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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Anti-American Frenzy in Olympics Coverage

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Anti-Americanism is a state-sponsored version of Russian nationalism. I never realized this so clearly before watching the Athens Olympics on television.

Coverage of the games on state-controlled television came across like a declaration of World War III. Viewers were encouraged to see themselves as soldiers in the fight with the nasty Americans, whose sole aim in Athens, it seems, was to humiliate Russian athletes, and hence the entire nation watching at home.

When Russian athletes or teams lost to competitors from any other country, the commentators said it was a shame, a pity, but a tolerable blow. When the winner happened to be an American, however, the reaction was full of righteous indignation. "At the Olympics, everyone is equal, but the Americans are more equal than everyone else," one newspaper opined. "You're better off being an American at these games. You can do whatever you like, even break the rules," a TV commentator said of the swimming competition. In the gymnastics competition, we were told that the Americans could "fall right on top of the judges" and still win. "We're not Americans, and that's why the judges don't give us better scores," a female athlete said. "At least our medals are worth something, not like the medals that the Americans made off with," said a commentator in another case.

This is just a small sampling of the choicest lines delivered by Russian athletes, print journalists and TV sportscasters. If a Russian team -- say, the volleyball team -- beat the Americans in the quarterfinals but lost to someone else in the finals, the quarterfinal win was treated as the most important achievement. When things went well for Russian athletes, as they did in track and field, their successes were not just sporting victories, but a demonstration of "who's the master in the house," as one TV commentator put it. Likewise, the failure of the U.S. basketball "Dream Team" was reported over and over, regardless of which two teams happened to be playing at the time or how well the Russians were playing.

The success of Chinese athletes in Athens -- as of Monday, China was second after the United States in the gold medal count -- was greeted by Russian commentators with surprise, not the sort of inferiority complex that motivated their reaction to the achievements of American athletes. Many called the Chinese performance a fluke. But at bottom this was a reflection of the Russian nationalist psyche, which doesn't treat Asian nations as equals -- rather a strange position, given that China has more than 1 billion people, the best-performing economy in the world over the last two decades, and that Russia and China share a nearly 4,000-kilometer-long border.

This begs the question: What was the point of the anti-American hysteria unleashed on state television during the Olympic Games? Are we back in the Cold War, or are we preparing for a new one? Nationalism is often exploited for political purposes -- to win elections, for example, as it was in Germany a few years ago when current Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der ran on an anti-American ticket and won. But the next Russian election cycle is three years away.

What's more, when you portray sporting events as the nation's fight for dignity and its proper place in the global political order, the whole enterprise can backfire on you if the athletes don't live up to your expectations, as happened in Athens, with Russia placing third in gold medals. And this only exacerbates the nation's inferiority complex.

So the only logical reason for all the nationalist hysteria would seem to be the Kremlin's desire to build up the image of a conniving, powerful enemy whom it can blame for all its own misdeeds and incompetence. Will this help to unite the nation? And if it does, to what end? I very much doubt that people are stupid enough to buy into this simplistic ploy. One thing is clear, however: The Kremlin and the state television execs must think we're thicker than two short planks.

Yevgenia Albats, who hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio on Sundays, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.