August 22, 2008

The Media's Olympics

Olympics News Coverage Internationally–A Snapshot

How is all this different from what a consumer might have learned from international media? During the first week of Olympics sporting events, PEJ took a two- day snapshot of high-circulation papers in Britain, China and Russia to give readers a qualitative look at the differences in coverage. The papers were the People’s Daily and Yangtse Evening Post for China, Rossiyskaya Gazeta and Komsomolskaya Pravda for Russia and the Sun and Daily Telegraph for Britain. We studied the top five Olympics articles on the newspaper websites each day, for a total of ten articles per newspaper.

Overall, the sports that received the greatest attention depended heavily on the performance of the home athletes, just as they might in the U.S. media. But the tone of the coverage differed depending on the country.

The British press, for instance, stood out for being the harshest toward those who don’t succeed. The Chinese press was among the more forgiving.

Tthe Russian papers seemed to cut both ways, offering explanation, frustration and condemnation all at once.

On August 11, for example, in the English press, Britain’s Rebecca Adlington earned headlines for having beaten out U.S. swimmer Katie Hoff the day before.

In the Chinese papers that day, on the other hand, weightlifter Yanqing Chen garnered much attention after she won the gold in the 58 kilogram category and broke two Olympic records in earlier finals.

That same day, China showed a tendency to be sympathetic to their unsuccessful athletes and more philosophical in their coverage. China’s The People’s Daily devoted a prominent front page article warning against the obsession with winning at all costs, citing what it deemed the ‘Ron Clarke phenomenon,’ a reference to the 1956 Olympics when the runner Ron Clarke tripped, only for his greatest rival John Landy to stop, run back and help Clarke back to his feet.

In a similar vein, the Yangtse Evening Post lauded the Chinese bronze in archery, and did not criticize their equestrian athlete for falling off his horse.

The British papers, in contrast, tended to be as harsh on those who didn’t win as they were worshipful of those who had. The Sun and Telegraph, for instance, ran eight laudatory profiles of UK medal winners alongside six more critical pieces that singled out “completely outclassed” tennis disappointment Andy Murray (Sun, August 13) and the perceived failure of the much-hyped diver Tom Daley and his partner Blake Aldridge, who was berated for “refus[ing] to take any of the blame for the pair’s showing” (Telegraph, August 11).

The Russian papers, also dealing with the outbreak of war with Georgia relegated most of their Olympics coverage to the sports pages. They also had to contend with the fact that Russians weren’t winning medals on those particular days. In reaction, the Russian papers during these two days expressed frustration with not winning and offered some rationalization for why there weren’t more Russian medals.

On August 13, for instance, Komsomolskaya Pravda quoted former Olympic speed skater Svetlana Zhurova saying, “So far we’re only seeing the ‘Chinese’ events, like diving…And the whole stadium is cheering them on, sometimes rudely….So let’s wait for the golds in ‘our’ events—wrestling, track and field. Soon we’ll get a surge.”

At the same time, some coverage could be quite cutting. Another story in that same Russian paper that day described Russian shooter Mikhail Nestruev as he walked through the stadium some time after his lack-lustre finish: “Holding a telephoto camera in place of his rifle, Mikhail Nestruev looks more like a tourist curious to see Beijing than a sportsman focused single-mindedly on victory. The Olympics don’t forgive that kind of attitude.”

Crossover Appeal of Michael Phelps

Even if one country’s hero was another country’s small news item, one athlete did have crossover appeal—Michael Phelps—at least in the Russian and English press.

The British Daily Telegraph called Phelps “the greatest of all” in the wake of his overall Olympic 11th Gold medal (13th).

In the Russian papers, the coverage of Phelps had an explicit and decidedly nationalistic flavor, a reflection of an approach to journalism far less wedded to American notions of independence or objectivity. Consider the article entitled “We Need a Michael Phelps”, that ran on August 13th in the Rossiyskaya Gazeta. The story was a mixture of envy and admiration: “When the Americans arrested the Soviet spy Colonel Rudolf Abel, the head of their secret service, Alan Dulles, declared: “I wish we had at least one like him inside Moscow right now”. Well, if only we could now find ourselves a Misha Phelps.”

The tone of Komsomolskaya Pravda’s profile of Phelps had a similar flavor. “While the American swimmer Phelps churns out record after record, Russia must make do with just one bronze from Vyatchanin,” the article declared. However, it went on to unequivocally, and somewhat apologetically, embrace the American swimmer: “Of course, Russian athletes are our priority. But let’s be honest—we are passionately rooting for Phelps. Genius has no nationality. The great Michael is set for even more success … We hope he breaks all the records. If only to give us someone to look up to.”

The two Chinese papers, at least on those days, however, did not give Phelps the same kind of attention. There was not a single story about the American hero.

Political Issues within Olympics Coverage

The Chinese, British and Russian press also differed markedly in their treatment of political issues and in the space they allotted to political matters. None of the articles coded in the UK newspapers dealt with anything other than pure sports. However, both Russia and China allocated some space for the political aspects of the games. The Russian papers ran six politically oriented stories. The Chinese papers ran two. All of these tended to be highly positive.

The Russian paper Rossiyskaya Gazeta on the August 11, for instance, hailed the opening ceremonies as a celebration representing the possibility of modernization without sacrificing national essence: “The ceremony expressed the credo of the whole country: to no longer seal itself off from the changing world by a Great Wall, but rather to actively participate in globalization. Not globalization through the wholesale adoption of all Western norms, but a symphonic synthesis in which each nation retains its individuality, its own voice akin to a musical instrument playing in a harmonious orchestra”.

There was a similar thread about China’s growing sophistication running through the some of the Chinese stories as well. The reporting of the opening ceremonies stressed the global nature of the affair: The Peoples Daily on the August 12 wrote about Hu Jintao’s meeting with visiting heads of state, reiterating that the Olympics would enhance Chinese friendship and cooperation with the world.

Russia-Georgia Conflict

The Chinese and Russian papers both prominently covered the emotional hug on the pedestal between Russian and Georgian sports shooters Natalya Paderina and Nino Salukvadze at a time of war between their respective countries. Both articles portrayed the hug as a vindication of the Olympic spirit and the possibility for peace.

The Russian paper Komsomolskaya Pravda used the words of the Georgian shooter to illustrate the point, “I have many friends all over the world, but nowhere more than in Russia. And our hug with Natasha today was completely genuine. War is on the conscience of the politicians”.

The story on the same event in the British Daily Telegraph, by contrast, carried a more skeptical spin on the Olympic power of peace-making. It focused on a fight between Georgian and Russian beach volleyball players that began with Russian Alexandra Shiryaeva “blaming Georgian ‘stupidity’ for starting the war” and questioning the Georgian citizenship of the team’s Brazilian-born players.

In short, if the Olympic Spirit is about international unity, the press coverage of the games is far more of a cultural artifact. Winning, hometown heroes and national pride play a big role, and the tone of how that plays out differs a good deal based on the culture of each country’s media as well.