Two hours of parading nations later, IOC president Thomas Bach stood on the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony stage and did his best to justify the Olympic ideal in 2022, a year more surreal than most. “Division, conflict, and mistrust are on the rise,” Bach said. “[But] we show the world, yes, it is possible to be fierce rivals, but at the same time living peacefully and respectfully together.”
This sentiment, nice though it is, might come as a surprise to those in the stadium, those not allowed anywhere near it, and those (like President Joe Biden) who boycotted the Games as a matter of political protest. With the host country under a microscope for reported human rights abuses and a new alliance against the United States with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, NBC had no choice but to alternate its giddy coverage of Team U.S.A. with dire reminders of this particularly fraught world stage. By the time the ceremony closed with Bach imploring the world to “give peace a chance,” and a sweeping rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” as is apparently required of every Olympics now, the 2022 Winter Olympics became exactly as surreal as could be expected.
It’s no exaggeration to say that every sporting event of the past two years has felt uncanny to witness, with the extremes of masked athletes waving up at empty stands and unmasked masses cheering as COVID cases keep spiking. But these Winter Olympics come with an extra layer of unease, with the host country of China doing its damnedest to play down its domestic policies of censorship, propaganda and, as increasing evidence shows, subjugation of the country’s Uyghur Muslim population in camps where they reportedly are suffering in subhuman conditions. Watching the clash of the grim reality lurking just outside the stadium with the “shiny, happy people” routine unfolding within it was disorienting, to say the least. Throw in the Ukraine delegation’s entrance cutting to a dozing Putin as NBC correspondents did their best to contextualize Russia’s potential invasion, and the ceremony became as bizarre as it was disquieting.
The pressing dilemma of how to cover these specific Olympics was inevitable. While the U.S. government decided on a diplomatic boycott, NBC and the U.S. delegation did not. Given how much money and work is always at stake with the Olympics, that never seemed to be an option either the network or delegation ever seriously considered. And so, short of pulling out of the events altogether, NBC would have to find a way to address the pressing political and humanitarian concerns without losing so much buoyancy that its audience would question why it was there at all.
For the opening ceremony, NBC’s solution to this problem largely came down to the hiring of two new correspondents — Bloomberg News’ Andy Brown and Yale professor Jing Tsu — who could bring in their China expertise to contextualize the propaganda onscreen. Brown and Tsu did their best to bring appropriate gravitas to the situation, and to their and Savannah Guthrie’s credit, they did not shy away from using the word “genocide” to describe the treatment of China’s Uyghur Muslim population. It should also not go unmentioned that Tsu and Brown brought this blunt context live from onsite in Beijing, a decision that’s especially bold given China’s antipathy towards a free press. But the fact remains that their presence and knowledge amounted to sporadic asterisks throughout the otherwise uninterrupted broadcast. Brown and Tsu’s ability to plainly articulate the crises became even more appreciated by the end of the ceremony, however, when Mike Tirico stumbled his way through an acknowledgment that one of the torchbearers was of the Uyghur population that “has attracted so much attention in the human rights community.”
If NBC is to keep airing these Olympics, it’s hard to say how much more the network can conceivably do to contextualize the extraordinary geopolitical circumstances in which they’re taking place. Guthrie wrapped the opening ceremony coverage with a succinct reminder that what we just saw was a show in which artistic and political considerations converged. But watching Team USA broadly grin its way through the ceremony, and knowing just how much pomp and circumstance the Olympics receive overall, makes plain where the priorities still lie, here. As long as there are theatrics and athletics to awe, and billions of dollars to make along the way, there’s apparently no amount of humanitarian conflict that can keep these Olympics from marching on.