Tag: olympics

Could the Olympics Help Human Rights?

Grab your popcorn – opening ceremonies for Rio 2016 are tonight! It’s my favorite part of the Olympics; I really could do without the whole “sport” thing that comes after.  And, one of my favorite parts of tonight’s opening ceremonies are when the various country teams get to be announced: the parade of nations. I love the outfits, the flags, the background stories, the family members crying, and the look on the faces of all the athletes who are in the midst of a dream realized. It’s too much and, much to my family’s chagrin, I probably will be crying by the end of it.

Until quite recently, I hadn’t really thought about all the interesting international relations topics that are connected to the Olympics.  As someone who isn’t athletic and has never really paid attention to any competitive sporting event, the Olympics were just something that took over my regularly scheduled programming.  However, I’m now coming to realize that there are a myriad of IR puzzles and possible research questions connected to these sporting mega-events and to the international sporting organizations (ISOs) that run them.

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The Olympics Make You Care Less About Milwaukee

When Usain competes, U.S. aid plummets.

 At Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Beast, Patrick Appel offers a few hypotheses about why Americans seem to care less about the killing of Sikhs than the killing of moviegoers, including the observation that the timing of the Milwaukee shootings so soon after the Batman massacre have left many pundits unwilling to talk further about gun control for fear of sounding redundant. Appel also hypothesizes that low levels of media coverage may be due to the Aurora killings haven taken place on a slow news day while the Milwaukee killings happened during the Olympics. Robert Wright in The Atlantic proposes a potentially complementary hypothesis: that the mass American public has cared less about Milwaukee than Aurora because of a sense that the Sikhs are outsiders while the theatergoers were representative.

Research by Thomas Eisensee and David Stromberg (ungated) suggests that at least two of these guesses may be right. Eisensee and Stromberg studied the effect of news coverage of more than 5,000 natural disasters on policymakers’ responses to see whether policy responses were driven by media coverage or policy rationales. Their study hinges on a fundamental truth about the media business: during large-scale events such as the Olympics, television networks, which have a fixed time budget (even a 24-hour-network can’t broadcast more than 24 hours a day), have less time to devote to unplanned events like disasters because of the time they spend on the scheduled spectacle. As Eisensee and Stromberg write,

If two equally newsworthy disasters occur, we would expect the disaster occurring when there is a great deal of other breaking news around would have a lower chance of being covered by the news than the disaster occur- ring when there is little other news around. This crowding out is probably particularly strong for television news broadcasts that are usually of a fixed length (half an hour for ABC, CBS and NBC, and one hour for CNN).

If policymakers’ responses are driven by some inherent logic of disasters and policy rationales, then the magnitude of their reactions should be unrelated to the availability of news coverage; if policymakers instead only act when the public is watching, then their responses to similar disasters should

Their results are startling–and dismaying. U.S. policymakers react to publicity, not severity.

First, media coverage is driven not by the severity of a disaster but by factors such as how people are killed and which people are killed:

News biases relief in favor of certain disaster types and regions: for every person killed in a volcano disaster, 40,000 people must die in a drought to reach the same probability of media coverage. Similarly, it requires 40 times as many killed in an African disaster to achieve the same expected media coverage as for a disaster in Eastern Europe of similar type and magnitude.

Second, the effects of media coverage are noticeable and substantively important:

We find that natural disasters are more likely to receive relief if they occur when the pressure for news time in the U.S. network news broadcasts is low. Quantitatively, disasters are, on average, around eight percent more likely to receive relief if they occur when news pressure takes on its highest values than when taking its lowest, and five percent less likely to receive relief during the Olympics than at other times. Using another metric, to have the same chance of receiving relief, the disaster occurring during the highest news pressure must have six times as many casualties as the disaster occurring when news pressure is at its lowest, all else equal.

It also turns out that the Olympics are the most important stories generating “news pressure”–the crowding out of foreign and disaster news–on the U.S. media, much more than the World Series, the Oscars, and the Super Bowl. Other sources of news, pressure, such as the O.J. Simpson murder trial verdict, perform similarly.

Eisensee and Stromberg conclude by asserting that although their story focused on domestic media coverage’s effects on U.S. policymakers’ efforts abroad, “it seems likely that the underlying mechanisms would be equally active for domestic policy.”

