And here we Londoners thought our only chance of being mortified was if the mayor turned up with his perpetual bad hair day. At it happens the people we should have kept an eye on were the BBC commentators at the opening ceremony.
The opening ceremony has always been my favorite part of any Olympics. As a child I loved seeing the international athletes with their flags and proud smiles and I still find it very special. But during the opening ceremony in London I wondered how many of those smiles would have been replaced with hurt and anger had the athletes actually been able to hear the comments about their countries by the BBC?
The rule appeared to be that unless a country had a medal hopeful in their ranks, sold oil or was a popular vacation spot for British tourists, they were either given very short shrift (poor Gabon only got its name called) or they may as well have rolled the tape for the nightly (disaster) news. Yes, I know presenters may only have time for one comment per country. Given that this is the case shouldn’t that comment be something they would be happy to hear applied to Team GB? To illustrate my point the following are the ONLY adjectives or basic facts cited about the countries below. For the sake of time I have omitted the introductory sentences such as “this country is best known for…”
Angola –“terrible poverty”
Egypt – “turmoil”
Haiti “decimated by a quake in 2010”
Indonesia – “populous”
Iraq – “traumatic decade”
Liberia “long running and damaging civil war”
Lao People’s Democratic Republic – “one of the poorest nations in eastern Asia”
The general follow up comment was how great it was that poor countries could scare up a team to send to the Olympics.
Dear BBC let’s imagine Rio had been selected for the 2012 rather than the 2016 Olympics. We are there now while fictional presenters Carolina Nogueira and Maria de Genero provide the following comments as the Union Jack enters the stadium followed by Team GB.
Carolina: “And here is the British team! Of course their country is still holding trials and rebuilding from those terrible riots where the police were utterly helpless, leaving whole neighborhoods in the capital and other cities at the mercy of marauding gangs.”
Maria: “That’s right Carolina! Their economy is in bad trouble too. Isn’t it wonderful that despite their terrible situation they were able to send so many athletes!”
Sound ridiculous? Of course! But not because the information is false. It’s ridiculous because the Olympics represent national achievement therefore citing only negative facts is inappropriate. The BBC, which has spent a lot of time lately supporting British pride in Queen and country would have been justly outraged had Britain been characterized solely by its bad news stories. Why was this standard not applied to others?
Here are some other facts about those same countries. Libya houses some of the best preserved Roman ruins including the fabulous city Leptis Magna. Egypt has some of the finest Islamic architecture in the world. The creator of Modern Egypt was Muhammad Ali. Haiti and the Dominican Republic are on the same island. Haiti was founded by Toussaint L’Ouverture an ex slave who overthrew French rule. Indonesia is culturally wealthy with rich traditions in dance, theatre and music and shadow puppetry. Kufic script is the oldest form of Arabic calligraphy. It was invented in the Iraqi city of Kufa and is featured on the Iraqi flag. Liberia’s flag, name and capital reflect its American connections. It was part founded by freed slaves from the United States and the capital Monrovia is named for President James Monroe. The Lao Democratic People’s Republic has a national flower – the Dok Champa. In addition to Lao, the national language, one may hear French, English, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese.
Perhaps people from those countries would have chosen other facts but at the very least they are neutral information rather than information that equates a whole culture with its misfortunes. Britain is in an odd psychological situation in the Olympics. It obviously has a long history as a world power yet it is not an olympic powerhouse. In fact when they achieved their first gold medal an older woman on my local bus announced it to us all defying the famous British reserve. They have great humility in sports but the comments struck me as a combination of factors – laziness in research, a misplaced sense of social conscience raising and the surfacing of feelings of superiority– the relic of an earlier age. Whatever the reason, it was deeply embarrassing and I hope a few embassies have lodged some complaints.
Ironically, after another predictable comment that some athletes were from a”poor nation” one of the presenters added enthusiastically, “the joy of the Olympics is seeing these countries represented on a level playing field!” Yes it is. Too bad they did not extend that to the opening ceremony, which is the only time many of them will feature on British media. When the athletes from all nations are given the respect automatically accorded the Americans, the Chinese, Germans and the British – the playing field will be a little more level.