Kamila Valieva standing center ice, crying, her face buried in her red-gloved hands, the green bejeweled snake head of her costume sparkling under the blinding arena lights. This is the defining image of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, and the moment when the façade of the Games as a uniting force on the geopolitical stage may have finally fell.
The 15-year-old Russian phenom, who tested positive for a banned heart medication last December but was still allowed to compete, fell numerous times during what was supposed to be a gold-medal winning free skate. At the conclusion of her program, when the teenager, bewildered after her public unraveling, finally exited the ice, her coach – the fearsome blond-ringleted Eteri Tutberidze – greeted her not with a hug, but with a tongue lashing.
The ugly episode prompted Thomas Bach, the powerful IOC president, to issue a concerned statement about Tutberidze’s “tremendous coldness” and promises to look into the Russian coaches treatment of its young athletes. Meanwhile, NBC’s Olympic host Mike Torico offered a full-throated rebuke of Russia.
Since the discovery in 2019 of a state-run doping program in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia has been striped of more than 40 Olympic medals and banned from using its name or having its national anthem played on the Olympic podium. Its athletes, if they can show clean drug tests, have been allowed to compete. But as Valieva’s situation makes painfully obvious, the IOC’s sanctions of Russia have been toothless.
“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,” he said after NBC’s coverage of the women’s figure skating final. “If swift action from the top of the Olympic movement does not happen quickly, the very future of the Games could be in jeopardy.”
Torico’s statements may have been obvious and necessary, but it’s no small thing to call out an organization to which NBC is so deeply financially intertwined; NBC’s current nearly $8 billion Olympic rights agreement with the IOC runs through the 2032 Games.
The IOC has long coddled authoritarian regimes. Human rights abuses were a central narrative of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing; thousands of pro-Tibet protestors lined the Olympic torch route. In June 2013, several months before the 2014 Winter Games, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed into law anti-LGBT legislation that roiled the 2014 Games. That China’s litany of human rights abuses – including the fate of tennis star Peng Shuai (who was effectively disappeared after the accused a Chinese official of sexual assault) and the genocide of China’s Muslim Uyghurs – has not been swept under the run might be considered progress, if such acknowledgement of reality weren’t so woefully overdue.
“Lots of Olympics have issues,” notes Bob Costas, who served as NBC’s primetime Olympics host from 1992 to 2016. “I’ve never seen one so fraught.”
Indeed, the IOC’s history of tolerating authoritarianism – on the march across the globe – is coming home to roost as shifting viewing habits have upended appointment viewing and splintered consumption of an event that was once synonymous with appointment television.
The 2022 Beijing Games attracted the smallest U.S. primetime audience since NBC began broadcasting the Games, averaging 11.4 million viewers in primetime across broadcast, cable and streaming platforms. That’s more than 40 percent lower than the previous, pre-pandemic Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which was a then-nadir with an average of 19.8 million U.S. viewers in primetime. Of course, the streaming audience for Beijing was up, but still made up a fraction of viewing (only 4.5 percent in primetime).
For comparison, NBC’s coverage of Super Bowl LVI on Sunday, Feb. 13, had a total audience delivery (TV and streaming) of 112.3 million viewers. So it’s probably safe to say, that America was not exactly consumed by Olympic fever.
And why should it be? A doping controversy at center stage, and a pandemic that mitigated half-empty stadiums, masks obscuring the smiles of athletes, and hazmat suited workers performatively spraying down every surface in sight. And now, after the lights have been turned off at the Olympic venues in Beijing, Putin is on the verge of sparking a global conflagration in Ukraine, the Russian president’s third Olympic-adjacent incursion after Crimea in 2014 and Georgia in 2008.
“These are demonstrably bad international actors who are in violation of what the Olympic spirit is supposed to be about, and it’s so blatant,” says Costas, who says Russia should be completely banned from the Olympics in Paris in 2024 and Milan in 2026.
“The Olympics may have been bulletproof because of all of their appeal,” adds Costas. “But a confluence of circumstances may have pulled that curtain back and exposed what it is once and for all. And so they really have a problem. They’ve got a problem in terms of television ratings. They’ve got a problem in terms of international credibility. The sands are shifting beneath their feet. And if they can’t respond out of principle, they need to respond out of self-interest and expediency.”