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11 Aug 2021

Looking back on the Tokyo Olympics – The Tokyo Olympics wrapped up this past weekend, and I thought I would share a few thoughts on the occasion. I have always been a fan of the Olympics, even if I am sometimes cynical about certain aspects of the Games. Long-time readers may remember that we even went to the Winter Olympics for a day when they were held in Pyeongchang in 2018 (which seems so long ago now), because how often are you going to have the chance to be there in person? The Tokyo Olympics were probably the weirdest I’ve ever seen, though, being held as they were in the middle of a pandemic (and apparently against the wishes of 78% of the population of the host nation, according to an Ipsos poll conducted before the Games). I’m not going to comment on the wisdom of having held the Olympics, partly because it’s a moot point now and partly because, once they started, I dutifully sat down and tried to catch as much of them as I could.

“I always feel a little disappointed that so little progress seems to be made.”

That is mainly what I wanted to write about in today’s entry: watching the Olympics in Korea. I remember in my early years here being dissatisfied with much of the coverage, as the networks seemed to only show a very small range of events, generally those in which Korean athletes were competing. These days we get to see a wider variety of events—possibly because Korean athletes are competing in more events, but also because people seem to be interested in a wider array of sports. That being said, I only found out halfway through the games that karate had been added to the roster of official events for the first time at Tokyo; I did not see a single karate event over the course of the entire Games, despite seeing every other martial sport (judo, wrestling, Taekwondo, etc.). Karate is something I would have enjoyed watching, because I used to compete in tournaments myself (a long, long time ago); I even won second place once, and had the bruises to show for it.

In terms of what we got to see, it did help that we had multiple networks (KBS, SBS, and MBC—the big three) covering the games. Or, at least, it helped sometimes. When there was no single, super-important event being held, the networks, both on their broadcast channels and their cable channels, tended to show a decent mix of events. But once you had an important event featuring Korean athletes, like men’s football or baseball, or any of the archery events, every network ended up covering the same thing. I suppose it makes sense—you don’t want to be the only network not covering the event that everyone is going to be watching. But when that event is baseball, which is huge in Korea but which I have very little interest in, it would be nice to be able to watch something else. If we were lucky, the cable channels would be showing a different live event and not the five hundredth rerun of the women’s archery gold medal run or something.

So the coverage has its ups and downs, but I can live with that; I’ve read enough complaining online about NBC’s coverage in the US to know that you’re never going to get perfect coverage that suits everyone’s tastes. But there are certain other aspects of the coverage, aside from not always being able to watch what I would like to watch, that bother me to varying degrees. One such aspect is the excitability of the announcers and commentators. Let’s just say that they can get rather, um... animated. One example that springs to mind is the women’s team archery gold medal match, where the Korean team was competing for their ninth gold medal in a row. No other nation had ever won a gold medal in women’s team archery; the event was first introduced at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, and the Korean women had won every gold since then. I watched this match live, and as you might imagine there was a lot of pressure on the Korean team to keep the streak alive. When they did pull off a victory to maintain Korean dominance, though, the commentator started screaming at the top of her lungs. This wasn’t just loud cheering, mind you, but hysterical shrieking with no discernible linguistic content. A few days later, the Korean men’s épée (fencing) team faced off against China in the bronze medal match. The Korean team pulled off a dramatic come-from-behind victory, and I was cheering like crazy. But then the commentator started crying—they even showed an inset picture of the broadcasting booth so we could all watch him weep. In fairness, I can understand the excitement. I also tend to get animated when I watch sports on TV (to HJ’s unending amusement), and both of the matches I just mentioned were indeed very exciting. But I’m not a commentator. I’m just some schlub watching the Games at home and annoying the neighbors with my shouting. Announcers and commentators are supposed to be professionals, and it would be nice if they made the occasional nod toward at least pretending to be dispassionate.

I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon here. It is indeed part of the charm of Korean sports broadcasts that they seem to take their cues from Latin American football announcers. It probably wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if they were completely dispassionate, and it would be unrealistic to expect this of them anyway. Part of the reason for this is that commentators are former Olympians (and almost always medalists) who are often not very far removed from the competition themselves—it is not uncommon to see an athlete who competed at the previous Olympics commentating on the next Games. This means they have very close relationships with all of the athletes competing. It’s no wonder they start screaming or weeping when their close friends and juniors win. I fully understand their reactions and don’t blame them for it personally. I just wonder if it might not be a better idea to have commentators who are a little more removed from the action, so to speak. This distance varies depending on the event, and in those events where there is a little more distance, the commentators do generally manage to not break down sobbing, even if they get a little excited.

