As we begin our quadrennial celebration of winter sports (or, more accurately, hockey and some other stuff), I’m hoping that Globe readers can help me answer a question that’s been bothering me for a few Olympiads:
What is it about the Olympics that causes otherwise sane people to lose their minds?
I don’t mean increases in the non-ironic use of the word “luge” in casual conversation. I’m talking about how, for the sake of a two-week international sports festival, intelligent and kind people support things that they would never, ever otherwise condone.
Fun fact: As the official Canadian broadcaster of the Sochi Games, the CBC agreed to stop streaming all of its Radio 1 programming outside of Canada. All of it – not just its live Olympics coverage. Anyone outside the country (including Canadian expats) who tunes in hears the following:
“Between February 6th and 23rd, CBC Radio 1 live streams will only be available to Canadian audiences due to Olympic rights restrictions. However, our listeners outside Canada can still hear the favourite shows on demand by visiting cbc.ca/radio, or by downloading the CBC Radio app and following the links to their favourite programs.”
The CBC is being a bit misleading in that last sentence. Because their newscasts contain reports about the Olympics, they’ve stopped producing news podcasts for the duration of the games.
Let that sink in for a moment. The CBC has effectively turned over decisions about how its news and entire Radio 1 network will be distributed to the International Olympic Committee, which controls the rights to the Olympics.
This move casts a shadow over all of the CBC’s Olympics reporting. If they’re willing to allow the IOC such control, how do we know they’re not also toning down reports of dog slaughters, worker deaths (over 60 to date, according to the Building and Wood Worker’s International union) and human-rights violations to keep people focused on the aforementioned luge competition. Even worse, it suggests that there’s little the CBC won’t do for the right payday.
If any other group on the planet had tried this trick, the CBC’s bright lights would’ve (rightly) huffed about “journalistic integrity” and “the importance of independent media.” Canadians’ trust in the CBC’s journalism is possibly its most valuable asset, particularly since they’ve just lost their Hockey Night in Canada cash cow.
Instead, they’ve cashed it in because, Olympics.
It’s not as if they didn’t know about the nasty history of the IOC and the Olympic movement. The Sochi Games are exemplary only in the scale of corruption on display. The Olympics themselves have been used to prop up some of the most horrific dictatorships in history, including China’s, the Soviet Union’s and (for Pete’s sake) Nazi Germany’s. For 22 years, from 1980 to 2001, the IOC’s president was literally a card-carrying fascist, Juan Antonio Samaranch. Off the playing field, the IOC tarnishes almost everything it touches. The CBC is only the latest – willing – victim.
And yet, every two years, athletes attend, news organizations become cheerleaders, and people watch in the billions. Everyone goes along with the lie that it’s just sports and we shouldn’t bring politics into the Olympics.
I think we’ve confused the Olympic movement with sports itself. It’s sports, not the Olympics, that brings people together. Watching athletes perform at the height of their powers thrills the soul. This is what shines through even corrupting exercises such as the Olympic Games.
Tragically, we don’t need the Olympics to celebrate sports, and yet we act as if we do. News organizations could refuse to be cheerleaders and instead do the job we need them to do. We all could refuse to watch these exercises in corruption, where every athletic triumph is inextricably linked to the suffering of the powerless. In doing so we could separate the corrosive, actual spirit of the Olympics from the joyous, liberating spirt of sports itself.
Blayne Haggart is an assistant professor of political science at Brock University.