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Thursday, February 6, 2014

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia: “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire”

In the weeks leading us to watch the Olympics, I suspect I was not alone in thinking, “I just don't like what I see here." Why was I resisting paying even scant attention to the pre-Olympics "coverage" (a.k.a. advertising) as NBC, the American broadcast network covering the games, was getting rather publicly revved up on the upcoming media event. In this essay, I briefly survey the external stimuli, leaving the self-analysis to the analyst’s couch.[1]

First, as the American press reported before NBC began promoting the games in earnest (hmm), there is the “whole gay thing” and Putin. I really think that's a non-issue with regard to the Olympics, given the uniqueness of the Olympic Village. I would not be surprised were the Russian police of the mind that “What goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas,” at least as far as vacations are concerned.

Now, the "not fit for primetime viewing" conditions of some of the hotels putting up the foreign press strikes me as more substantive because of the implicit and likely even explicit rudeness does not go down well, even at a distance. Relatedly, I suspect, the sheer amount of money "padded" into the construction projects, including hotel construction, for kick-backs undoubtedly directed to Putin's major political supporters eviscerates any possible excuse in the tardiness.

In fact, associating Putin at all with the Olympics comes off to me like associating liver with dinner; I instinctively spit out immediately any hint of liver-taste. I must admit I am glad the U.S. State Department put out a travel warning for Americans going to the games. I was also amused to read of the low numbers of non-Russians arriving from abroad in Sochi as of the first day of games.[2] Of course, the modern Olympics hinges on the broadcasts around the world, rather than attendance numbers.

 Even though NBC's studio in the Olympic Village is transparent, the network's tactics may be anything but. (Image Source: David Johnson)

Interestingly, as part of its rather obvious devices to remind/manipulate its general viewership to watch the approaching games (including inserting reporters live from Sochi into CNBC's coverage of the financial markets), NBC strategists may actually have been fomenting the security story in order to draw viewers' attention to the fact that the games would soon begin. Stirring up fear and the hope of visual voyeurism of others’ tragedies is a sure bet for news reporting as advertising.  However, overdoing it can be counterproductive if too much of the ploy is visible on the surface as a duplicitous, otherwise stealth agenda. Yearning to turn the subtropical town on the Black Sea into an international resort, Putin could not have been very happy about the coverage, though may have realized the importance of a huge broadcast viewership even for himself, not to mention covering some of the kick-backs.
Finally, starting particular events including skating the day before the OPENING ceremony may stand out among the various points of smoke above in being indicative of fire skipping fire lines below. Even though Chris Chase of USA Today concludes “it’s a small price to pay for the overall improvement of the Winter Games,” he admits “it still feels strange to start the Olympics before the Olympics technically start.”[3] In the film, Inglourious Basterds, Lt. Aldo Raine wryly clarifies the matter of something seeming odd (or strange).  “Yeah, we got a word for that in English. It’s called suspicious.” 

In spite of his conclusion (i.e., small price to pay), Chase provides a credible case for suspicion. “Television rules all." he states up front as if it were a natural law. "Adding another day of Olympic competition means adding another day of Olympic telecasts. Thursday is traditionally one of the biggest television nights (along with Sunday). With all the money being paid to cover the games by networks across the world, turning 17 days of Olympic coverage into 18 days is a nice bonus.”[4] Regarding the addition of a program of skating, Chase points to a five day interim within the two weeks without any skating scheduled.

In closing, I must let the philosopher in me have a few words (no philosopher ever has just a few words, so please take a bathroom break if you need to). From sheer logic, to begin something before it has begun is a blatant contradiction. As per his categorical imperative, Kant would call the practice unethical. Were everyone to adopt the maxim, “I will start activities before the start time,” it would not make sense to have a start time for anything. The maxim is thus self-contradictory if it (like reason itself) is universalized.

Hume would point out that Kant relies too much on logic and reason more generally in assessing whether a given practice is ethical. A person reading U.N.’s condemnation of the Vatican in February 2014  for having been more concerned about the reputation of the Church as a whole than children’s welfare—a priority that Rev. Joe Ratzinger, or Benedict XVI, put in a letter while archbishop of Munich—may think through the theological implications of priests covering for each other. However, the sentiment of disapprobation (think of my expression as I spit out odious liver) is likely, excepting sociopaths, to be the principal reaction. Emotive rather than of Reason.

When I read of the sports beginning a day before the opening ceremony, I felt a sentiment of disapprobation well up inside me. Because I had been feeling that something just isn’t right about the upcoming games, especially from an vague intuitive sense of NBC’s manipulative tactics as over-reaching at best, I suspected that the rather odd placement of some events before the ceremony also came from the mentality that wants incessantly to squeeze out a few more drops of lemon juice from lemon that has already shed enough.  The sight of this childish demeanor in action is enough for any non-manipulative person to resist going where the manipulations point.

[1] I have in mind here Nietzsche’s thesis that reasoning is really a person’s instinctual urges tussling for dominance—that which overcomes the others (here as obstacles) reaches the surface of consciousness as an idea. I do think about this point regarding philosophy (and particular philosophical systems) in general and how my own psychological background fuels or is otherwise expressed in the ideas and related theories I “intuit” and “create.”
[2] Associated Press, “Sochi Olympics Still Waiting for Spectators from Abroad,” The Huffington Post, February 6, 2014.
[3] Chris Chase, “Why Do the Winter Olympics Start before the Opening Ceremony?” USA Today, February 6, 2014.
[4] Ibid.