Journalists don’t just stick to sports in Olympics coverage

A general view during the Opening Ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 9, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

The Olympic Games are back, in all their pageantry, flag-waving, and allegorical glory. NBC’s tape-delayed primetime broadcasts are drawing huge audiences (if slightly diminished from previous years) and new national heroes are being minted. But amid the highlight reels and athlete profiles, journalists are producing coverage that goes beyond the ice rink and ski slopes.

With a global audience and a post-Super Bowl lull in the American sports calendar, the Olympics are a chance for reporters to draw a big audience to complicated issues. “The Olympics have always been political,” says Sports Illustrated media reporter Richard Deitsch. “The Games provide a lot of opportunities to find the nexus of politics and sports, where you won’t nearly get as much of that on a day-to-day basis in more typical sports coverage.”

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Indeed, the Pyeongchang Games, held 50 miles from the border with North Korea, have produced a wellspring of important journalism. From historical dives into the intersection of the Olympics and geopolitical tensions on the peninsula, to government-sanctioned doping scandals, to a war of words between the first openly gay US Olympian and Vice President Mike Pence, journalists have risen to the challenge, using the interest in sports to cover a host of serious issues.

“The Olympics are kind of about everything. They’re about gender, they’re about race, they’re about politics, they’re about economics, and they’re about sport.”

Since at least the summer of 1936, when Adolf Hitler looked on as Jesse Owens undercut the myth of Aryan supremacy, the Olympics have served as an exception to the “stick to sports” approach that has dogged coverage of other athletic endeavours. Events like the Black September attacks in Munich in 1972 or the pipe bombing in Atlanta during the 1996 Games demanded attention, certainly. But reporters, especially in recent cycles, have also dug into a myriad of topics tangential to the competition. Whether covering government corruption and the displacement of entire communities in Rio de Janeiro, growing authoritarianism in Sochi, or human rights in Beijing, journalists have used the Olympics as a springboard for decidedly non-athletic stories. “The Olympics are kind of about everything,” Deitsch says. “They’re about gender, they’re about race, they’re about politics, they’re about economics, and they’re about sport.”

With the Olympics taking place in the figurative shadow of nuclear-armed North Korea, much of the reporting has focused on the geopolitical situation on the peninsula. The “charm offensive” led by Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, which included a surprise offer to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit the North’s capital, dominated the first weekend of coverage, and led to some overly credulous reactions from American media. But overall, print media has done an admirable job so far.

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Meanwhile, NBC—the official broadcaster of the Games in the US, a designation that comes with a $963 million price tag—has walked a finer line between journalism and entertainment. The network obviously wants to attract the largest possible audience. That often means avoiding any controversy that might cause a portion of the audience to reach for the remote. “This is a wonderful opportunity to be apolitical in a time when that’s been very difficult to do,” Katie Couric, who is making her return to NBC, said in remarks before the Games kicked off.

“[NBC]tries to stay apolitical, because they want the largest possible audience watching the Games, and the best way for them to do that is to focus on the competition, to give the American public a heartwarming narrative, a rags-to-riches narrative, an overcoming narrative,” says Sport Illustrated’s Deitsch. “It is a humongous reality show for them, one that’s very entertaining, oftentimes incredibly uplifting, but ultimately a reality show.”

In the early days of its coverage, the network team assigned to cover the sports has mostly stuck to form, leaving its Nightly News counterparts to report on issues like North Korea’s horrifying treatment of detainees. One notable exception was Mike Tirico’s post-skate interview with openly gay US figure skater Adam Rippon on Sunday night. Tirico, who took over the main chair from longtime host Bob Costas, asked Rippon about his feud with Pence. Despite a predictable backlash from some viewers who wanted Tirico to stick to sports, the interview managed to tackle a substantive political issue while still providing some entertainment.

With two weeks of coverage from Pyeongchang still to come, opportunities abound for journalists to keep the focus on issues that go beyond the arena of competition. “That’s the magic of sports writing—you smuggle big or difficult topics onto the sports page,” says The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis, who proclaimed the end of the “stick to sports” era soon after Trump’s inauguration. With the competition underway, however, shoehorning political or economic stories into the coverage gets more difficult. Curtis saw the weeks leading up to the Opening Ceremony as particularly ripe for serious journalism. “You need something to show before the Games start; puff pieces only take you so far,” Curtis says. “Corruption, eradication of homeless people—in the last couple cycles there has been more of a critical mass of people questioning the whole Olympic process.”

The first year of the Trump presidency saw something of an awakening across the sports landscape, with athletes, coaches, and sports journalists wading into political waters often reserved for other sections of the newspaper. They were met, at least by some portion of their domestic audience—including the president himself—with demands that they keep their focus on the field. The Olympics are a reminder that this delineation has never held.

Referencing the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, George Orwell wrote more than 70 years ago, “I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield.” Sport, in other words, “is war minus the shooting.”

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.