The Winter Olympics have not lived up to the hype. NBC’s primetime numbers are down dramatically from the Olympics coverage four years ago. That was down 29% from the first Wednesday broadcast in Vancouver. The average of 20.8 million viewers represented a drop of more than 8 million viewers.
Why have this year’s Winter Olympics been such a bomb? There are multiple reasons: lack of any big name stars chasing any big name records (there is no Michael Phelps), lack of live events in the age of the internet (Vancouver is in North America), mediocre coverage starring a red-eyed Bob Costas.
But there’s something else, too: a lack of geopolitical drama.
In the past, classic Olympic Games have acted as a sort of cathartic battle of nations, in which geopolitical foes duke it out on the playing fields, ice, or slopes. The Lake Placid Olympic Games, for example, married great hockey with high political drama: coming in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and at the low ebb of American power, the Miracle on Ice inspired a nation as a group of college boys took on the mighty Soviet hockey machine. Geopolitical drama lessened but did not die after the Cold War; in 2008, the specter of thousands of seeming automatons banging drums at the opening of the Beijing Games frightened and enthralled the world, reminding us that China was a nation on the rise, a competitor for global dominance.
This year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi could have provided similar drama. After all, it pits the United States against its chief geopolitical foe, the host country, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Putin himself is a character out of fiction, an uber-macho former Soviet thug running a massive, expansionist kleptocracy. The man stages photographs riding horses barechested and hunting tigers. His enemies find themselves on the wrong end of radioactive poisoning.
And he isn’t a cartoon villain. In the last few years, Russia has flexed its muscle across the globe. Russia’s continued interference in Ukraine has crippled that country; Russia’s Georgian intervention split that country into chunks. For the last few decade, Russia has been aiding Iranian nuclear development.
And just months ago, Russia humiliated President Obama on the world stage with regard to Syria. After waiting for President Obama to twist in the wind regarding his blustery “red-line” statement on Syrian chemical weapons use, Putin stepped in with a supposed disarmament deal. That deal, unsurprisingly, has been a chimera: Syria has continued to massacre its opposition, Bashar Assad has remained in power, his negotiators have insisted that he will not relinquish his scepter, and Syria has not disarmed itself. Russia sits by, grinning. President Obama and his administration wring their hands and whistle past the grave, suggesting that Russia must have an interest in a peaceful Syria.
The Russians are open about all of this. They don’t mind the world thinking of them as imperialistic. On the contrary: they seek that image. Why else would the opening ceremonies at Sochi have featured a stories-high hammer and sickle, marking homage to the brutal and genocidal Soviet regime?
Given this juicy narrative pitting a corrupt dictator with dictatorial power and world ambition against the flailing United States, what did the media choose to highlight?
The media have centered the Sochi Olympics drama entirely on the question of whether gays and lesbians in Russia can kiss in public – even as Russia continues to fund nuclear development for a country that hangs gays. The truth is that while Russian treatment of gays and lesbians is abysmal, it ranks somewhere near the middle of the pack in terms of global treatment: homosexuality is fully legal in Russia, and less than a dozen people have been arrested under the infamous anti-gay propaganda law. This isn’t quite Kristallnacht.
Now, this isn’t an argument that gays in Russia don’t face discriminatory attacks. The official Russian statistics on anti-gay attacks are almost meaningless, with even Russia’s RT.com explaining, “assaults are rarely reported, and almost never recorded as hate crime incidents.” And there have been some incredibly disturbing and horrifically evil attacks on gays.
But anti-homosexual laws are part of a broader problem in Russia: a problem of oppression and corruption, of lost power and attempts to reclaim it. So why not focus on the real problem of Russia? Why not draw a moral narrative pitting American freedom against Russian repression and expansionism?
There’s a rationale for that failure of narrative: were the press to point out Russia is a threat to US interests, the press would have to acknowledge that President Obama is weak. The press would have to openly recognize that Obama has been bested by a two-bit KGB bully. Obama, in other words, would have to lose.
Instead, the media turned to portrayals of Russia as a laughing stock, unable to build hotels with working doorknobs and struggling to rid the neighborhood of stray dogs while quixotically hunting gays. Journalists who have said nothing about Russia’s support for the slaughter of 100,000 in Syria complained about their toilets not flushing in Sochi and the plight of gays in a city with two gay bars.
This isn’t high drama. This is low comedy. And low comedy doesn’t draw ratings.
Simply put, the Olympics is now boring. Sports thrives on competition. Given the narrative put forward by the media, few Americans truly care whether we beat the Russians. And as it turns out, few Americans are obsessed enough with luge to tune in without any added drama.
A good story makes for a good Olympics. In order to protect President Obama, the media provided a mediocre story. No wonder the Olympics is such a drag.
Ben Shapiro is Senior Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News and author of the New York Times bestseller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences America” (Threshold Editions, January 8, 2013). He is also Editor-in-Chief of TruthRevolt.org. Follow Ben Shapiro on Twitter @benshapiro.