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Yuna Kim Sochi via FlickrThe largest and most expensive Winter Olympic Games in history wrapped up in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia. There were lots of hits and misses over the past two weeks – surprise victories, heart-breaking losses and unexpected missteps.  While I mostly rooted for Team USA,  I was also keeping a critical eye on all the female athletes and the global perception of women’s sports.

Every day I was in awe of the athletes who overcame tremendous odds to get to the Olympics, but was dogged by the nagging feeling that something was awry this year. It was partly the extravagant venue, built as a kind of homage to Russian President Vladimer Putin;  it was partly the the security “ring of steel” that had to be built around Sochi to combat potential terrorism, but more than anything it was because the Olympics have evolved into  a commercial production rather  than an athletic competition.

First, some overall thoughts about the Sochi Games.

Aside from lone-wolf terrorists, organized crime, cyberattacks, killing of stray dogs, not to mention the anti-gay propaganda law and hotels with no doors, plumbing or pillows,  viewers (in the U.S.) had to deal with NBC. Everyone loves to grouse about how badly the Games are covered on television- obviously with different time zones and social media, any coverage is a challenge. NBC tried hard to dictate the stories but they were battling problems of their own including  Bob Costas’s  hard-to-look-at eye infection (which many humorists attributed to the unsanitary water at  the Sochi hotels).

With competition results known well in advance of NBC‘s various Olympics broadcasts, and the United States coming in fourth in number of gold medals scored, many of the most buzz-worthy Sochi moments were about — the network’s failings. The Opening Ceremony, for example,  was tape delayed forcing viewers to tune into the evening broadcast, a move that always pisses fans off. One thing NBC did get right? Jonny Weir and Tara Lapinksi as color commentators.

In the days leading up to the opening ceremonies, when focus should have been be on high-level competition and high-minded Olympic idealism, the world’s attention was instead on questions of readiness lumped together under the hashtag #sochiproblems. Complaints about the lack of snow (crucial for the Winter Games), spring-like temperatures, shoddy course construction, etc. overshadowed the start of the event.  Snowboarder Danny Davis described Olympic Village like a Hollywood set – it looked nice on the surface but behind the facade it was spit and glue. NBC tried hard shift the focus from problems to Russia’s history and traditions but there are just so many stories about matryoshka dolls to tell. Really, where would the Olympic coverage be if we weren’t debating hotel toilets and Putin’s homophobia? The lugers might actually get the attention they deserve.

Commercial interests also trumped athletics when it came to Olympic sponsors – the multi-national companies who negotiated a blackout period preventing any other company from promoting their athletes or the Games. The only time we saw the logo of a company other than Coke, Visa, P&G, etc. was on the bottom side of a snowboard when riders took to the halfpipe and twisted high in the air boardside up. Yay for Burton, Gnu and others who support their team riders all year long.

Women & Sochi

For years we’ve been told that the Olympics is one of the few sporting events in which women are treated as equals. There is near parity in the number of events (especially with the inclusion this year of women’s ski jumping) and women are given almost equal screen time to their male counterparts. We’re also told that the Olympics attracts fans equally split between both sexes.  Many surmise that women, emotional creatures that we are, are drawn to the narratives and back stories of the athletes. The more tragic and heart-wrenching the better.  Perhaps that is why Meredith Viera quizzed skeleton race Noelle Pikus Pace about her recent miscarriage or why Christin Conner peppered Bode Miller with questions about his deceased father  until the skier broke down and wept.  On another note, props to Vieira for becoming the first woman ever to anchor the Olympics, if only temporarily.

Hard as they tried,  NBC could not dictate how the Games unfolded. They hedged their bets and tried to predetermine stories but they didn’t always pan out.  Snowboarder Shaun White  who NBC had hoped would be the Big Story of the Sochi Games, opted out of the Olympic slopestyle debut to put all his chips in the halfpipe and then lost out on his bid for a third consecutive gold, leaving Russia without a single medal. Every day during the Olympics, unscripted reality intruded on the network’s pre-written narrative and they weren’t nimble enough to catch up.

NBC spent $775 million on broadcast rights to the Sochi Games and the Russians invested more than $50 billion in turning the sleepy seaside resort into an international competition venue.  That’s a lot of dough. Will either support women’s events or women’s sports leagues after the Games? Probably not.  It’s been tough garnering year-round interest for women’s pro leagues (note softball, soccer, hockey, etc.). Broadcasters and journalists seem committed to spotlighting  female athletes during the two weeks of the Olympic Games but not for the 206 weeks between Games.

The Olympic movement promotes women’s participation in athletics – going so far as to require Saudi Arabia to allow female competitors if they wanted to take part in the London Games. But how long did it take for women to gain equality? Until the late 20th century, Olympic organizers were still convinced that running a marathon  damaged female genitals.  Despite the fact that the marathon was one of the original modern Olympic events in 1896 women didn’t compete until 1984 in Los Angeles. The recent addition of women’s ski jumping to the Olympic programme is a huge step forward but women have been  flying off mountaintops with the exact same power and grace as the men for a 100 years.

