It is the Olympic season again. Anyone living in the host country, Britain, though, could be forgiven for thinking that the UK is leading the medal tally, just as China did, when it hosted the games four years ago. Newspaper headlines have ranged from “Britain’s Gold Rush” to “GOOOOOOLD” to “Britain’s Golden Day”. Television stations have worn down audiences by focusing mostly on UK athletes who won medals, or bettered their own record. Starkly skewed as it may be, Britain isn’t alone in taking sides. The games have thrown into sharp contrast the spirit of the event versus jingoist media coverage that’s getting sports lovers worked up. It’s been down to the social media and Web world to set the tone right.
As the online world and social media empower ordinary individuals to express their opinion with the same moral authority that journalists often arrogate to themselves, the media are being forced to seriously rethink sensitivities that previously went unchallenged.
The first signs of an online movement to protest unacceptable media coverage broke out against NBC, the American broadcaster, which did not show the Olympic opening ceremony in real time on its network. Within hours, irate viewers vented on Twitter on #NBCfail and flooded the stump with acerbic comments and feedback.
Meanwhile, Twitter got wrapped into the controversy after it banned a UK journalist’s account because he was critical of NBC’s games coverage and posted the email address of an NBC honcho on the site, encouraging people to air their views directly. The backlash that followed against Twitter coaxed it to unblock the journalist’s account. In the meantime though, it had unleashed a 140-character debate on freedom of speech and gagging.
Then there was the old online community as referee in the fight of the US media versus the UK media. A writer in The Guardian took on NBC saying that watching the coverage of the American channel made it seem that it was all about the Americans, not about the global competition. She wrote, “We don't need to believe that the competition for gold, silver and bronze is solely between Americans. Really, if someone from another country occasionally does well — sometimes we’d like to know their names.” A string of comments responding to the article went on to point out that that was no different in spirit to what the BBC was doing with British athletes or how China was covering the games back home. In short, it set straight what seemed like a classic case of the “pot calling the kettle black”. Some 30 comments later, some borderline rude, the article was closed to comments.
Australia’s Channel Nine faced the heat for running too much footage on swimming and little else. A post by viewer Matthew Taylor on Channel Nine’s Facebook site asking for other sports to be aired “instead of swimming, repeats of swimming, interviews of swimming, analysis of swimming, previews of swimming”, which he signed “the rest of Australia”, attracted more than 100,000 “likes” and 4,200 comments.
The Olympics is about encouraging individuals to be the best they can be. So when the media, which is supposed to capture that spirit, ends up focusing excessively on home-grown stars, it unsettles the Olympic spirit.
Heroes, fortunately, go beyond borders. Olympic athletes routinely demonstrate that in spirit and manner. When the 20-year old South African Chad Le Clos beat the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time, Michael Phelps, in the 200 metre butterfly swim, his response was, “Michael is my hero. I just wanted to race in the final and now I’ve won it.” That’s what the Olympic spirit is made of.
Anjana Menon is a Delhi-based business writer. You can send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org