Outrage Blogging Continues: Aliya Mustafina

Andrew Sullivan’s blog has been running a series of reader reactions on the subject of the Olympics and nationalism. A recent entry:

Gabby Douglas’ gold medal is being hailed all over the place as a first for an African-American gymnast. But I believe it’s actually much more than that: Gabby is the first black athlete from anywhere to win the title, and one of very few to compete for it. I’m a good liberal, and all for the term “African-American” in its proper context, but in this case it seems to shrink the scale of Ms. Douglas’s first – and America’s. (Afro.com covers it here.) The fact that our country, while imperfect, is one where a traditionally elite (and still of course expensive) sport is open to anyone with the chops to win, gives me enormous pride. Seeing our multi-hued team of talented, determined young women – their families must have originally come here from all over the place – take apart the monochromatic, over-made-up, bawling Russians – that’s where I get my Olympic jingoism on. America f[–]k yeah.

Monochromatic? I guess “they” all look alike, eh? The Russian team captain, Aliya Mustafina, as her name makes clear, is ethnically Tatar. Recall that the Russian Federation is a multiethnic political community. Indeed, the Tatar’s faced significant discrimination and oppression during periods of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and continue to face hurdles outside of the Republic of Tatarstan–although, I should note, Mutafina’s father and sister are also successful elite athletes.

The Oatmeal Olympics


Following on Charli’s excellent post about the Olympics, I thought I’d add my two cents.
If you live outside of North America, (okay, and Scandinavia) you probably didn’t know. The fact is the international coverage seems to be lacking, at least if my experience in London is to be judged by. Here, the Six Nations Rugby Tournament is getting far more coverage. Not to mention the Football/Soccer.

I have been trying to figure out why this might be the case. It may be, as has been suggested before, that the Winter Olympics are quite simply the “rich people’s games”. Virtually all of the sports, skating, skiing, skeleton, etc – all of these require vast amounts of money, years of training and expensive equipment. Compare this to the summer games: track and field (with pretty much any high school in the developed world possessing the equipment to at least get you started), baseball (needed: one bat, one ball, one glove), volleyball (needed: one ball), etc. Even “expensive” summer sports (like tennis) can be entered into relatively cheaply. Growing up on the (not so mean streets) of my home town suburbia, I used to play tennis with the neighbours in the street. And we lived on a hill.


Skiing, however, was out my family’s financial reach when I was growing up. To this day I still can’t ski and I really couldn’t care less about the sport.*


So bizzaro sports (seriously – can anyone actually explain skeleton? Why are there always cow bells?) for rich white people may be one cause of a lack of interest.

But geography has to play a key role here. There is a very limited number of countries which could host a Winter Olympics. You need adequate ski slopes, cold weather and snow (something of a problem this year, from what I understand). Plus, I’m guessing that if you’re from Africa or, say, the subcontinent, this isn’t the Olympics for you – expensive sports in climates that don’t exist within miles of your national borders.

Finally, I can’t help but wondering if it is just that Canada is boring. I mean, the lead up to Beijing was HUGE. The BBC ran daily leading stories on it for months. The games were seen as symbolic in all kinds of ways. China taking another step as a major global power. The crackdown on dissidents. The fact that a major earthquake happened just a few weeks before. I could go on.

In other words, the Beijing Olympics were interesting because China was interesting. And the Canadian Olympics? They’re boring because Canada is boring. Other than native protestors, there really hasn’t been much hoopla (and those protests haven’t received much coverage internationally). It may be the story behind the games which really captures our imagination.

So that’s why I dub these the “Oatmeal Games” – might be good for you and wholesome, but not exactly interesting. The breakfast food of the middle classes – when, let’s face it, we’d all rather be digging into some Lucky Charms.

*I did try to learn once in French. Let’s just say I got a lot of practice screaming “au secours!”

Olympic (Pipe) Dreams

Last week, Ban Ki-Moon made his standard plea for an Olympic Truce during the XXI Olympic Winter Games from Feb. 12 to Feb. 28 February and the X Winter Paralympic Games from March 12th to 21st.

Thing is, the concept of the Olympic Truce is based on two fallacies: 1) that nation-states (which are the units of contestation in the Olympics) are also the containers of political community and 2) that they are the wagers of war against one another whose actions must be tamed.

But actually, the fault-lines of global violence fall not between states but rather within them, evident in the fact that wars between countries have been hovering around zero for awhile. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2009 16 conflicts were ongoing around the world, but none of them occurred between the sovereign nations whose teams are pitted against one another in the Olympic games. Instead, all were civil wars.

Too bad then that the logic of the Olympic truce doesn’t really apply to civil wars, since rebel groups or secessionist movements only in very rare cases qualify for involvement in the Olympics. What care the Tamils or Comali ICU or Taliban about whether Sri Lankan or Afghani athletes have safe passage to the games? What care, for that matter, first nations in countries like Canada in promoting an event that underscores their nominal exclusion from the club of sovereign nations?