In pointing out that women are not marginalized during the Olympics, NBC producer Molly Solomon noted that 52 percent of NBC’s viewership is female   She revealed during the last IOC Conference on Women & Sport that storytelling is her network’s secret ingredient and key to the way women consume sports.  This has been repeated so many times that it’s almost cliche. Women aren’t interested in stats and medal counts; they want to know what childhood hardships had to be overcome to get to the podium.  As a content creator I get that viewers need to be emotionally invested in the athletes, but I don’t want my emotions manipulated by overeager producers digging for dirt.

To recap a post I wrote for On The Issues just prior to the London Games, one big reason why the Olympics provide such a great opportunity for female athletes has nothing to do with their emotional back stories. It is patriotism. Experts say “at the Olympics, national flags trump all other forms of identity”– even, most notably, gender. So when rooting for Team USA, viewers essentially don’t care whether the athlete is male or female. They just want America to win. This probably accounts for the success of women’s soccer in World Cup years but it’s hard to replicate otherwise.

Despite complaints, for the most part the athletes seemed thrilled to be in Sochi. More than any Games I can remember, the results weren’t predetermined. Whether that had to do with less than ideal conditions, technical suits that didn’t meet expectations or questionable judging, anything could happen. And that is what makes sports events so much fun to watch. We love watching because we want to see who wins, and how she/he made it to the finish line. Viewed through NBC’s lens, however,  the final score or time was often less important than the produced roll-ins and personal back stories.

I’ll admit I wasn’t as invested in the Sochi Games as I have been in previous Olympics, but there were a number of  athletes and achievements that will stick in my memory long after the Olympic flame is out.

  • Women’s ski jumping made it’s debut in the Olympics – finally. After dashed hopes in Vancouver and a long, hard-fought battle by some dedicated female ski jumpers, women were finally allowed to compete.  We’ve been following this story for years (and were involved in promoting the documentary Ready to Fly that chronicled the journey) and were thrilled to see these women take flight in Sochi.
  • The women’s gold medal hockey match, which pitted long-time rivals Canada and USA against each other, ended in a stunning loss for the U.S. in overtime . Complaints surfaced before the match that these two nations were too dominate in the sport, a complaint similar to what we heard about softball and baseball before they were dropped from the Olympic programme. For some reason we never hear the same complaints about Dutch speedskaters or German lugers.
  • The tribute to Sarah Burke, who almost single-handedly got ski halfpipe into the Winter Olympics, was heart-wrenching. Tragedy (Burke died in a 2012 training accident)  turned into celebration as the emotionally charged event made it’s debut with Burke’s parents watching Maddie Bowman take the gold.

“I grew up looking up to Sarah,” Bowman said after winning her medal. “As a young skier and as a young girl, she was who you wanted to be. I think we tried to go out there and make her proud.”

  • Kaitlyn Farrington (who we profiled in this site last year) was an underdog heading to Russia but the 25- year-old put together a tremendous run to take the gold in the halfpipe. Three weeks prior to the Games she didn’t even know if she would make the U.S. team so Sochi was a bit of a Cinderella story for this athlete, who is still in shock over her big win.
  • Mikaela Shiffrin was one of the few athletes who delivered. In fact, she was so good she overcame a near fall to win gold in her event. At 18 she is the youngest gold medalist in Slalom, and as the heir apparent to Lindsey Vonn, we’ll be seeing a lot more of her in the future.
  •  Belarusian Darya Domracheva who became the first woman to win three biathlon gold medals at one Olympics.  Apart from being the greatest female biathlete to ever compete in the Games, the 27-year-old is also the most accomplished Belarusian Olympian of all time.
  • Defying difficult weather conditions, Slovenian downhill skier Tina Maze skidded through mud and slush to clinch her second gold in the giant slalom event. Her gold also made Olympic history as the first tie for gold in women’s downhill in 78 years of Olympic alpine skiing. Maze and Switzerland’s Dominique Gisin took different paths down Krasnaya Polyana’s downhill piste, but ended up with identical times.

There were other highlights (and lowlights) but I’m going to remember the look of sheer joy on the athlete’s faces when they realized they had won a medal. And those are the images that will stay with me until the next installation.

Coinciding with the Olympics was the announcement that the  Clinton Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation would form a new partnership to gather and analyze data about the status of women’s and girls’ participation around the world. That’s a bit of good news as we head into what will probably be a slow-down for women’s sports.

But as soon as the flame goes out, it all starts up again. Rio, get ready.

February 24, 2014
Yuna Kim Sochi via Flickr

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