Even if the commentators are removed from the events in time, though, they may still have other connections to the athletes. In women’s gymnastics, the commentator for KBS during Yeo Seojeong’s vault final was removed from the action by 25 years—he had competed in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and won a silver in gymnastics. Someone with that much distance from the current competition should be able to be a little more dispassionate, right? Well, maybe, except for one tiny issue: The commentator was the famed Korean gymnast Yeo Hongcheol—and Yeo Seojeong’s father. I deliberately did not watch the KBS coverage of the event for that reason (although KBS did seem to consider this a selling point of their coverage), but I did flip over after Yeo Seojeong won bronze to witness the mayhem. In all fairness, I have to admit that I was surprised at how restrained her father was. Don’t get me wrong—he and the announcer were still cheering very enthusiastically, but there was no incoherent screaming or weeping. So I suppose that there is also an element of some commentators just being more excitable than others.

There is another side to commentators being too emotionally invested in the action, though, other than simply being very excitable. Commentators are (ostensibly) there to offer expert insights and analysis on the events that are taking place. I enjoy watching the jaw-dropping feats of athleticism that gymnasts routinely perform, but am I an expert on gymnastics? Not even close! When I see an athlete do a vault, I can tell very roughly whether they did a good job or not, but I do not understand all the intricacies of judging and how and why the various deductions are calculated. I can look at an “I” skill and see that it is more complex and demanding than a “D” skill, but I do not have any deeper knowledge than that. Instead, I rely on the commentators to educate me and elaborate on what I am watching. And I do indeed find myself being educated by many commentators. I don’t remember who it was, but one of the diving commentators I saw was a veritable font of knowledge about how the event and the scoring worked, and I genuinely enjoyed and appreciated his commentary. But when Korean athletes are competing—especially when the distance between the commentator and the athletes is not that great—I never know if I can trust what they are saying. To my eyes, a Korean athlete might very clearly have messed up, but the commentator will excitedly shout, “It’s OK! It’s OK!” Then, when one of their competitors performs their routine and makes a mistake, they might say, “Oh, that is going to end up being a very big deduction!” Is it, though? Is the mistake that Russian gymnast just made that much worse than the mistake the Korean athlete made? It might be, for all I know, but I can’t trust that the commentators are giving me a dispassionate opinion as opposed to simply being cheerleaders. If you are a coach, or a senior member of a team, being supportive and encouraging of the athletes on your team is exactly what you should be doing. But these commentators are supposed to be operating in a different capacity, and I think some of them forget that sometimes. Expecting pure objectivity from anyone is a fool’s errand, of course, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask for some objectivity. (Again, I will admit that your mileage may vary depending on the commentator.)

But there is yet something else that bothers me when I watch Korean coverage of the games, something that goes beyond disappointment at the lack of objectivity. I mentioned above that announcers and commentators are always shouting, “It’s OK!” whenever a Korean athlete makes a mistake or is not doing well. I attributed this to them being supportive and encouraging, but who exactly are they trying to reassure here? As someone who often shouts at football players to clear the ball or take a shot, despite the fact that I know very well they can’t hear me, I do realize that they may be expressing their feelings toward the athletes in that moment. But they’re not talking directly to the athletes; they’re talking to us, the viewers. And it is clear that certain assumptions are being made by announcers and commentators as to who comprises this “us.”

During the disastrous round of 16 men’s football match between Korea and Mexico, we learned that the Korean squad didn’t actually have a viable defense, which is problematic when facing a side at full strength. Korea’s two group stage wins—4-0 against Romania and 6-0 against Honduras—might have given you the impression that Korea was a force to be reckoned with. However, in both those games, the opposing side had a man sent off, and most of the match was played 11 on 10. Mexico did not make the same mistake and dispatched Korea 6-3.

