Gabby Douglas’ hair, female Chinese athletes as stoic automatons, ‘plastic Britons,’ and advertisements featuring monkeys on gymnastic apparatus—if one thing has characterised media coverage of the 2012 Summer Olympics, it’s rampant racism. While the Olympics are ostensibly an event that brings the world together, the racism that runs through much of the coverage serves to underscore the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ whether commentators are making snide references to African runners or focusing on white, glossy female athletes to the exclusion of the women of colour on their teams. A white-dominated media dictates the tone of coverage of an event held in the capital of a major Western power, and a power that has been struggling with racial tensions of its own in recent years, thanks to the rise of organisations like the EDL.
Viewers of colour interested in following the London Olympics are forced to wade through racist commentary to track their favourite athletes and events. Every move of athletes of colour is carefully scrutinised and found wanting, from cries that a celebratory dance is ‘unsportsmanlike’ to sharp comments about personal appearance. And when fans of colour dare to discuss the racialised nature of Olympics coverage, they’re told to ‘stop bringing race into it.’
There’s a firm belief in the minds of white arbiters that we live in a post-racial society and that a ‘colorblind’ approach is the best approach to racial equality. As the Olympic coverage, which forces people to grit their teeth through racism on a daily basis, illustrates, racism is alive and thriving, and ignoring it does not, in fact, make it go away. Such a high profile event provides an important opportunity for discussing the impact of racism in the media, but many whites appear reluctant to engage with the conversation.
Perhaps the most noted instance of sustained racism in media coverage has surrounded US gymnast Gabby Douglas, who earned herself a spot in history by leading her team to victory and taking individual all-round gold. Yet, she was almost entirely absent from coverage of the US gymnastics team until she became an inescapable champion with her individual gold, and even then, the US media took time to comment on her hair, slam her mother for giving her all to get Gabby to the Olympics, and imply that her military father had abandoned his family while he was actually fulfilling the terms of his service.
As if that wasn’t enough, US network NBC felt it necessary to air an advertisement for its new show Animal Practice featuring a monkey on a set of gymnastics rings sandwiched right in the middle of its Douglas coverage. Evidently no one on the ad development team thought there might be a problem with running an ad with heavy racial overtones in the midst of overall Olympics coverage, where scores of Black athletes represent nations from all over the world, let alone with airing it literally seconds after showing Douglas’ face.
Commentators on NBC as well as other networks have made scores of racial and cultural gaffes over the course of the Olympics, from confusing the location of various nations—poor Australia and Austria were confused yet again—to getting the names of athletes wrong. They also indulged themselves in a number of blatantly racist comments about athletes; union organiser Julia Wong, for example, pointed out that ‘Next time a commentator goes on about how stoic & unfeeling the Chinese are I’m going to lose it.’
In the world of NBC commentators, female Chinese athletes are robots, unemotional and focused utterly on winning at all costs. And, of course, many couldn’t resist the opportunity to incorporate a Mao reference or a joke about China’s controversial family planning policies. The sheer level of Orientalism and xenophobia present in Western coverage of Chinese and other Asian athletes speaks to deeper undertones and a long history of anti-Asian racism in the US. Commentators apparently missed the memo on a spirit of cooperation.
Meanwhile, in Britain, The Daily Mail as well as other conservative platforms are crying foul about ‘plastic Britons,’ athletes competing under the British flag despite coming from other nations. The practice of competing under different flags is extremely common, yet racist agitators in Britain have turned it into evidence that Britain is being overrun with terrifying infiltrators; notably, of course, the ‘plastic Briton’ scandal focuses on athletes of colour, many of whom are leading team GB to victory, which should be satisfying the nationalistic sentiments of these aggressive hatemongers.
The manufactured uproar over ‘plastic Britons’ is reflective of a larger turn towards the far right in Britain as well as Europe in general, and a growing backlash against immigrants. Athletes who have lived and worked in Britain for decades are being challenged on the grounds that they are ‘not British enough,’ and it is not coincidental that they are athletes of colour; no matter how much they contribute to society, including upping Britain’s medal count, they won’t satisfy members of the right who would prefer to see a uniformly white Britain.
To say nothing of the two athletes suspended for racist Tweets, indicative of a deeper culture of racism among the athletes themselves, not just the media commenting on the Games. Organisers were ill-equipped to handle the onslaught of social media with this year’s games, and one can hope they are thinking ahead to 2016, when social media activity will undoubtedly be even higher, and even more of the general public will be engaged on social networks.
Many athletes have been using their Twitter accounts to great effect to reach out to fans, advocate for their sports, and support team members. Others have apparently chosen to use them for personal political platforms, spurring the hasty creation of a social media policy; evidently athletes needed to be specifically told that they should keep their racist thoughts to themselves rather than broadcasting them to the Internet at large.
But really, who can blame them for assuming it would be okay? After all, the sports commentators covering the Olympics certainly don’t feel any need to curb their blatant racism in the spirit of international cooperation.