As the Olympics grew up on TV, the Soviet Union – in the midst of the Cold War – provided U.S. broadcasters with a ready-made villain. The way the country tipped the scales in favor of its athletes in events like figure skating and gymnastics produced jokes about “Soviet judges” that translated well beyond the Games, even into movies like “Rocky IV.”
So will the Winter Olympics be quite the same, for an American audience, without the Russians to kick (and skate) around?
The International Olympic Committee took the extraordinary step of banning the entire Russian contingent from the Winter Games due to a doping scandal. Since then, an international body has suggested reinstating some of the athletes, although at this point, the IOC has opted not to comply.
Whatever the resolution of that, Russia will occupy a decidedly reduced role at this year’s Olympics, which could be both a blessing and a curse for NBC.
On the plus side, ratings tend to improve when U.S. athletes do well, and eliminating Russia from the equation increases the odds that will happen.
At the same time, Russia’s absence will rob the Olympics of some of their drama, certainly among those old enough to remember the various highs and lows associated with the U.S. and Russia waging what amounted to a proxy war in the form of athletic competition.
The height of that, of course, was the Miracle on Ice, when the American team beat the heavily favored Soviet squad in a 1980 showdown in Lake Placid – an underdog story so made for Hollywood that it was turned into a 2004 movie, “Miracle.”
The most bitter defeat, arguably, came at the 1972 Summer Games, when the Soviets defeated the U.S. basketball team on a controversial last-second play, after the officials gave them another chance to inbound the ball.
There have also been moments of American and Russian athletes bonding, reflecting the Olympic ideal of sports serving as a means to bridge differences and spur cooperation. But geopolitics have never been far from the relationship, including the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow, and the retaliatory action taken when Los Angeles hosted in 1984.
The Olympics should have no shortage of excitement, whether or not a few Russian athletes are ultimately allowed to compete. NBC – the longtime broadcast home of the Games – has mastered the art of packaging and presenting the events as a dazzling TV spectacle, to the point where millions of viewers consider themselves experts in the luge and the particulars of figure skating by the time it’s all over.
In that respect, the Olympics have become an inflated version of a primetime TV show – FX’s “The Americans,” just with tighter outfits. The question is whether an action drama can be quite as compelling without a proper bad guy.