Is the concept of the Olympic Truce therefore outdated? Or does this mis-match between the institutionalization of the Olympic games as a contest between nation-states and the actual nature of political violence globally imply the need for a different conceptualization of “teams” if we are to translate the goodwill of inter”nation”al sporting events into a movement that can pacify conflicts in a world where the nation-state is no longer the key container of political community?

[cross-posted at LGM}

Youth Violence in Rio and Elsewhere

Much was made over the weekend of 14 gang deaths in Rio, host of the 2016 Olympics, forcing Brazil onto the defensive. I wonder if the same attention would have been given to the following news story from last week, had Chicago won the bid:

Community activists said the recent murder of a Fenger High School honor student exposes a problem many teens face every day: safe passage to and from school.

“I wonder how many more teens will be murdered while coming home from school,” said Leonardo D. Gilbert, a Local School Council member in the Roseland community. “All this kid was trying to do was go home and it cost him his life. If we are going to save our children from violence we must make sure children have a safe way home from school.”

According to Chicago police, Derrion Albert, 16, was murdered after school on Sept. 24 while waiting for a bus to go home. Duncan, who previously was the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, said watching the videotape beating of Albert was “terrifying, tragic and horrible for America to watch.”

Since Albert’s death there have been vigils, anti-violence marches and community meetings to discuss ways to keep children safe when traveling to school. “I am going to die anyway so until that day comes I am going to hold my own,” said William Jenkins, 16, a sophomore at Fenger. “Almost everyday I have to fight my way home because I get picked on because I live in the projects rather than the ‘hood.”

One girl explained how in 2008 she and her sister, both Fenger students, were attacked on a Chicago Transit Authority bus coming home. “They (Fenger students) busted out the back windows of the bus, then came onto to the bus and sprayed mace in our faces,” Stephanie Patterson, 17, a senior, recalled. “The bus driver did nothing. School administrators did nothing when our parents told them and the police didn’t do anything but make out a report.”

“We go to school to learn, not to see violence or worse yet murder,” she said. “After you’ve seen so many of your friends get killed it starts to affect your ability to function in school and life. That is where many of us Altgeld kids are today.”

Rugby Now An Olympic Sport

Yes, the other big news story of the day. (OK, of yesterday.)

“Oslo Beats Copenhagen”: President Obama Awarded Peace Prize

President Obama couldn’t convince the Inernational Olympic Committee to let Chicago hold the next summer Olympics, but Nobel Committee decided he’s a skilled enough diplomat to receive a Nobel Peace Prize – only months into his Presidency. This is not lost on commentators and twitterers, some of who are referring to this as a “consolation prize” for losing the Olympics bid. ChicagoBlog writes:

“Barack Obama couldn’t convince the IOC to award Chicago the 2016 Olympics but somehow managed to sway the Nobel Committee to declare our freshman president deserving of the most distinguished peace prize in the world. Wow.

This isn’t as contradictory as it looks. It’s partly Obama’s humility – which I suspect his trip to Copenhagen was calculated to demonstrate on a low-stakes issue – that makes him an inspirational leader and diplomat. And it is his behavior as a model for the type of attitudes the Nobel Committee wishes to promote – not his effectiveness at any particular initiative – that was the basis for the Committee’s decision.

“Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama’s initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.

For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world’s leading spokesman. The Committee endorses Obama’s appeal that “Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.”

UPDATE: Heather Hamilton provides a healthy response to the cynicism at Connect US Fund Blog.

UPDATE: In the NYTimes today, Ross Douthat asks whether the correct response would have been for Obama to politely decline the prize. I think he has a point.

Closing Olympic Observations

The Olympics ended about 12 hours ago, but NBC is giving us the tape-delayed broadcast this evening. One last set of semi-structured Olympic thoughts…

Its pretty clear that these games had massive political undertones. China viewed this as a coming out / coming of age celebration and invested accordingly. The infrastructure was impressive (gotta love that water cube), and their performance was impressive, with the top gold medal haul, though the US was tops in overall medals. If you use the Boswell formula, China edged the US in total performance, a big thing for them.

–The political overtones were even clear to the sports columnists who don’t usually venture into the political. In today’s WP, Boswell observed

In decades at The Post, this is the first event I’ve covered at which I was certain that the main point of the exercise was to co-opt the Western media, including NBC, with a splendidly pretty, sparsely attended, completely controlled sports event inside a quasi-military compound. We had little alternative but to be a conduit for happy-Olympics, progressive-China propaganda. I suspect it worked.

