How much is too much home-nation focus in Olympic coverage?

Prof Andrew Billings

University of Alabama (USA) is the Ronald Reagan Chair of Broadcasting and Executive Director of the Alabama Program in Sports Communication. He is the author of Olympic Media: Inside the Biggest Show on Television(Routledge, 2008) and the co-author of Olympic Television: Broadcasting the Biggest Show on Earth (Routledge, 2018).

Twitter: @andrewcbillings

What do Michael Phelps, Picabo Street, Marion Jones, and Apolo Anton Ohno have in common? Other than being highly-decorated former Olympians, they also occupy the unique space of being the most-mentioned athlete during an NBC Olympic telecast. They also, of course, are all American athletes. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Simone Biles would eb the leader for the Tokyo 2020 Games. Circumstances may prove to dictate otherwise, but it’s a very safe bet that whoever occupies the top spot will be shrouded in red, white, and blue.

The debate over Olympic nationalism has raged for decades. Back in the 1980s, Michael Real advanced a form of nationalism index, which measured the ratios of home to foreign nation coverage in print media. Similar debates have percolated since. Some focus on raw percentages of coverage, while others focus on ratios of home medals won vs. home media coverage rendered. Agreement on any notion of media fairness is thorny at best, yet outlining the parameters and the unintended consequences is key for truly understanding how Olympic media unfolds through nationalized lenses. 

In terms of parameters, determining percentages of coverage by nation is inevitably tricky, if not impossible. There were eight finalists in the men’s 100 meter track competition in the 2016 Rio Games, yet it would be foolish to claim legendary Usain Bolt received one-eighth of the focus, the same as the other competitors in the final. Similarly, a beach volleyball competition involving a home nation could either be coded as 100% home-focus (as the home team was constantly part of each point) or 50% (as the home team was one of two teams competing).

Focusing on medals as a ratio is equally problematic. Some nations prioritize gold medals; others use medals tables organized by the total number of medals awarded. Even if such an equation can be resolved, it still falls prey to the “medals on an abacus” mindset. A winning women’s gymnastics vault lasts mere seconds; the women’s basketball competition requires six two-hour games. A nation that excels at swimming can yield dozens of medals in the pool; a nation that dominates futbol/soccer can merely win two. 

Moreover, proportions can be deceiving based on a nations team size and relative medal win rate. The United States won 113 (11%) medals in the Tokyo Games; Portugal won 4 (0.4%) medals. Thus, if strictly determining ratios, a theoretical American telecast focusing the home nation 55% of the time would have a 5:1 index ratio; a theoretical Portuguese broadcast focusing on the home nation 10% of the time would have a 25:1 index ratio. Based on such ratios, an American telecast would seem much more internationally-focused, yet the Portuguese telecast would actually be featuring foreign athletes at twice the rate as the American one.

This naturally leads to the unintended consequences of a national-focus of an Olympic broadcast. Each nation will inevitably show their home nations’ athletes proportionally more; it’s generally smart programming. However, telecasts differ in terms of whether overtly promoting patriotism (“the home country is good”) or nationalism (“the home country is better than other countries”). For instance, China’s CCTV telecast frequently uses personal pronouns (“us”, “them”, “our”) to describe athletes; NBC’s Olympic telecast labels this a cardinal sin. Still, all published analyses report proportionally larger focus on a home nation than medal winnings would indicate.

The result, as we saw again in Tokyo, is the double-edged sword of nationalized focus. For instance, NBC’s primetime coverage of the Summer Games featured women’s sports 57% of the time. While cause and effect relationships cannot be established without speaking with NBC personnel, this again closely mirrored the percentage of U.S. medals won by women athletes (58%), a trend consistently found in recent NBC Olympic primetime broadcasts.  

In such a model, nationalism’s pain is gender’s gain, as women find their sports highlighted at more than ten times the frequency as other avenues of sports media. But does watching the Olympics make a person more nationalistic? Studies seem to indicate no. People who like nationalized media products disproportionately seek out Olympic content—and when they do, most national broadcasts provide content wrapped in the national flag…even if there’s no “us” or “them” formally acknowledged.