by Jan Niklas Rolf
With Russia deploying more than 100,000 troops near the border to Ukraine and China detaining more than 1,000,000 Uyghurs in the region of Xinjiang, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), felt compelled to appeal to the Olympic spirit of peace in his Beijing 2022 opening ceremony speech: “This is the mission of the Olympic Games”, he said, “bringing us together in peaceful competition. Always building bridges, never erecting walls. Uniting humanity in all our diversity”.
Yet, given the US-led diplomatic boycott, there were hardly any officials to engage in the kind of ping-pong diplomacy that Nixon and Mao had practiced fifty years ago. Due to the regime’s strict zero-COVID policy, there were also no foreign spectators in China to make a connection, and the athletes and coaches that actually made it into the country were put in a bubble that prevented them from immersing into the culture. “Building bridges”, thus, seemed to come down to the commentators that bring one of the most televised events in the world into our homes.
By analysing the television coverage of the parade of nations during the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, this post explores how commentators are engaging with other nations. The two TV stations chosen are the public-service broadcaster Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF) and the pan-European network Eurosport 1, both of which are freely available in Germany. As the most successful nation at Olympic Winter Games, Germany has a strong Olympic fan base and, hence, should make for a good case study.
But first, we have to establish the link between the Olympics and peace. During the ancient Olympic Games, a truce was proclaimed to allow for a safe journey to and from historic Olympia. In 1992, the IOC renewed this tradition by calling upon all nations to put aside their political differences for the duration of the Games, and invoked it at every Games ever since. While a brief ceasefire during the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer allowed for the vaccination of an estimated 10,000 children in Bosnia, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Georgia took place on the day of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. The conflict in Ukraine, too, escalated around the time the 2014 Winter Games were held in nearby Sochi. In the face of Russia’s military build-up in the lead-up to the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly unanimously adopted the Olympic Truce Resolution that
“Urges Member States to observe the Olympic Truce individually and collectively, within the framework of the Charter of the United Nations, throughout the period from the seventh day before the start of the XXIV Olympic Winter Games until the seventh day following the end of the XIII Paralympic Winter Games, to be held in Beijing in 2022 […].”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine between the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, thus, constituted not only a violation of international law, but also of the Olympic Truce.
But even if observed, the Olympic Truce only guarantees a temporary or negative peace. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, was more interested in fostering a sustainable or positive peace:
“We shall not have peace until the prejudices which now separate the different races shall have been outlived. To attain this end, what better means than to bring the youth of all countries periodically together for amicable trials of muscular strength and agility?”
Like the current IOC president, de Coubertin saw the Games as a locus of encounter where people of different nations get “to know one another better”. Knowledge, in turn, “will replace dangerous ignorance, mutual understanding will soften unthinking hatreds”. Enshrined in the Olympic Charter, which pictures sports as means to “better understanding between each other and of friendship, thereby helping to build a better and more peaceful world”, and the Olympic Truce Resolution, according to which “sports can contribute to an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding among peoples and nations”, this view has taken on an “ossified form” over the years. However, unlike other elements of de Coubertin’s ideological morphology such as athleticism and amateurism, Simon Creak notes, it “has remained remarkably resistant to critical analysis ever since”.
This post examines whether commentators are engaging with the ‘other’ in a meaningful way, thereby promoting a deeper understanding of other countries and cultures that the IOC and UN deem critical for a more sustainable peace. To that end, it conducts a discursive analysis of the television coverage of the parade of nations—an integral part of the opening ceremony during which the teams of participating nations parade into the stadium—by the two networks ZDF and Eurosport 1 along the three dimensions of sports, politics and culture.
On both networks, the greatest chunk of commentary was on sports. And yet the focus was a very different one. The two ZDF commentators—reporter Nils Kaben and correspondent Ulf Röller—used the nation as a frame of reference, making frequent references to the Olympic record of national teams: We learn that Hungary and Poland have participated in all Winter Games so far, that Norway and Switzerland were particularly successful at the previous Winter Games and that Turkey and Azerbaijan are yet to win their first medals at Winter Games. Where references were made to individual athletes, they tended to be references to flag-bearers as representatives of their respective nations.
In contrast, the two Eurosport 1 commentators—reporter Siegfried Heinrich and journalist Birgit Nössing—seemed to follow the mantra of the Olympic Charter that—all appearances to the contrary—the “Games are contests between individuals and not between nations”, telling a number of personal stories: We learn that an athlete from Ecuador does not eat anything before her contests and that another athlete from Andorra always wears different colored FC Barcelona socks during her contests. When the national teams of Brazil and Spain entered the stadium, it was particular athletes that came to the mind of the commentator: “Brazil marches in. And there I’m thinking, if you allow, of the cross-country skier Bruna Moura […]”. “Now comes Spain […]. When I think of Spain, I think of [Francisco Fernández] Ochoa […]. And I have to think of Javier Fernández [López], the figure skater”. The exchange the commentator had with the co-commentator on figure skater Vladimir Litvintsev, flag-bearer of Azerbaijan, is particularly telling in this regard:
Co-commentator: “Until 2018, he skated under the Russian flag and then he changed to Azerbaijan.”