Everything that met my eye at every venue was perfect. Everybody smiled. Everybody pretended to speak English. Until you got past “Hello.” Everyone was helpful until you went one inch past where you were supposed to go. Then, arms sprang out to stop you. Everywhere you went, even alone at 2 a.m., you felt completely safe. Because every hundred feet there were a pair of guards — at attention in the middle of the night.

As sports spectacles go, I’ve never seen one more efficiently or soulessly executed than this one.

–Who is Joshua (in the booth with Costas)? Costas’s question to him: where does China go from here? He’s giving all the political tidbits, like the ever so important nugget as the Mayor of Beijing hands the Olympic flag over to the Mayor London, the host for the 2012 games: “Chinese viewers will recall that the last hand-over between these two nations involved Hong Kong.” I know you were all thinking about that.

–The NYT today had a very fascinating behind the scenes look at just how influential NBC really is in the games, emphasizing that though these remain a global spectacle, they are made a spectacle for the American market (which is why China was so adamant at putting on a good show for the Americans). The very structure of the games—when they would be held, when the events would be schedules—was set years in advance to accommodate the US media market. Its not just that the US / NBC asked for this, but its that the IOC and Olympic Organizers though it so important to do so, and were so taken by the intricacies of the American TV ratings game.

Switching swimming and gymnastics to prime time was not the biggest scheduling coup Mr. Ebersol helped pull off. Long before that, during the Games in Sydney, Mr. Ebersol played the central role in a move to alter the weeks when the Beijing Games would be held.

By the summer of 2000, NBC already possessed the rights to the Winter and Summer Games through 2008. The network had made a deal in 1995 to secure them all even before the Games were awarded to any cities — a notion Mr. Ebersol sold effectively to the I.O.C. as a better way to go than having the cities make plans without knowing how much they were going to acquire in TV rights.

But the Sydney Games, which took place in late September, were not doing especially well in the ratings. Juan Antonio Samaranch, then the I.O.C. president, left Sydney after the first day because of the death of his wife. When he returned, Mr. Ebersol related, he visited the NBC broadcast center and observed that the ratings were not what NBC had hoped. He asked Mr. Ebersol if there was anything he could do to help.

“Not for these Games,” Mr. Ebersol said he told him. But he wanted to plant another thought. “I believed China was going to win the bid for 2008,” he said. And he had heard that China planned to bid based on dates similar to Sydney. He asked Mr. Samaranch if China could move the dates of its bid four weeks back into August.

“If you’re into September, you’re going to lose a big percentage of your male viewers,” Mr. Ebersol said. “There’s N.F.L. coverage on Sundays and Mondays, and college football is now on four or five nights a week. All of that goes away if you start in mid-August.”

Also, he said, moving the dates back meant bringing in children who would be in school a month later and thus not allowed to stay up late to see American stars like Nastia Liukin on the balance beam. “The Olympics are about the last event that gets the whole family viewing together,” Mr. Ebersol said.
Mr. Samaranch listened to the arguments carefully. “Forty-eight hours later, when the Chinese made their official bid, the dates were in mid-August,” Mr. Ebersol said.

In both cases when NBC’s desires were accommodated, “no money changed hands,” Mr. Ebersol said. The $894 million that NBC paid for the American television rights was already in a Chinese bank, Mr. Ebersol noted. But the I.O.C. has an intense interest in assuring that its American TV partner has a success with the Games, he said, because American television money accounts for more cash for the I.O.C. than all the world’s other broadcasters combined. (By contrast, he said China paid $17 million for its television rights, while selling $400 million worth of ads.)

It’s a well known fact that US defense spending exceeds the rest of the world combined, and it is a foundational fact in any argument about US hegemony. The parallel with TV money is more than interesting.

–Most important mystery resolved: why the divers shower after the dive. Now, about those shammys… did you get them from Billy Maize?

–Of all the great / rising powers in the world (say the G-7 + BRIC), only one massively underperforms at the Olympics. China launched a special program to up its medal count in sports that aren’t big in China, like rowing and track and field, and with a billion people, you can imagine that at least one or two should have aptitude in these areas. Yet, India, the second largest country on earth, a vibrant democracy and vibrant economy, has a mere 3 medals. Another column in today’s Post opines:

China has set about systematically striving for Olympic success since it re-entered global competition after years of isolation, but India has remained mostly complacent about its lack of sporting prowess. Where China lobbied hard for the right to host the Olympics within two decades of its return to the Games, India has rested on its laurels after hosting the Asian Games in New Delhi in 1982. This is widely believed to leave it even farther behind in the competition for Olympic host-hood than it was two decades ago.

