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Political Olympics

This Week in the Narrative 66

Nigel Clarke

No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.

– Olympic Charter

The Olympics are, according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), an apolitical event. Of course, this is occasionally, perhaps often, not the case — from Jesse Owens dismantling Hitler’s notions of Aryan supremacy in 1936, to Carlos and Smith raising their fists on the winner’s podium in 1968, to numerous boycotts and bans of countries, to multiple terrorist attacks and even one hostage situation.

But that doesn’t mean the mission and goal of the IOC is not an apolitical narrative. John Carlos and Tommie Smith were kicked out of the Olympics, and countries like apartheid-era South Africa were banned from the Olympics specifically so they would not receive a platform for their politics.

In this same vein, broadcast rights of the games are tightly restricted, and advertisers kept on a close leash. The Olympics you see adhere strictly to an official narrative.

This is why the first few days of the 2018 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea have seemed unusual.

Multiple stories and discussions dominated the officially sanctioned mainstream coverage which were explicitly not apolitical.

The main story was of the “united” Korea’s competing together in various team sports for the first time in history. The image of the Korean athletes marching together in the opening ceremonies under flags depicting the entire peninsula was broadcast around the world, as were the ensuing discussions on what it meant geopolitically, during the same week that Kim Jong-un reportedly held his latest and greatest military parade, and vice-President Mike Pence appeared to be stoking tensions between the US and North Korea.

There was also much discussion on Russia being “banned” from the games for “systemic” and state-sponsored doping at the 2016 Olympics, the perfect segue into a discussion of Russia as nefarious hackers and election riggers. The ban was somewhat muddied by the fact that 196 Russian athletes are still competing at the 2018 Olympics, though that they marched in the opening ceremonies under a nondescript flag as “Olympic Athletes from Russia” provided ample opportunity for discussion of Russia’s place on the geopolitical stage.

It seemed each time a new story came from Seoul, it served as a launching point for political discussion. Rather than existing outside and in addition to the official narrative, at the 2018 Olympics, it appears politics are the official narrative.

This is something which has been percolating for the past few Olympics. In 2016, Rio de Janeiro, it was the widespread protests and the refugee olympic team. In 2014, Sochi, it was the geopolitical aggressions and anti-gay grotesqueries of host Russia. 2018 may be the culmination if not only the latest iteration.

Of course, this is not a phenomenon isolated only within the Olympics.

Consider Saturday Night Live, now in the midst of a resurgence as satirists in the age of Trump. In 2014, to celebrate 40 years of the show, Rolling Stone released a list of the top 50 SNL skits of all time. Of the 50, only 4 or 5 were explicitly political in nature. Recently, Rolling Stone released a list of the top 10 SNL skits from 2017. A full 9 of the 10 were explicitly political.

Or think of late night television. From Johnny Carson, the GOAT, someone who was notoriously and resolutely ambiguous in his political leanings, to Jimmy Kimmel, who wished “riddance” to viewers tuning out because of his political stances, and suggesting “I probably won’t want to have a conversation with them anyway.”

It will be interesting to see what the 2018 Oscars, taking place in a few weeks time, has in store. In 2016 it was #OscarsSoWhite and Leo’s impassioned speech on climate change. Last year, it seemed near everyone presenting or receiving an award made impassioned comments on things like racial equality, police violence, immigration, border walls, and so on.

Increasingly, entertainment is being presented and consumed through the lens of politics, something which appears to have fully saturated the 2018 Olympics. It is hard to tell what this implies and indicates, broadly, for the general population, the consumers of entertainment.

Does it imply that people are more politically engaged, demanding a political lens be held up to every aspect of their lives? Or are they angrier, and being provoked by mainstream media? Perhaps it is that they are more segregated, more lost within one echo-chamber or another?

Is it impending revolution or collapse, or, does turning entertainment into politics also have the effect of further turning politics into entertainment?   

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Written by Nigel Clarke

Writer and notorious vagabond. From the frozen north. Follow Nigel on Twitter @Nig_Clarke.

Nigel Clarke is a Writer for Progressive Army.

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