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Police officers stand guard inside the Olympic Park in London.

Emilio Morenatti, Associated Press

Bridging deep divides in London

  • Article by: JOHN RASH
  • Star Tribune
  • July 27, 2012 - 8:51 PM

NBC and the International Olympic Committee have been in business together since Seoul in 1988. But beginning with Friday's Opening Ceremonies in London, they are facing their most Olympian challenge: Uniting a divided world -- at least for about two weeks.

For the IOC, it's political divisions that threaten interest in the parade of nations. Global strife is nothing new, of course. But lately the level of disagreement has seemed to mimic the motto of the Olympics themselves: Citius, Altius, Fortius -- Faster, Higher, Stronger.

After years of military-state stasis, the Arab Spring has simultaneously seen democracy flower while extremist weeds sprout. Syria has devolved into a civil war that threatens not only to engulf Gulf and Mediterranean nations, but also to reheat Cold War divisions between the West, Russia and China.

And Monday's ominous online headline from the New York Times, "Syria threatens chemical attack on foreign force," implicitly acknowledged that the Assad dictatorship would continue to use conventional methods to murder its own citizens.

International interconnectedness, especially in the euro zone, is just as challenging as the geopolitical division. Spain's painful austerity measures haven't worked, prompting more fears of a continental economic contagion.

While the various crises have distinctly divergent dynamics, they seem to trigger existential questions of national identity.

For instance, in Damascus, do combatants consider themselves more Alawite, or Sunni, than Syrian?

Or in the euro zone, where more prosperous northern nations are asked to bail out their southern brethren, do citizens consider themselves more German or European?

And with some less likely to rally around their country's flags, will they still cheer their nation's uniforms?

For NBC, it's a divided media world that need to be united.

Long gone are artificial constructs of mass media. Transformational technologies -- many developed by NBC or Comcast, its new parent company -- have atomized audiences.

Way back in Olympic and media history (OK, four years ago in Beijing), Facebook had about 100 million members. And to most, Twitter was something pigeons did in Beijing's iconic "Bird's Nest" stadium. Today Facebook has 900 million members, and Twitter tops usage marks with nearly every big event.

On TV, we've gone from the "Big Three" networks to 300 channels on some cable and satellite systems. And instant Internet access means that avoiding news of results requires near-monastic media isolation.

Comcast's effort to put Humpty Dumpty back together again calls for 5,535 hours of coverage available on-air, online or on-demand -- a 65 percent bump from Beijing.

And following the media lead of other nations, NBC will recognize the realities of news saturation and make all events available live in some form. (Of course, the network will also repackage the daily drama during prime time.)

And if that screen time isn't enough, NBC created partnerships with Facebook and Twitter. Independently, Twitter announced that the London Eye Ferris wheel will light up nightly like a pie chart, tracking reactions to London 2012. (Could the Tower of London be made into a bar chart?)

All 32 sports and all 302 medal events -- and a whole lot more in between -- will be available, meaning that even fans of niche sports that were mere mentions in prime-time highlights packages in years past can now watch as if their passions were as popular as gymnastics.

And yet while Comcast caters to cultlike followings, it will need some big events to create the shared experiences that define Olympic viewing. That won't be easy.

In a world riven with divisions in politics, economics and media, shared values -- let alone viewing experiences -- are hard to come by.

And yet what makes the Olympics great -- participants from around the world gathering to compete not on the battlefield, or the streets, or even in the marketplace -- should be viewed as an increasingly rare shared experience.

Indeed, we need these Olympic Games, if only to remind us that despite our deepening differences, our commonalities can pull us together -- at least for a fortnight.

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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