One of my central issues with the Olympics is the difference between what they are and what they claim to be. This shows up in almost every arena imaginable; the Olympics are supposed to be a celebration of sports at their purest, but the omnipresent corporate tie-ins detract from that a bit. They're supposed to be run by an international body that has the good of athletes as its top goal; in reality, they're run by an incredibly corrupt organization* that sees nothing wrong with blaming the victim to cover up its own flawed decisions. They're supposed to be an international gathering to promote peace and goodwill, but quite often, it seems that what they're really promoting is national chest-thumping.
*You can read Andrew Jennings' great book The Lords of The Rings for many of the juicy details on the IOC's scandals over the years. One of my favourite stories was how Salt Lake City organizers arranged hookers and Viagra for visiting IOC officials before the vote on where the 2002 Games would be held.
As I've written before, those issues don't make the Olympics all bad. There are plenty of extremely positive aspects to the Games, and they can be a lot of fun to watch, to be around and to write about. There's nothing wrong with enjoying the Olympics, and I certainly am. My argument is just that the bad needs to be taken into consideration as well as the good.
Unfortunately, CTV's television coverage has failed in that department. Their Olympic coverage has no sense of balance whatsoever, and appears more like IOC-approved jingoistic puff pieces than any attempt to accurately present the Games. It's not just that they ignore the issues around the Games, although that's part of it, but even when they're covering events, they frequently ignore what actually happened in favour of sappy homerism. To me, that's a huge shame and a disservice to Canadians.
Let's go through some examples. The first and most egregious is their coverage of the Olympic torch relay, an event which has very little to do with the "spirit of the Olympics" and much more to do with the Third Reich. True journalistic coverage would feature frank coverage of the relay's shameful beginnings, a balanced, thorough discussion on if it had moved past that to something that people could be proud to enjoy and fair coverage of the anti-torch protest movements. Of course, CTV isn't particularly interested in journalism when it comes to the Olympics, so they presented us with endless over-the-top sappy camera shots and stories instead, trying to pump us up to watch their endlessly promoted Olympic product and imploring us to "Believe".
That alone wouldn't set CTV apart from most of the national television broadcasters covering the Olympics, though, as just about every country's television stations get caught up in the hype to some degree. (The print and radio coverage certainly isn't perfect, either, but it does often tend to at least try to offer some balance). What really stood out about CTV's torch relay "coverage" was how 27 of the torchbearers were journalists working for the CTV-led Olympic consortium. As William Houston wrote back in October, "The question is: Did these people have a procedure involving the brain that went badly wrong? Or are they just naturally soft? They’re supposed to be journalists. They will be at the Olympics as reporters and commentators. They’re expected to be objective and independent. They are not supposed to be part of the Olympic cheerleading torch procession. Nevertheless, over the next few months, off they’ll go, boosting the International Olympic Committee and VANOC as they prance across the country, torch in hand."
With that move, CTV lost its objectivity and officially became a promoter of the Olympic mythology. You can see it every time those torchbearers are on air; the very people supposed to be bringing us objective information can't be taken seriously because of their involvement with the Games, and you can bet they never have anything bad to say about the rampant commercialism that goes hand in hand with the Olympics.
CTV sees nothing wrong with having a Coca-Cola truck in the torch relay procession.
However, the network could have at least partially redeemed themselves with fair and balanced coverage of the actual Games. They've done that to a degree on their website, but their TV offerings have given us little to suggest that they aren't just presenting Olympic propaganda. One of the most poignant examples comes from the death of 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, which has cast such a shadow over these Games. Once it came out that Kumaritashvili had crashed, most media outlets went full-out to try and learn the details and debate the issue of track safety. CTV briefly mentioned that he was hurt, then returned to their feel-good shots of crowds cheering the Olympic torch instead of trying to piece together what went wrong, how serious it was and if the track design was an issue. A cynic might opine that they didn't want to dampen the country's Olympic spirits in advance of that night's Opening Ceremonies, which they just happened to be televising.
That's been far from the only example of CTV neglecting basic journalistic principles, though. At least other outlets in the consortium have discussed many of the issues around the Games in addition to providing positive coverage. It's possible that CTV has done so too, but whenever I can stand to tune in for a few minutes before being overcome by the syrupy propaganda, they're talking about another heartwarming Canadian athlete's story. An Ottawa BeaverTail would be less cloyingly sweet and patriotic.
It's also troubling that the CTV-led television stations are providing little to no coverage of other nations' athletes, or the actual sports going on. One key example came in the women's bobsleigh last night on Sportsnet, where the heavily-favoured German team suffered a crash that looked quite dangerous. There was very little discussion of why they crashed or if they were okay, and much more of a focus on how this paved the way for Canada to claim gold and silver. CTV then one-upped Sportsnet on the Fail-O-Meter by cutting away from the Slovakia-Sweden men's hockey game for a pointless, sappy interview with the bobsleigh gold medallists; while we were forced to watch their treacle, the Slovaks scored two quick goals, paving the way for their eventual victory. Of course, the only meaning that game had to CTV was that it determined who will face Canada Friday; the rest of the world's only here to compete against us, you know.
Are there good things about CTV's coverage? Sure. Life isn't black and white, and it would be pretty difficult to disagree with absolutely everything they do. Their website coverage has been very good, and has included several pieces critical of elements of the Olympics (most from Globe and Mail journalists rather than CTV types, but at least they're posting them). They've made it easy to find video highlights of any event and watch streaming video of events online, and they deserve applause for that. Perhaps most importantly, they realize that it's 2010 and tape-delayed sports just don't work anymore, unlike NBC. They are providing coverage of the Games, and some of their event coverage has been solid, hockey in particular. However, I, for one, would have appreciated it much more if they had delivered a journalistically balanced version of the Games as a real sporting event, rather than the treacly Olympic and Canadian propaganda they appear to have opted for.