uyghurs in the far northwestern periphery?
Leave it to the Chinese to choose a cross-county skier with Uyghur roots, Dinigeer Yilamujiang, as one of two athletes to light the Olympic torch at the Opening Ceremony. Was this a sick joke? Of course, when she competed Saturday evening, finishing 43rd, Yilamujiang wasn’t made available to media while four Chinese skiers were speaking in the mixed zone. It didn’t surprise those of us who sat in the same stadium in 2008, when organizers summoned a 9-year-old girl to lip-synch the spectacular voice of a 7-year-old girl, Yang Peiyi, with less-than-perfect teeth — they worried her appearance would be a bad look on the international stage. “We made the decision that the voice we would use was Yang Peiyi's. The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feelings and expression,’’ said Chen Qigang, the event's general music designer, in a radio interview at the time. “When we rehearsed at the spot, there were spectators from various divisions, especially a leader from the Politburo, who gave us his opinion: It must change.’’
Politburo, meet Milli Vanilli.
And if athletes wish to speak out in protest of anything going on in Beijing or on Planet Earth — America being America, our contingent is filled with activists — they’ve repeatedly been warned of consequences: They could face prosecution in China. “Athletes need to be responsible for what they say,” Yang Yang, a senior official of the local organizing committee, reiterated the other day.
This is no game. Before the Opening Ceremony, a Dutch TV reporter was grabbed and shouted down by a security guard in a red armband. A pro, he continued his live report before producers cut away. If we never see him again, you’ll know why. Imagine what happens to a U.S. athlete who scribbles something derogatory about China on a ski boot. NHL players aren’t in Beijing, a good thing, recalling what happened when U.S. team members trashed their Olympic Village rooms — 10 broken chairs, three emptied fire extinguishers, six chairs and a fire extinguisher thrown from a fifth-floor apartment — after a dismal performance in Nagano, Japan. Primal scream therapy isn’t an option in China.
Said U.S. moguls skier Hannah Soar: “This is one where you can do your absolute best but you kind of have to juggle your sanity and being able to perform at the Olympics, and not lose your mind beforehand.’’
As one who has covered 14 Games on four continents — an American jingoism fest in Los Angeles, the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan squabble in a Norwegian deep freeze, Charles Barkley’s stampede of Las Ramblas and an Angolan opponent (“I thought he was going to pull a spear out on me”), the U.S. basketball dynasty stalling in Athens after I joy-rode 60 miles on a Vespa scooter that morning, a stumbling Bode Miller in an Italian bar, a dancing multi-colored spider in Australia, Ben Johnson cheating in Seoul, Marion Jones cheating in Sydney, an epiphany to resign from my corrupt newspaper on the Great Wall of China — I speak for the global masses in saying the thrill is diminished, if not gone altogether. It was my goal as an aspiring media kid to cover just one Olympics; that’s how prominent the Games were in American culture then, bigger than any Super Bowl or World Series. But the IOC has sucked the grandeur and delight from what once was a to-die-for extravaganza, appointment TV for 16 days and nights.
It would be unfair to the stars of the show — Mikaela Shiffrin, Chloe Kim and retiring Shaun White among them — not to tune in for specific moments. But with even NBC barred from venturing beyond the “Closed Loop’’ for its billions in rights fees, forget about the get-to-know-the-hosts features that showcase local culture and drive ratings. Mike Tirico will be packing soon to cover the Super Bowl in Los Angeles, while the network’s announcers are calling events from a studio in Stamford, Conn. Needless to say, Beijing will have the smallest TV audience of any Olympiad, lower than the 19.8 million average for Pyeongchang in 2018 and the ghastly, ghostly 15.5 million average via cable and streaming for last summer’s Tokyo Games.
This Olympiad should not have happened. Greed is the only reason. The country that hatched the coronavirus also is hellbent on proving outbreaks can be contained, a way of one-upping America. The numbers don’t lie: China is reporting fewer than 5,000 COVID deaths, compared to 900,000 in the U.S. But an event as open and glorious and welcoming as the Olympic Games never should be staged within a “Closed Loop.”
Not to nitpick or cause an international incident, but isn’t every loop closed, an end connecting to a beginning? Just call this what it is: a Cold War at a Winter Olympics in a water-challenged region that must make its own phony snow.
Communism, you might say.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.