The outcome of the match isn’t my point here, though. This was yet another instance where the announcers and commentators kept saying that things were OK when they clearly weren’t, that there was still plenty of time left in the match for Korea to make a comeback when such a thing clearly wasn’t going to happen, etc. But the icing on the cake came as time began running out, to the point that even the Pollyannish announcers and commentators had to face the truth. After taking a determined breath, one of the announcers directly addressed the viewers: “Citizens of Korea, we all need to send our energy to our athletes right now!” Well, what about those of us watching who were not citizens of Korea (including ethnic Koreans who might be citizens of other countries)? I guess we were supposed to just sit on our thumbs?

This was not the only example of this issue. If you do not live in Korea and you’ve heard anything at all about the Korean coverage of the games, you’ve probably heard about MBC’s problematic treatment of the opening ceremonies, when they showed images representing each nation as their athletes entered the arena. Sounds harmless enough, right? Well, some genius decided that it would be a great idea to show images of Chernobyl for Ukraine and riots for Haiti. Another nation was introduced as a former colony of a European power. A Norwegian friend of mine complained about his nation being reduced to an image of salmon. I said above that “some genius” decided this, but in order for something like this to go out on the air, a number of people had to look at it and say, “Yeah, that looks good to me!” Another possibility is that all this was the idea of some out-of-touch higher-up, and everyone else was just too afraid to say anything. Not that this would make it any better, of course, but it would make sense.

This was not MBC’s only Olympic blunder. Another one came during the group stage of men’s football, when Korea faced off against Romania. Mind you, this was after a 1-0 loss to New Zealand in their first match, so the mood was a little apprehensive, as the second match really was do or die. Fortunately for Korea, the Romanian midfielder Marius Marin scored an own goal to put Korea up 1-0. Another Romanian player was sent off for two yellows just before the half, and Korea scored three more goals in the second half to complete the crushing victory. This put Korea in the driver’s seat in the group due to goal differential, so it’s understandable that people might get excited. However, MBC decided to run a chyron with the words: “Thank you, Marin!” It’s bad enough when announcers or commentators say stuff like that, but actually putting it up on the screen? Have some class!

You may be wondering why I am suddenly bringing up MBC gaffes after talking about the exclusivist tone of the broadcasts. Well, it’s because they all come from the same place: the thinking that only Koreans are watching the broadcasts. At least, this would be the most generous reading, assuming that it never even occurred to anyone involved in these broadcasts that people other than Koreans might watch them. A less charitable reading would be to assume that they realize this is a possibility, but they just don’t care. Neither reading is all that favorable, though, to be honest. In this day and age, when everything is immediately part of the extremely interactive culture of the internet and even the most obscure bits of culture can be elevated to meme status, to assume that you can say things like this with impunity betrays either incredible ignorance or incredible arrogance—and possibly both at the same time. In the NYT article I linked above, they note that MBC released a statement saying: “We will fundamentally re-examine the production system of sports programs to avoid any similar accidents in the future.” But this goes beyond “the production system of sports programs” (and it is disingenuous to call this an “accident”). It’s about how you feel about the world, your place in it, and everyone else who shares the planet with you. This is why I think that the chances of such a fundamental re-examination happening are roughly the same as the chances of Korea topping the table at the Paris Olympics.

Lest I sound as if I am angrier here than I really am (it’s more just a mixture of exhaustion and disappointment at this point), let me share with you more amusing MBC gaffes. The evening of Saturday, 31 July, was packed with important events for Korea’s Olympians. There was the quarter-final match in men’s football, where Korea faced Mexico, the group match against the US in baseball, and the women’s volleyball group match against the hosts. Although the women’s volleyball match was relegated to cable (where it showed on all three cable channels showing the Games), it was also the only match that Korea won that night; the men lost 6-3 to Mexico (as mentioned above) and 4-2 to the US. After the volleyball match, star player Kim Yeonkoung (that’s how her name is spelled, but it’s pronounced “Yeon-kyoung,” with both vowels being similar to the “u” in “fun”) was being interviewed by a reporter from MBC. She was asked, “How do you feel about having given hope to the people of Korea?” Her reply: “I feel even more proud.” However, the chyron was once again an issue. Instead of using the question asked by the reporter, they went with the subtext: “Both the men’s football team and the men’s basketball team lost tonight. How does that make you feel?” Suddenly, her reply sounds a little less wholesome and more like a dig at the men’s teams.