Where China embarked on what its sports leaders call “Project 119,” a program devised specifically to boost the country’s Olympic medal standings (the number 119 refers to the number of golds awarded at the 2000 Sydney Games in what Sports Illustrated calls “the medal-rich sports of track and field, swimming, rowing, sailing and canoe/kayak”), Indians wondered whether they’d be able to crack the magic ceiling of two, the highest number of medals their giant country has ever won. Where China, eyeing the number of medals awarded in kayaking, decided to create a team to master a sport hitherto unknown to the Middle Kingdom, India didn’t even petition successfully to have the Games include the few sports it does play well, such as polo, kabbadi (a form of tag-team wrestling) or cricket, which was played in the Olympics of 1900 and has been omitted ever since.

–The cultural links between what sports are big where remain fascinating to me. Some of this is obviously economic and geographic. There’s a reason that Scandanavian countries dominate the Winter games but not the summer, there’s a reason that Jamaica doesn’t field a real bobsled team (yeah, whatever, that movie was all Disney, though it would be fun to see Usain Bolt on the bobsled). The legacy of the Soviet athletic training programs continue to give Russia a strong team. But, why is water polo so big in Hungary? Why is swimming so big in Australia? In running, why do Caribbean nations excel in the sprints while the African nations excel in distance? And Romania always seems to do well in women’s gymnastics but not too much else. How did China get so good at the precision sports of gymnastics and diving, but continues to be so bad in track, field, swimming, and the like?

–And seriously, what on earth is BMX biking doing as an Olympic sport? I saw one race, and it joins the group of sports I want to see banished. Other members of club DTM include synchronize swimming and rhythmic gymnastics. You might as well replace them with some other legit global sports like Rugby or Cricket or what not. Not that I am a fan of those sports, but they certainly belong ahead of BMX biking.

Feelings in Foreign Affairs

Could be my lack of expertise in Chinese diplomatic discourse, but I’ve found myself doing double-takes at the frequency with which Chinese elites have referred to “feelings” in statements to the Western media lately.

Take Gao Xiqing’s interview on 60 Minutes Sunday. Pressed by Leslie Stahl on whether the Chinese should submit to an official code of conduct for sovereign wealth funds, he responds:

“Why do you need a law like that? That law will only hurt feelings. It’s not economic. It doesn’t make sense. Politically it’s stupid.”

Then, on last night’s News Hour, when asked whether the Chinese might retaliate if President Bush boycotts the opening ceremony of the summmer Olympics, Chinese-born retired US Army Major General John Fugh said of the Chinese government:

“I’m not sure they will retaliate, but they’re certainly going to have some very, very bad feelings toward the whole situation if it gets to that stage.”

Then there’s Bjork, who, according to the Chinese Ministry of Culture, “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” when she shouted “Tibet, Tibet” after a concert in Shanghai last month.

What is this a code-word for, I’m wondering?It’s not exactly standard politico-speak in Anglo-phone circles. One strains to imagine President Bush claiming his feelings are hurt at accusations that waterboarding is torture. (English-speaking Google hits for “foreign policy hurt feelings” turn up little of any substance related to current issues in foreign affairs, though there’s a bit of gender stereotyping with respect to certain presidential candidates.) But the concept (humiliation? shame? polite-talk for righteous anger?), translated into English as “hurt feelings,” seems to be a staple of Chinese diplomatic rhetoric, especially when responding to perceived double-standards.

I read it as a pleasant way of saying, don’t be such #*&%ing hypocrites. And this is the best reason for President Bush to attend the Olympic opening ceremonies after all, despite pressure from others. Under Bush, the USG has squandered any right it once had to chide other foreign leaders for human rights abuses. He will be an ineffective ambassador for freedom, and his presence as part of any boycott that might include European governments, as Dan Drezner proposes, would only dilute any influence they would have by associating them with his own hypocrisy. The double standard may even stoke, as Drezner recognizes, the ongoing nationalist backlash against the West within China that will make it harder, not easier, for the Chinese government to continue liberalizing.

Anyone who wants to promote human rights and democracy in China should be embracing events like the Olympics as an opportunity to socialize China into the global moral order. And activists who want to bring pressure on China should not be seeking an ally in a sitting government with a record like ours. Such a strategy will only hurt feelings, and people with hurt feelings often behave badly toward those beneath them.

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