BOB GARFIELD: NBC spent $775 million for the rights to the games and will provide more than 1500 hours of coverage, most of it on the events themselves. But it also sent reporters to cover Russia’s many political subplots. The country was a controversial choice for the Olympics because – well, pick a reason. A retrograde anti-gay law, President Vladimir Putin's growing authoritarian grip and recent terrorist attacks with the explicit threat of more. NBC's Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel is among the reporters deployed to cover the political backdrop to the Olympics.
RICHARD ENGEL: There’s the security concern, there are human rights concerns. There is the question of why is it being held in Sochi at all. It’s on the Black Sea. For the Games, they had to build an entire city in the mountains outside of Sochi. So there’s going to be a tremendous amount.
BOB GARFIELD: Bob Costas, on the sports side, has said that if an act of terrorism were to occur or some sort of political unrest during the Games we won’t be seeing his face, we’ll be seeing the NBC News team, including you.
RICHARD ENGEL: He’s correct. And that was the same situation when I was in China, for example. We wouldn’t have our boxing analyst in Beijing, commenting on a breaking news situation.
BOB GARFIELD: Is the network prepared to put your face in the midst of the 1500 hours of sports coverage that it’s bought and paid for from the International Olympic Committee?
RICHARD ENGEL: If it’s a major news event? Yeah, of course, we’re gonna go into news coverage. I would be shocked if it happened any other way.
BOB GARFIELD: I don’t ask these questions for no reason. I alluded to the $775 million that NBC has paid the IOC for right, and the IOC wishes that it were just all speed skating and ski jumping and ice dancing all the time, but it has always been impossible to separate politics from the games. It’s always, at a minimum, the backdrop, no?
RICHARD ENGEL: Every Olympics has a political dimension to it. It’s going to be an opportunity for us to put some Russia stories on, exploring not just the Games but all of the regional impacts. But I wouldn’t expect NBC Sports or the IOC to necessarily see that as a priority.
BOB GARFIELD: It is now a crime in Russia to almost discuss the issue of gay rights, because it’s deemed propaganda, which is now against the law. Should there be, for example, protests? Should an athlete make some sort of pro-gay rights gesture, a rainbow flag or some such? How can you cover that without explicitly breaking the law of the host country?
RICHARD ENGEL: We may have a, a legal issue on our hands, the same way, when I’m in Egypt and there’s people protesting and the police come and start breaking heads, it’s also illegal to report that. Almost every country where I report has laws that say you can’t do things that harm national security, you can’t film activity that will disrupt the moral order of society.
Unfortunately, for the host government, that is part and parcel of what we do. And, frankly, with the technology that is available to everyone, if someone pulls a rainbow flag at a, at an event, people are gonna post it online. And I’m not sure how Russia would be able to contain something like that. And if there is a violent incident, we’re also going to have to distinguish the normal ongoing conflict that they’ve had in Russia going back to the collapse of the Soviet Union from a distinct terrorist attack targeting the Olympics that puts athletes or anybody like that at risk.
BOB GARFIELD: So you have to take care not to overplay one of those episodes, which are sadly commonplace, just because you happen to be in Russia covering the Games.
RICHARD ENGEL: Exactly. I’ve already been here for a couple of weeks to meet with the security officials, to meet with some of the locals, to meet with academics, to get a, a sense of the rhythm of violence. What is the normal baseline here?
BOB GARFIELD: Whether we’re talking about China or even the 1936 Berlin Games, Hitler’s big platform for his Nazi state, inevitably, when the press covers the sporting event it is being an enabler of propaganda. And I wonder to what extent eh Sports Division, for its part, and then NBC News has to take care not to enable Putin’s big show for the world.
RICHARD ENGEL: First of all, I think it’s probably more akin to China than certain Nazi Germany. I mean, I think Putin has his faults but isn’t Hitler. But I see what you’re saying. We are focusing on Russia. If the Russians win evens, then the Russians will be getting good publicity. I’m going to be here talking about the rest of the country, the good, the bad and the ugly. If anything, it’s an opportunity for our viewers to learn something about Russia. To spend two months, that’s a great opportunity. I’m going to do more stories on Russia than I’ve done in, in years.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Richard. Thank you very much.
RICHARD ENGEL: My pleasure.
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BOB GARFIELD: Richard Engel is NBC’s chief foreign correspondent.