On the menu today: The worst Olympics in history are coming to a close, and even NBC seems to have had it with the International Olympic Committee’s bumbling incompetence and longstanding blind eye to corruption; what the heartbreaking, cringe-inducing, and outrage-stirring scandal involving Kamila Valieva can tell us about that other big ongoing story involving Russia; and confronting the concept of “reality privilege.”
A Debacle Draws to a Close
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.
This Is a New One: ‘Reality Privilege’
Examining Meta, Michael Brendan Dougherty shares an anecdote:
At some point in my adolescence, a friend who played guitar explained to me that he gave up video games because it just meant spending time building up skills and achievements that had no meaning outside the game or to anyone else. The guitar, as a discipline, gave my friend an outlet for artistic expression, and he was able to bring real joy to people in the real world with it. Becoming a guitarist not only changed the way he thought, but physically changed his hands over time.
Cam and I talked a bit about video games in the early chapters of Heavy Lifting. If you enjoy video games, fine; it’s a free country, and everybody relaxes in their own way.
But if you relax by painting or doodling, after a while you’ve got a painting or a doodle. If you channel your thoughts and feelings and stresses through creative writing, you end up with a story or poem. If you relax by cooking, you end up with a meal. If you play video games . . . what do you have when you’re done?
Michael also spotlights what strikes me as a spectacularly odd argument from Meta board-member Marc Andreessen:
The Reality Privileged, of course, call this conclusion dystopian, and demand that we prioritize improvements in reality over improvements in virtuality. To which I say: reality has had 5,000 years to get good, and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people; I don’t think we should wait another 5,000 years to see if it eventually closes the gap. We should build — and we are building — online worlds that make life and work and love wonderful for everyone, no matter what level of reality deprivation they find themselves in.
Was this written by the machines in The Matrix or something?
By Jim Geraghty
The World Corruption Games
Get ready for next month’s World Cup in Russia, with a look at a more straightforward future global tournament.
The scene: Two anchors in the closed booth of a sports stadium.
Mike: Welcome, everybody, to the 2022 World Corruption Games in Doha, Qatar! I’m Mike Waters, along with Barry Amila, your anchors for all three weeks of live exciting international corruption action! You’ll recall that after the controversies at the Olympics, World Cup, and other major international sporting events, some voices argued that all the competitions really measured was skill in bribery, threats, and other forms of illicit influence. So the world’s governments, FIFA, and the International Olympic Committee got together and decided to organize a competition to settle the real question: Which country is the true champion when it comes to corruption?
Barry: You know, Mike, we might not be here if it wasn’t for the Russians and their groundbreaking efforts in the back-to-back hosting of the Olympics in Sochi in 2014 and the World Cup in 2018. Bribery, defending chants of “monkey” at African players, turning a blind eye to violent anti-gay purges, all kinds of construction problems at the venues . . . but I think it was the mass slaughter of stray dogs before both events that put them over the top.
Mike: Rhetoric from Moscow has always denounced “running dogs,” Barry, I guess now we know they really mean it!
Barry: That’s what makes Russia such a strong favorite in these games, Mike, an absolutely unrivaled killer instinct.
Mike: There are a lot of exiles and Putin critics who would agree, Barry — if they were still around. Russia really demonstrates the inner driving fire of a corruption champion, because a lot of countries might have flinched at the thought of using North Korean laborers to build their soccer stadiums, but not the Russians.
Barry: Look, those stadiums aren’t going to build themselves, and once a host country has promised to build giant, state-of-the-art stadiums on tight deadlines, you’re going to need a lot of expendable laborers, working at least eleven hours a day for ten to 15 bucks a day, seven days a week.
Mike: Not surprising to hear that some of these guys are keeling over on the job. Once again, you have to salute FIFA’s absolute dedication to corruption to be able to turn a blind eye to conditions like that. This is what separates the men from the boys in exploitation.
Barry: But let’s not count out our host country, Qatar, in the Secret Slush Funds competition. The very fact that they’re hosting these first World Corruption Games is a testament to their skill and precision at bribing host-city selection committees!
Some might think that an equatorial desert country is a ridiculous spot to host an athletic competition, but that didn’t stop the World Cup committee from awarding the 2022 games to Qatar.
Mike: The competitors are really feeling the heat in Doha today, as it’s a balmy 108 degrees Fahrenheit out there! Some might think that an equatorial desert country is a ridiculous spot to host an athletic competition, but that didn’t stop the World Cup committee from awarding the 2022 games to Qatar, on their promise to build multiple high-tech cooling stadiums — and when that promise turned out to be impossible, they moved the World Cup to winter. Now it’s just the virtual-slave migrant workers who have to build the stadiums in unsafe working conditions in 100-degree heat!
Barry: But it’s a dry heat, Mike.
Mike: These games may be in Doha for now, but there’s no guarantee that Doha will remain part of Qatar. Remember, just days after the Sochi Olympics ended, Russian forces rolled into Crimea. Vladimir Putin might just invade and conquer any rival host city. That’s the sort of thing that could cost you a World Cup hosting opportunity, if you don’t have one of the strongest and most competitive corruption teams in the world.
Barry: Always a possibility, Mike, I guess you could say that any world city could be Russian with enough time and effort.
Mike: Who do you like in the bribery competitions?
Barry: Oh, Mike, so many strong competitors in the field in recent years: the Brazilians, the Japanese, the Chinese . . . the Stars and Stripes shouldn’t be counted out, but let’s face it, the glory days of the Salt Lake City games were a long time ago. There’s an argument that a lot of young Americans, who have the natural talent for this, just aren’t getting into corruption the way they used to.
Mike: It’s a tragedy, Barry. I blame the video games . . . But that’s enough talk, it’s time for some corruption action here in Doha. Here comes the first competitor, Neville Fenwick of the United Kingdom, who’s going to try to slip a bribe into the pocket of a referee . . . ooh, he’s keeling over! Just a few steps away from the ref and something went terribly wrong! Maybe he pulled a muscle or something, maybe he —
Barry: Nope, nope, that’s not a strain, Mike, I’ve seen that before — that’s a reaction to Novichok nerve agent, one of the favorite tools of the Moscow team when they need somebody taken out.
Mike: Wow. He’s going to feel that one in the morning!
Barry: Most countries would face an automatic expulsion for throwing around nerve gas on another country’s soil, but Russia finds a way to escape serious consequence, time after time. You really have to salute the Russians and their commitment to victory here, Mike. I mean, literally, you have to salute them, or they might kill you.
Mike: We’ll be back after this, for live coverage of the fierce competition in beating drug and doping tests! Keep it right here, because you’re-in for some excitement!
By Jim Geraghty