Sunday, February 16, 2014

Olympics: The Power of Story

The Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics allows the host nation to tell a story about themselves on the world's stage. Every couple of years, hours of planning and millions of dollars go into the telling of that story.

One of the most memorable ceremonies in recent history was the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. China did an incredible job. The scene I remember most was the segment when over 2,000 drummers gave a well-synchronized performance the world remembered well.
But if you watched the Opening Ceremony in Sochi, then your memory will most likely be this...
At least if you are an American. If you watched the Sochi Olympics in Russia, you would have seen this...
Apparently, Russian TV covered up the Olympic Rings malfunction by showing pre-recorded footage that showed that rings as they were meant to look. 

That's not the only difference between the Sochi Opening Ceremony and my memory. It seemed their telling of Soviet history was a bit different than I learned in my history classes. They focused on the more glorious parts of Soviet history rather than the brutal history of what Communist dictators have done to their own people. The number of Russians killed by their own government in the 20th century alone is in the 10s of millions. The Cold War wasn't even referenced. 

The ceremony was reminiscent of all things Putin. He likes his Olympic ceremonies like he likes his children's school history textbooks: censored and edited by Putin himself.

It reminds me of a story from my time as a tutor at Abilene Christian University. For two days a week, I was the tutor for the Bible department. On a mundane Thursday, I remember teaching several students about the gospels. As an illustration, I mentioned the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But before I could finish the illustration, an international student from Japan raised her hand and asked me, "What are you talking about? What happened at Pearl Harbor?" 

In her schooling in Japan, they had conveniently chosen to tell about Hiroshima without talking about Pearl Harbor. 

But it's easy to point out the inconsistencies of the ways other countries narrate their history. It's much harder to admit where our biases blind us. 

For example...

Americans have a story we are trying to tell about these Olympics. 

The top stories American news agencies and television stations focused on were not about athletes and events. The top stories I saw were about the threat of terrorism, #SochiProblems, and Russia's "gay propaganda" laws. 

The negative focus of the reporting comes from our slant on Russia. Though the Cold War is over, our cold relationship with Russia hasn't warmed. There's still Olympic tension after all of these years. In 1980, the United States boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow. In 1984, the Soviet Union boycotted the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. It was a "Cold Olympic War" of sorts. 

And all of that history impacts the way we interpret the same event. The Russians aren't the only ones who make edits because of an agenda.

During the same ceremony where Russians "saw" their rings open up perfectly, NBC edited the speech of International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. He made a strong statement against "any form of discrimination" and in favor of tolerance. Worldwide viewers saw the full statement, but NBC viewers in the US did not because the network edited it out.

If you want to watch the edited and unedited videos or read the transcript, check it out here.

Why were those sections edited out? Bach's words seem to condemn Putin's civil rights' record. Could it be that NBC edited out those words so that one of their main news stories about "gay propaganda" laws could continue to be a focus of reporting during the remainder of the Olympics?

We all view events from our perspective. We can't help but view things from our perspective. We see details we are taught to see. We miss details our lenses are built to edit out.

Postmodernism isn't a perfect worldview. By the way, I hope we can all admit the same thing for modernism.

But one thing postmodernism has given us is a sensitivity to the stories of people who grew up with different stories. We need the stories of minorities whose experiences remind us that America has not always been and still struggles to be a place where all people are endowed with equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Some see a ring missing. And others see all five rings.
Some hear words about tolerance. Others hear edited speeches that confirm our suspicions.

It's dangerous to believe in a wrong story. 
But it's equally dangerous to believe in a single story.

For more thoughts on the danger of a single story, watch Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk

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