Ten days ago, this newsletter noted that the opening days of the Genocide Games — er, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing — had generated a “cataclysmic loss of audience” for NBC. Over the past week or so, the audience size hasn’t gotten any better — and it’s not just here in the United States:
Television ratings for the Beijing Olympics are off by 50 percent from PyeongChang levels in 2018, which themselves were well below the levels of Winter Olympics past. But to hear the International Olympic Committee tell it, there’s no problem, no problem at all. . . . In the United States, though, with the exception of the post-Super Bowl bump, ratings for the Games have bounced off the bottom of the ocean floor at historic lows.
No, it’s not only a viewer boycott of China that’s driving the low ratings, but it’s hard to believe that it’s not a factor. Viewers around the world have a lot of reasons for antipathy toward China these days — from the ongoing Uyghur genocide, to the crackdown on Hong Kong, to the aggressive moves towards Taiwan, to that virus that started in Wuhan which has killed almost 6 million people around the world officially and perhaps many, many more.
There are no live audiences or cheering crowds at the events, a television correspondent got dragged away on air, waiters and bartenders in the hotels are wearing full hazmat suits, and there’s not even the usual pretty scenery — the ski-jump platform was built next to a steel plant with structures that reminded American audiences of nuclear reactors. There’s something absurdly dystopian about this whole debacle.
For a long time, the IOC insisted to the world, and perhaps to themselves late at night, that autocratic regimes such as Russia and China were challenging but worthwhile partners who helped make the games a truly global event. It contended that the long history of blatantly unethical behavior by these regimes, inside and outside the field of play, shouldn’t be a reason for concern and certainly wasn’t a reason to exclude those countries’ athletes or bar them from hosting the games. Whatever Beijing and Moscow lacked in ethics, they made up for in money and the authority to build stadiums quickly.
These games brought another embarrassing and outrage-inducing scandal, this one involving Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old Russian figure-skating prodigy. Valieva tested positive for the heart drug trimetazidine on December 25 at the Russian nationals; the test results were only delivered from a Swedish lab last week, after Valieva helped Russia win gold in the team figure-skating event. “The IOC ruled there would not be a medal ceremony for the team event, in which Russia won gold and the U.S. won silver. If the Russian team is eventually disqualified over the positive drug test, the Americans will move up to gold, Japan will win silver, and Canada will win bronze.” When Valieva competed in her free skate, she fell apart, falling twice and finishing in fourth place.
No one believes that a 15-year-old girl would obtain and take a performance-enhancing substance on her own; someone had to have supplied it to her.
You know a situation is bad when the usually mild-mannered Mike Tirico, NBC Sports’ anchor for the Olympics coverage, calls out the IOC on-air for utterly failing to protect Valieva or to mitigate Russian cheating and rule-breaking:
Something undeniable is the harm to the person at the center of it all: a fifteen-year-old, standing alone, looking terrified on the ice before her free skate. This image, maybe more than anything else, encapsulates the entire situation — the adults in the room left her alone. Portrayed by some this week as the villain, by others as the victim, she is in fact the victim of the villains — the coaches and national Olympic Committee surrounding Kamila Valieva, whether they orchestrated, prescribed or enabled, all of this is unclear. But what is certain is they failed to protect her.
Guilt by association is often unfair, but it’s called for here. Russia has been banned from using the name of its country the last three Olympic Games, because of the systemic state-run doping program that was uncovered after they hosted the Sochi games in 2014. The deal that was broken was supposed to ensure a level playing field while giving clean Russian athletes a chance to compete, but that scenario totally broke down here.
Now, a failed drug test from one of their athletes has tarnished one of the marquee events of the games and taken away from every skater’s moment. In the name of clean and fair competition, Olympians and gold medalists from across the globe have spoken up and IOC president Thomas Bach, at his end of the games press conference in the last hour uncharacteristically openly criticized Valieva’s entourage for their quote ‘tremendous coldness’ at the end of her skate and said that those involved should be held responsible
But now it’s time for the IOC to stand up — whether it’s about blocking Russia from hosting events for a very long time or stringent and globally transparent testing for Russian athletes going forward, if swift action from the top of the Olympic movement does not happen quickly the very future of the games could be in jeopardy.
Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski, an NBC figure-skating analyst, added that, “It makes me angry that the adults around her weren’t able to make better decisions and be there for her, because she is the one now dealing with the consequences and she’s just 15 and that’s not fair. . . . Again, with that being said, she should not have been allowed to skate in this Olympic event.”
Give NBC Sports a little credit for calling out the IOC on air. Maybe NBC is concluding that operating as a de facto public-relations firm for a spectacularly corrupt and increasingly incompetent Olympic committee just isn’t worth it anymore. The ratings aren’t high enough, the advertisers aren’t happy enough, and NBC Sports employees no doubt want to broadcast unforgettable human triumphs — not to try to polish a turd and implausibly assure viewers at home that the games are fair, free, and abiding under the rules.
Discussions involving Valieva keep spurring the comment that, “It’s not her fault.” Yes, that’s precisely the point, and that’s why the Russian Olympic team used her in this manner. The people who run her career know that the IOC and the world will feel hesitant to judge and rebuke a tearful, angelic-faced 15-year-old girl. That’s why they’re attempting to cheat by using a 15-year-old girl! If this were an adult man, all of us would be reacting much less sympathetically. Our inner conflict about punishing a teenage girl for the actions of others is what the Russians were counting on; they figured that gave them a better chance of getting away with it.
All of these lessons apply to the other big controversy involving Russia going on this week. Some regimes just don’t give a hoot about the rules and will do whatever it takes to win. You can’t trust them, you can’t negotiate with them without verifying that they’re keeping their promises, you can’t rely on their good faith or good will, and if you make a concession in the name of comity, they will pocket it and ask for more.
These games have been a debacle, and the IOC was warned. Adam Kilgore, the Washington Post’s correspondent in Beijing, wrote this morning that the games are concluding under “a pall of pervasive joylessness” and noted that “athletes, officials and media members [are] shuttled from hotels to venues, forbidden to see the host city except out of windows.” What was the point of selecting Beijing, then? These games could have been held anywhere.
Dan Wetzel, a Yahoo Sports national columnist, sees the Russian coaches’ heartless on-air verbal abuse of a terrified 15-year-old girl as the natural fruit of a long string of bad IOC decisions and a refusal to confront national Olympic teams that are systemically abusive: “This is the Olympics that Bach, who has been president nearly a decade, has built. This is it. He just happened to see it in all its depravity on his television Thursday. He was disgusted at what he saw. Join the club.”
The only silver lining to this mess is that Xi Jinping didn’t get much of a propaganda victory out of it all.