Chyrons seem to be an Achilles heel of sorts for MBC. One baseball match against Israel went into extra innings, so it ended later than usual. But during the Olympic segment of the MBC news, a chyron reported that Korea had lost the match. They in fact went on to win 6-5, but you wouldn’t have known that had you only watched MBC (although, to be honest, at that point you would have deserved it).

It’s not just chyrons, though—none of which, by the way, did I see personally; I only read about them in the news later. But I did happen to be watching a men’s Taekwondo match on MBC, where In Kyo-don was competing for a bronze medal. When he won the match and the bronze medal, the clearly emotional announcer cried out, “It’s not the color we wanted, but it’s a medal!” Really, dude? Come on. I thought we were better than this now. This is something that you used to see a lot in Olympic broadcasts: announcers expressing their disappointment (even while sometimes expressing joy) at an athlete’s failure to win a gold medal. Sometimes they would do it in indirect ways, saying things like, “Every medal is precious,” which is something you only need to say if there exists an underlying assumption that not every medal is precious. I hadn’t heard too much of it this time around, though, so I was particularly disappointed to hear it surface again.

Then, one morning before the Games for the day were scheduled to begin, while I was getting ready to head out to the office, I was flipping through the channels and happened to come across a program that was profiling various Olympic athletes for whom Tokyo would be their last Games. I usually don’t watch programs like this—I watch the events themselves, and that’s enough for me—but the athlete being profiled when I tuned in, Taekwondo athlete Lee Daehoon, said something that caught my attention. He was saying that (I’m paraphrasing from memory, of course), since this was going to be his last Olympics, he just wanted to go and enjoy the experience without stressing too much about bringing home a gold medal. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard him say this, because Korean culture often pushes the idea that either you’re first or you don’t matter. I saw this as a sign of progress, and I nodded my head approvingly. My good feelings did not last long, though. In the very next breath, Lee went on to say, “But then my friends and my parents said to me, ‘Well, if that’s going to be your attitude, then you’re better off not going at all. Think of all of those young athletes below you who are desperate for the chance to compete for a gold medal! You have to bring home the gold, even if it kills you!’ And I realized they were right. That was when the final piece of the puzzle fell into place for me.” Sigh—progress denied.

The implication, of course, is that by not winning a gold medal, Lee would somehow be disrespecting those younger athletes who all desperately wanted that chance. I think this is a whole lot of nonsense, though. For one, he earned his place at the Olympics, so he can do whatever he wants. And I’m sure he felt enough pressure as it was without having his friends and family trying to shame him. It’s not like he said that he was going to go to Tokyo and not give it his best shot; you don’t get to be an Olympic athlete by just coasting along, and I have no doubt that he gave it everything he had. All he said was that maybe winning a gold medal wasn’t actually the most important thing about competing in the Olympics. But, no, we can’t have that. You either come home with your shield, or you come home on it. You win the gold, even if it kills you.

So, did he win the gold medal, or did he fall on his sword? Well... unfortunately, he lost in his round of 16 match. Fortunately, though, he had another path back to the podium, through repêchage matches (these are matches that allow athletes who are eliminated to get back into the running). He won both of these matches... but then, again unfortunately, he lost in the bronze medal match. I sincerely hope that his friends and parents did not murder him when he got home. (Yes, I’m being cheeky. “Even if it kills you” is a very common idiom in Korean, equivalent to “no matter what” in English, but this particular example did have a very Spartan feel to it.)

Anyway, I don’t want to make it sound like I didn’t enjoy the Olympics, because I did. It’s just that I always feel a little disappointed that so little progress seems to be made, both in what people think they are entitled to expect from the athletes who devote their lives to their chosen sports, and in how announcers and commentators approach the events and their audiences. But while the MBC gaffes became sort of a running joke—what fresh disaster has MBC prepared for us today?—the truth is that Koreans mocked their failures just as much as anyone else. Maybe even more. I will take that, at least, as a sign of progress. Who knows? Maybe when Paris rolls around in three(!) years, the networks, announcers, and commentators will have learned something. I will be watching, at any rate, and hoping.

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