These Illustrations Expose the Side of the Olympics We Don't See on TV

August 9th 2016

Kyle Jaeger

Coverage of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has followed two contrasting narratives: the first is the standard sports coverage we've come to expect, following each game as an apolitical competition between countries' top athletes; the second concerns the environmental, political, and socioeconomic conditions just outside of the Olympic stadiums.

These comics from Nick Anderson and Matt Davies illustrate the messy overlap of these narratives.

In the lead up to the summer games, there were plenty of reports about Rio's water and air quality, as well as the looming threat of the Zika virus. An investigation by The Associated Press found that Rio's Olympic waterways were widely contaminated by untreated sewage that's flowed offshore and near land. Levels of disease-causing viruses from human sewage were "up to 1.7 million times what would be considered highly alarming in the U.S. or Europe."

But now that the games are underway, media coverage of the Olympics has shifted. The sports narrative has, unsurprisingly, dominated the news cycle. There's a pretty obvious reason for this shift, of course. People who are tuning into the Olympics are presumably interested in the drama of the games — not the political, social, and environmental dram of the host country.

However, there's been some obvious moments of overlap. Brazil soccer fans showed us exactly what happens when you try to politicize sports during the USA-Brazil women's soccer match on Saturday. Hope Solo, the goalie for the U.S. team, was repeatedly taunted with chants of "Zika" as she entered the arena and almost every time she had possession of the ball after she expressed concern about the Zika threat in public statements and on social media.

A similar situation played out during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. The city's air pollution problem came into the spotlight in the weeks leading up to the games, but reports about air quality — and the potential impact it might have on visiting athletes — were largely overshadowed by the standard sports coverage once the games officially started, according to a 2008 study from the University of Maryland's International Center for Media and the Public Agenda.

This isn't a critique so much as it is an observation. Should we fault media providers like NBC for failing to integrate sociopolitical discourse into their coverage of Olympic games? Few would make that case. But as these comics illustrate, some of the most interesting and newsworthy aspects of Brazil's Olympic games are behind the scenes, and the media disconnect is increasingly apparent.

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