Commentator: “And why?”
Co-commentator: “ROC [Russian Olympic Committee] is the keyword.”
Co-commentator: “ROC [pause]. Well, the Russians are not allowed [to compete] under their own flag.”
Commentator: “No, not only. He changed because the competition in Russia had become too fierce.”
Co-commentator: “That’s what you mean.”
Commentator: “Yes. He said to himself, I'll go to Azerbaijan, because there I'll have my starting place for sure.”
For the co-commentator, Litvintsev’s decision to become an Azerbaijani citizen was governed by the fact that Russia, due to its state-sponsored doping, was banned from the Games, forbidding Russian athletes to compete under the Russian flag. For the commentator, in contrast, it was a rather opportunistic decision that had little to do with not being able to compete under the Russian flag, but with being able to compete at all, no matter under which national flag. Once again, the commentator refused to engage in “methodological nationalism”, that is, to conceive of the nation as the sole unit of analysis.
The second most discussed topic after sports was politics. Commentators from both broadcasters commented on the political situation in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Ukraine, Russia and China. In addition, Eurosport 1 commentators mentioned the unrest in Belarus and Kazakhstan. While Eurosport 1 commentators thus made more references to politics, the general tone was more tentative: “And now it’s going to be a bit political, that’s clear. Because now comes Chinese Taipei, that is, Taiwan […]”. “It remains a bit political when we have Hong Kong here […]”. “Ukraine, and things are getting a bit political here too […]”. While in each case the commentators added a few sentences about the political situation before turning the conversation to other issues, the introductory phrase “a bit political” downplayed the import of it.
ZDF commentators, in contrast, employed a number of superlatives when talking about politics: “This [the political status of Taiwan] is a super sensitive topic […]. It is the great political goal of Xi Jinping to bring Taiwan back to the mainland and there is a huge political dispute about this with the Americans”. The commentary was also more accusative, emotive and generalising in nature: “The pictures that we recently had to see from Hong Kong [in this moment, the camera captures the political leader of China] for which he, Xi Jinping, is responsible, also shook us to the core”, with the “us” supposedly referring to an assumed national, if not global, community. When the Chinese team entered the stadium, both ZDF and Eurosport 1 commentators talked about the government’s attempt to turn China into a competitive winter sports nation. And yet ZDF commentators were way more negative about this than Eurosport 1 commentators, as can be seen from a comparison of the following two conversations:
Commentator (ZDF): “With a lot of effort, with a lot of European trainer know-how, they want to close the gap with the world’s best. Very ambitious [in fact, China was among the three most successful nations at the Games, even outperforming the United States in gold medals].”
Co-commentator (ZDF): “Of course, China is not a winter sports nation, but they have bought heavily internationally, and have turned many athletes into Chinese people, given them a Chinese passport to improve the performance of the team.”
This patronising (“with a lot of European trainer know-how”) and slightly sinophobic (“turned many athletes into Chinese people”) language can be contrasted with the rather positive and personalised commentary on Eurosport 1:
Co-commentator (Eurosport 1): “In order to make China a winter sports nation they are bringing in the best of the best coaches […]. They are supposed to make stars out of the Chinese rough diamonds […]. And then there is Eileen Gu [a US born freestyle skier who competes for China, for which she has attracted a lot of criticism].”
Commentator (Eurosport 1): “Well, Eileen Gu, that’s the story par excellence […]. Dad is American. Mom is Chinese. And she said what I think is a really beautiful sentence: Nobody can deny that I’m American, she said, nobody can deny that I’m Chinese, and that’s almost a conciliatory story.”
Indeed, by starting for China, Gu hopes “to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations”. The Eurosport 1 commentator moved on to talk about the Chinese ice hockey team, which is mostly made up of former US-Americans and Canadians, only to conclude with: “But it’s nice that it happens like this”.
Surprisingly, culture was the least discussed topic during the carnival of cultures that is the parade of nations. The only time it featured in the ZDF commentary was when the Austrian team, rather coincidentally, entered the stadium to a waltz tune and the commentator, noticing this, commented: “And then there’s a bit of waltz music in the bird’s nest”. But comments on culture were not only sparse; sometimes they were also false. The Eurosport 1 commentator, for example, suggested that, instead of the national anthem, Russian gold medal winners will hear Beethoven’s 9th symphony where, in fact, it was Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto no. 1. On three more occasions, the Eurosport 1 commentator touched upon culture and customs. When the Argentinian team marched into the stadium, he complained:
“Well, Argentina. With six participants. I don’t understand that, because there are such great ski areas in Argentina and yet nothing comes out of it that would be remotely competitive athletes.”
