x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

The sport of politics is an unofficial Olympics event

I'm aware of the irony of writing in a newspaper about how real people's voices are being heard. Twitter has put focus on other big issues: freedom of speech, the limits of privacy, and racism.

If you've been watching the Olympics thinking it's all about sport, you're mistaken. The commentary around this global event tells us far more interesting things about the state of our world today than we could ever glean from medals tables, no matter how thrilling the competition.

The US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made a series of diplomatic errors when visiting London before the opening of the Olympics. It's fair to say he managed to offend most of the UK by announcing London wasn't ready.

"It's hard to know just how well it will turn out," he commented, adding that other signs were "not very encouraging". His gaffes play on a widely held view that the US has little understanding or knowledge of world events, or how to be diplomatic.

If this wasn't enough, the US network NBC, which has sole Olympic broadcast rights in America, caused outrage over its edited version of the opening ceremony, cutting often to commercial breaks. In particular, they completely removed a tribute to the July 7 attacks that occurred the day after London had been awarded the Olympics in 2005.

The commemorative sequence was beautiful and haunting, and entirely apt for the occasion. NBC, on behalf of the American nation, didn't think so. Its actions were interpreted as a blatant lack of caring for those lives lost elsewhere in the world.

In the pool, the Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen's astounding performance was questioned. Were drugs involved? It seems the West has yet to get over its inbuilt suspicion of China, as well as its lack of acceptance that other countries are now beginning to excel and even overtake them. China hit back at the arrogance of the West.

To cover the costs of the Olympics, corporate sponsors have been playing an increasingly large role. But protesters have argued this is detracting from the spirit of the Olympics as a people's celebration. Their outrage comes against a backdrop of global protests about the role of commercial institutions in the current economic crisis.

What I found most fascinating was how the Olympics has put to the test the phenomenon of social media. After all, this was billed as the Twitter Olympics, when social networking tools finally came of age. Figures suggest there were 300,000 tweets per day at Beijing; this time around it is 400 million. I admit to sending 71 during the opening ceremony alone. It's clear that social media has become its own sport.

This means it's the first time that we hear real people's opinions and feelings broadcast in real time, unedited, unrestricted and spontaneous. People's voices are unfettered by publications which have editors and gatekeepers. And yes, I'm aware of the irony of writing in a newspaper about how real people's voices are being heard.

Twitter has put focus on other big issues: freedom of speech, the limits of privacy, and racism. A British journalist's Twitter account was suspended by Twitter for criticising NBC's coverage. Michael Phelps demonstrated that manners exist in the virtual world too, graciously tweeting his congratulations to Ryan Lochte, who beat him in the 400 metres individual medley. A UK tweeter is being prosecuted for offensive tweets about the British diver Tom Daley. Two athletes were suspended for racist remarks.

Still think the Olympics is about sport? Of course it is: the sports of politics, civics, commercialism, media and diplomacy. And actual sport too.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk