Is our concentration on British athletes at the Olympics guided by nationalism?

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As the 2020 Olympic Games drew to a close last week, Team Great Britain left Tokyo with 65 medals, 22 of which were gold, placing them fourth in the Olympic medal count. 

This strong result accompanies a legacy of British success that began at the 2008 Beijing where Team GB accomplished a top five finish for the first time since 1924. They haven’t fallen from the pedestal since. 

However, if you were watching coverage on the BBC, the that the British presence at the largest sporting pageant in the world was ever anything but a resounding success may come as a surprise. The BBC, who recently lost their exclusive broadcasting rights, dedicated their two live streams to what could be described as overwhelmingly British-centric coverage where, whenever you chose to tune in, there was a focus on a Team GB athlete competing for a medal. 

The connection between increased British successes and increased British coverage may appear an obvious symbiotic relationship to the innocent viewer. But could the omission of some great international success stories be linked to a deeper rise in nationalism? 

Critics have highlighted how collective national excitement may be reducing coverage to an uncomfortable infatuation with internal success.

As highlighted in the proclaimed BBC mini documentary series “Gold Rush: Our Race to Olympic Glory,” it was made clear how Lottery Funding introduced in 1997 has transformed British athletes potential for medal success. Yet, as Team GB graduates to an Olympic global force, critics have highlighted how collective national excitement may be reducing coverage to an uncomfortable infatuation with internal success and, thus, some unintentional jingoism appears to shine through. 

This concern was especially highlighted during the coverage of women’s taekwondo surrounding two key British contenders: Jade Jones and Bianca Walkden. Both were heavily backed to bring home gold. Both faced shocking defeats. 

The parochial nature of this year’s coverage was unwittingly displayed, especially after Jones failed to win her first match, thus excluding her from progressing to contest for any medal at all. The lingering over Jones’ past performances and the subsequent emotional shock faced by her and her team failed to equally capture the brilliance of her impressive opponent who represented the Olympic Refugee Team. 

Kimia Alizadeh not only performed at a world-class level to defeat the former Olympic champion, but also optimised the Olympic values, competing with integrity after becoming a stateless athlete. 

British coverage this year has consistently appeared selectively blind to the successes of other nations.

Of course, it would not be realistic to have equal focus on Alizadeh; Jones had recently been featured in an exclusive TV documentary preceding the Games and featured heavily in the BBC advertisement for this year’s Olympics. Yet, the emphasis of her loss seemed wrapped in an obsession with our athletes as British heroes and their rivals merely highlighted by their propinquity to our own. 

To some, this criticism may seem unjust considering this year the International Olympic Committee sold the majority of televising rights in the UK to the pay-only channel: Discovery. It is perhaps only logical that the national broadcaster would choose to dedicate the limited coverage they had to British athletes. Plus, many stories of international displays of sportsmanship have been shown through British media. Few could forget the momentous splitting of the gold medal in the Men’s High Jump between Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi. 

Yet, British coverage this year has consistently appeared selectively blind to the successes of other nations. Where foreign stars were highlighted, they were consistently placed into some comparison to British athletes or featured as some ameliorative act of friendship or respect. 

To truly exhibit the exceptional achievements of British athletes, more effortful highlights of the world class athletes they compete against should be considered at the heart of BBC coverage. 

Image: dullhunk via Creative Commons

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