With the co-commentator not responding, which could be interpreted as a sign of dissent, the commentator came to qualify his statement by attributing the lack of competitive athletes to a different culture:
“Not everyone sees sport as the main goal in life, you have to take this into consideration, of course. There are cultures where sport is important, there are cultures where sport is not so important or not that valued.”
This is indicative of a learning process that de Coubertin sought to instill in society at large: Being raised in a country that is passionate for (winter) sports, the commentator wonders in quite derogatory terms that a country with favorable conditions does not produce competitive athletes. After some reflection, however, he recognises that there are cultures that might not share his enthusiasm for sports. A similar learning process was evident when the commentators talked about a female athlete from Iran:
Commentator: “She is only the third woman from Iran to qualify for the Winter Games. I find that remarkable and very conciliatory when you know how hard women in Iran have to fight for recognition, for sporting recognition.”
Co-commentator: “Yes, and she is asked again and again, she said in an interview, are you allowed to ski at all, does your religion allow it and then of course she said that it is no problem at all. Some of the questions she doesn’t even understand. For example, is there snow in Iran and she always says, well, we are not a desert like Saudi Arabia.”
Commentator: “That’s probably true”.
Whereas the commentator was echoing the Western narrative that women in Iran and other Islamic republics are severely suppressed, the co-commentator, by citing the Iranian athlete, questioned that very narrative and other stereotypes about Iran, which the commentator, by responding with “that’s probably true”, seemed to accept. Lastly, when the flag-bearer of Timor-Leste entered the stadium in traditional clothes, the commentator made an approving comment of the costume. Apparently noting the Orientalism in his words, he added: “I wouldn’t consider it as exotic, it’s just something that one likes to see”.
While there was no further discussion of cultural artefacts, commentators did present some geographical facts about what they assumed to be lesser known countries, that is, far-away or small countries, or both. Eurosport 1 viewers learned that Timor-Leste is “an island nation in Southeast Asia near Indonesia” and ZDF viewers got to know that Madagascar is “the second largest island nation in the world by area after Indonesia, located in the Indian Ocean, east of Africa”. The latter audience was also told that San Marino is “a microstate surrounded by Italy” and that Andorra is “a principality in the Pyrenees”. Yet, rather than talking about its peculiarity, Andorra was compared to and lumped together with other European microstates: “By area, the largest of the six European microstates. San Marino, Monaco, Liechtenstein, Vatican City are all among them”. Madagascar, too, was only made sense of by reference to other African countries: “Madagascar, the first of five representatives from Africa”. When the national team of Ghana entered the stadium, the ZDF commentator proclaimed: “Ghana, the next representative of Africa”. Notably, no other teams were pictured as representatives of their respective continent—an expression of the common conflation of African countries with the African continent. The Eurosport 1 commentator, on the other hand, conflated Great Britain with England when he remarked: “In curling, the English, represented by Scotland, have recently beaten the Swedes [...]. The Scots are very important for England”. Strictly speaking, even the official brand name, “Team GB”, is not correct, as the team also includes athletes from Northern Ireland, which does not belong to Great Britain. Yet commentators did not even get some of the more basic facts straight.
Nor can commentators be expected to contribute towards a better knowledge of other cultures and countries within the thirty seconds or so that they have when a national team enters the stadium during the parade of nations. What commentators can do, however, is to set the tone. Here, the tentative and reflective tonality of Eurosport 1, focusing on the individual, seems to be more conducive towards cross-cultural understanding and, eventually, positive peace than the affective and accusative tonality of ZDF, applying a national frame. While there was no evidence of assertive nationalism or chauvinism, a national bias was clearly discernible.
Indeed, even the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), who, on their website, claim to provide “unbiased” and “neutral” coverage to national broadcasters (who then add their own commentary), were not able to fully deliver on that promise: When the German team entered the stadium, an applauding Thomas Bach—IOC president and German national—was captured by the cameras. When the Portuguese team paraded into the stadium, António Guterres—UN General-Secretary and Portuguese national—appeared on the screen. The same holds true for most of the state leaders—from Albert II of Monaco to Xi Jinping of China—that attended the opening ceremony. However, when the Russian Olympic Committee marched in with Russian flags stitched onto their otherwise neutral jackets, the OBS director—maybe in anticipation of what was yet to come—chose to edit out a cheering Vladimir Putin.
 H. L. Reid, ‘Olympic Sport and Its Lessons for Peace’, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 33 (2006), pp. 205-214.
 Pierre de Coubertin, ‘The Olympic Games of 1896’, Century Magazine 53 (1896), pp. 39-53 at p. 53.
 Pierre de Coubertin, cited in J. J. MacAloon, This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), p. xxv.
 Simon Creak, ‘Friendship and Mutual Understanding. Sport and Regional Relations in Southeast Asia’, in B. J. Keys (ed.), The Ideals of Global Sport. From Peace to Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), pp. 21-46 at p. 26.
 All comments have been transcribed and translated by the author.
 Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller, ‘Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State Building, Migration and the Social Sciences’, Global Networks 2 (2002), pp. 301-334.