Thursday, 2 August 2012

PUTIN AMERICA IN ITS PLACE: The British Press and the 2002 Winter Olympics

 While preparing for London 2012, I discovered in one of my Olympic files this piece, which I wrote during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Not surprisingly, I failed to sell it to any of the British papers, who find both winter sport and self-criticism of minority interest. Ten years later, it would have been interesting to revisit Mitt Romney's success in rescuing the games from the Olympic bribery scandal--the latter of which I did write about elsewhere. Salt Lake is now a dim memory, as is curling in the minds of Britons, and some of the discussion of skating judges may still be esoteric, but here it is, basically as written ten years ago....

Winter Games Highlight A Double Standard In The British Press

What better place than Salt Lake City 2002 to un-thaw the Cold War? Incredibly, as US-Russian relations went downhill faster than Alberto Tomba, the British press rushed to back Vladimir Putin’s call for a boycott of the Winter Olympics.  Biased judging was victimising the Russians.  Biased drug testing was penalising the Russians.  Partisan crowds (“those whining snivelling Americans,” as the Independent described them) were intimidating everyone from the President of the IOC to the Russian ice-hockey players who lost to the Czechs (though why the Americans wanted to stage manage a win by the defending champion Czechs was never really explained.) To anyone familiar with Olympic history, the most interesting event has often been hypocrisy, and backing Putin’s putsch was merely the culmination of another gold medal performance by Britain.

Who in Britain cared?  After all, the Winter Games are made up of odd sports with odder nomenclature, not invented or played exclusively by Commonwealth nations. But of course a little America-bashing, admittedly all too easy in these days of Bush junior, is just the thing for feature writers who know little and care less about sport anyway, yet still get sent to cover the world's biggest sporting stage. It made perfect fodder for filling a column or two in the back pages, while ignoring the actual competition.

But then Britain struck GOLD! In curling! Cue Curl-mania!  To anyone with a memory, it was a carbon-copy of Hockey-Madness! thrown up by Britain’s 1988 Go For Gold medal in Seoul. At least most people in Britain actually knew what field hockey was. The BBC began showing every curling match available, and taking it very seriously indeed, as if trying desperately to legitimise the sport, now that Britons were world-beaters.  We suffered through seven years of hockey coverage after Seoul; how long before curling supplants snooker on BBC2?

Had not Putin come along, curling might have distracted Britain from whingeing about biased judging, and blaming it on American spectators, which is like blaming the Birmingham Six's conviction on the courtroom gallery.  The attacks on the US for unacceptable chauvinsim began when the Salt Lake crowd booed ferociously after a Canadian skating pair were denied gold, in favour of the Russians. This was portrayed as unacceptable chauvinism, even though Canada was, at last glance, still a separate country, actually competing against the US.  The crowd, of course, might well have contained a large number of Canadians, but in any event, what they were jeering was judging they immediately recognised as biased and politicised. And they turned out to be right. The Canadians had been cheated by a French judge who felt so guilty over what she had done she actually confessed.  In fact, she had been merely following the orders of her federation, who had cut a mutual cheating deal with, guess who? the Russians, who promised to perform a similar cheat in their favour in another event.  No wonder Putin wanted to shift the blame.

The Russians got caught, but their skaters weren’t penalised, beyond having to share the gold with the Canadians. But in the best traditions of political tit for tat, when Russia's Irina Slutskaya finished second in the women’s skating, the Russians tried a similar appeal.  The only problem with claiming biased judged against Slutskaya was that her silver medal was the direct result of the American judge placing her second in the long programme, behind gold medallist Sarah Hughes, but ahead of the American favourite, Michelle Kwan.  Had the American not dropped the Candian Hughes to second, and the American to third, Slutskaya would have finished third. Meanwhile, the Russian judge had, amazingly enough, placed Slutskaya first. And dropped Hughes all the way to fourth. It made for an embarrassing protest. And no sooner had that controversy died down, than Russian cross country skiers were banned from the Games for blood-doping, with the Americans again being accused of bias, even though the IOC runs drug testing.

“It’s changed because of prize money,” says Jayne Torvill.  But the real question was whether it had changed at all, because money has actually been a factor in figure skating going back to the days of Sonja Henje, and more to the point, judging abuse has a long Olympic tradtion, based on factors of nationalism and mutual benefit. In fact, the ISU instituted the current scoring system specifically to try to eliminate jury-rigging.  Instead, the placements system, which eliminated the averaging of scores, actually made it easier for judges to help their own, and hurt anyone else’s, competitors

So we came full circle.  When an American crowd boos because Canadians have been cheated, it’s because Americans are boorish homers.  But when, for example, at Edmonton’s World Athletics Championships, Russia’s Yegerova WASN’T banned for doping, the British press welcomes the Canadian crowd’s jeering her. In fact, British athletes on the track led the booing. Did I mention gold medal double-standards?

We heard similar yelps about American crowds in Los Angeles and Atlanta.  But the Yanks are wimps compared with the abuse Polish competitors faced in Moscow in 1980, or Japanese received in Seoul in 1988. The fact of geography guarantees Olympic crowds in the US are overwhelmingly American, while a European Olympics is more accessible to more countries. Unlike Britain, America produces contenders in many of the esoteric winter sports, and  surprisingly enough, American crowds do prefer to see American winners. Although when they see those winners, unlike British supporters, they don’t invade the playing surface (the scenes after the women’s curling were another replay of the 1988 hockey final, when the pitch invasion was led by Colin Monyihan, then minister for sport).  Lack of nationalism must explain why the British press was filled with stories about the achievements of Ole Einar Bjorndalen, Janica Kostelic, or Simon Ammann, and a curling gold medal was kept in reasonable perspective. That was meant ironically, by the way, even though, as an American (born) I am supposed by the Brits to be incapable of such a thing. The British find American  partisanship far more reprehensible than, say, the idea of football supporters routinely killing people while following “the beautiful game”.  Presumably this is because Americans are not as culturally advanced as Europeans.

The IOC is predominately Euro-centric. The winter sports federations, each of which supervises the judging at its own events, are overwhelmingly controlled by Europeans.   They are happy to reap the financial benefits that American television brings them, and the record attendances delivered by a venue like Salt Lake City.  But when the routine corruption or incompetence which passes unnoticed in their cozy wintry wonderland is suddenly exposed on television screens around world what can they do?  Blame the messenger.  Blame the Americans.  And the British press jumps on the European bandwagon so fast you’d think it was the Ryder Cup.

Controversy in Olympic judging is as old as the games themselves.  British officials didn’t do a bad job of trying to eliminate American medal winners in London in 1908.  What goes around eventually comes around.  Was Kim Dong-Sung unfairly deprived of his gold medal when he was disqualified in his short-track race?  I happen to think so, but the referee (not ‘the judges’ as the British press insisted) who made the decision happened to be Australian, the same Aussie who had refused to take a gold medal away from his countryman after another Korean caused a total shambles in the 1000m race.  Trying to make up for one bad decision, he made another. The Korean Olympic Committee threatening lawsuits are the same people who organised the 1988 Olympics, which featured some of the most biased judging in Olympic history, in favour of Koreans in boxing, karate, and judo?  Or have we forgotten Roy Jones already?

One solution might be to hold the games only in small winter-friendly countries, where partisanship on the cross-country ski course or the ski jump goes unnoticed by the outside world,  and where the host nation has no contenders in figure skating or ice hockey.  Another is to reduce, rather than increase, the number of sports which let judges choose winners. But figure skating is what pulls in the audience which otherwise doesn’t know and doesn’t care about winter sports, so neither solution is likely to happen. I suppose that too is America’s fault.

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