The paradox of the parade of nations: A South Korean network’s coverage of the opening ceremony at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Dr Ji-Hyun Ahn

Associate Professor of Global Media Studies in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at University of Washington Tacoma. Her research interests include racial politics and nationalism in East Asian popular culture, primarily in the context of South Korea. She is the author of Mixed-Race Politics and Neoliberal Multiculturalism in South Korean Media

Section 2: Media Coverage & Representation

Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), one of South Korea’s national terrestrial broadcasting networks, was heavily criticized for its inappropriate choices of images when reporting the Parade of Nations during the opening ceremony for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The Parade of Nations is intended to promote a spirit of unity and peace through its presentation of the participating countries to the world at large. However, in covering the event, MBC used the image of a salmon to represent Norway, Dracula to represent Romania, a Bitcoin symbol to represent El Salvador, and so on. Even worse was its use of national tragedies to represent some nations, including images of Chernobyl for Ukraine and, for Haiti, of an angry mob with a caption describing the nation’s “unstable political situation on account of the assassination of its president.” When the Indonesian team entered the parade area, MBC showed a caption describing Indonesia as “the country with a low GDP and a low COVID-19 vaccination rate.” These inappropriate and even offensive ways of referring to the countries reinforced national and racial prejudices and stereotypes. 

This so-called “MBC incident” immediately went viral on social media, both domestically and internationally, with foreign newspapers and news channels such as BBC, CNN, and The New York Times reporting on the case in detail. Here, I discuss this incident as an example of the paradox of representing nations at the Olympics. First and foremost, this case indicates that the internal editorial decision-making process at MBC is not working properly, for no one within the organization flagged the images and captions as inappropriate before they aired. Especially given that MBC was severely punished by the Korea Communications Commission for using inappropriate captions to introduce some countries when it broadcast the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it seems obvious that MBC, as a media institution, has a serious oversight problem regarding content. In other words, the MBC incident represents, not a simple mistake, but rather a matter of institutional practice.

Looking beyond MBC’s poor editorial decisions, I draw attention to the manner in which a national television broadcaster represents foreign countries. MBC explained in its apology statement following the incident that “The images and captions are intended to make it easier for the viewers to recognize the entering countries quickly during the opening ceremony.” Ideally, then, the Parade of Nations during the opening of the Olympics provides a unique opportunity for television broadcasters to promote global unity and public diplomacy while also educating and entertaining audiences with eye-catching visuals that well represent each nation. Television broadcasters have commonly used images of national flags, traditional food and clothing, and iconic figures for this purpose. Michael Billig’s well-known concept of banal nationalism describes precisely such mundane, daily consumption of these national symbols and practices. As a global sporting mega-event, the Olympics, and especially the Parade of Nations during the opening ceremony, is among the most prominent events at which banal inter-nationalism – as a container model of the nation – takes place, in the sense that it represents the world in the form of more than 200 national teams as they enter the stadium together, each marching under its flag. 

As the premier representation of banal inter-nationalism, then, the Olympics is the place where the tension between the global and the national is particularly intense. Despite the fact that the Olympics is a global sports event for participating athletes as well as audiences worldwide, the event inevitably fuels nationalistic sentiment for the simple reason that the nation-state serves as the fundamental designation of the participating team, though there are, to be sure, exceptions, such as Palestine, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Furthermore, the games are competitions among participating national teams, and the national broadcasters prioritize the airing of games in which their national teams or athletes perform. From all of these perspectives, the Olympics are, by nature, simultaneously global and national.

The MBC incident shows the limits of one media outlet’s imagination regarding the nations that participate in the Olympics. To some degree, the incident also, I suggest, represents a Korean way of understanding the world. That is, the use of a simplified image of each nation for quick and easy presentation—an economical way of presenting the nations—and of captions referring to nations’ GDPs or political problems captures Korea’s economically-focused and developmentalist understanding of the world. In this respect, the MBC incident represents not simply one broadcaster’s mistake but rather an opportunity to think deeply about the politics of the representation of nations at mega-events such as the Olympics.