On the first day of the Olympic Games, the “Today” show had an unenviable task.
The flagship NBC morning show is a key engine for goosing excitement over the Olympics, and its Friday-morning broadcast recapping the just-concluded opening ceremony in Beijing was intended, in part, to boost the Games. But the show’s flagship talent, Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie, were stuck stateside in light of COVID-19, and the happy chatter about athletes’ prospects in the days ahead was balanced with an unusual volume of conversation about geopolitics. This contrast was described by Guthrie, reporting from NBC Sports’ hub in Stamford, Conn., as “this awkward juxtaposition” — an area of nuance that the sunny “Today” does not like to live.
The show deserves credit for discussing the complications of a China-hosted Games under “diplomatic boycott” by the U.S. near the top of the broadcast — most notably, the country’s decision to select a Uighur athlete, a member of a group that the Chinese state has brutally persecuted, as the lighter of the Olympic torch. But this moment, and other symbolic statements seemingly meant to depict China as a nation that cherishes its diversity and to sidestep conversation around China’s reported human rights abuses, wasn’t dwelled on.
Indeed, Guthrie’s and Mike Tirico’s discussion of the opening ceremony tended to suggest the sense that it was a shame that politics had to interfere with a beautiful presentation — rather than acknowledge that the presentation was itself political. The Olympics, since their inception, have been a staging-ground for their host nations’ ambitions; China’s 2008 hosting stint represented a historic coming-out of sorts on the world stage. NBC agrees that what China hopes to achieve with the Games is newsworthy, but addressed and moved past it in favor of conversation about the U.S.’s prospects of medaling, as well as a guide for how to watch the Games on NBC and on Peacock.
While is what many viewers will be getting out of the Games anyhow, or what they have been taught to expect from NBC — at the exclusion of all else this international convening of nations is about. It’s obviously a challenge to balance NBC’s long-held tradition of treating the Olympics as an overtly celebratory occasion with contemplation of what it means that a global pageant, culminating in a performance of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” was held in a nation that has been cracking down on its citizens. And NBC didn’t outright ignore it. But deep into a “Today” that moved on quickly to focus on the fun and upbeat side of the Games, China felt like distant context, rather than the story that will have consequences after the medals are all awarded.