Olympics television is branching out into the fashion world, with NBC hiring two Brazilian supermodels to appear on the network's late-night coverage of Rio 2016.
Alessandra Ambrosio and Adriana Lima, both of whom are Victoria's Secret Angels in their day jobs, will feature primarily on Ryan Seacrest's after-hours show, which will be largely human-interest and entertainment based.
"Adriana and Alessandra are the perfect ambassadors to guide viewers through the celebrations taking place outside of the competition, showcasing the off the field experience for Olympic fans," Jim Bell, NBC Olympics executive producer, said in a press release.
That's all well and good. Olympics coverage has long straddled the line between sports news and entertainment, with the expansion into the celebrity space borne out of the need to appeal to a broader audience beyond traditional sports fans -- not to mention fill 6,755 hours of coverage. (Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing that time filled with more Bob Costas.) Two famous Brazilians teaching us their native language and local cuisine does add some cultural dimension to what can be at times a rather bland broadcast. And with soccer as a way of life in Brazil, perhaps Ambrosio and Lima can offer some commentary on the sports themselves.
But the move also reads as slightly cynical against the long-term backdrop of the situation in Rio. Amid the Zika and ISIS fears of the athletes, tourists and traveling press, there's also the constant state of fear in which the locals live -- fear of government, of police, of pollution, of poverty.
The body parts that washed ashore near the Olympic beach volleyball courts, the thousands of displaced poor who watched their favelas bulldozed to make way for Olympic Village, the political turmoil of a corrupt congress ousting a very impeachable president, the protesters and police continuing to clash in the streets as calls for an Olympics boycott grow, the billions in cost overruns and public spending amid the country's worst recession in 80 years, the unpaid officers warning tourists at the airport, "Welcome to Hell ... whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe," the sewage flowing in the waters where athletes will compete and through the streets where locals live and play, the diseases far worse than Zika that have plagued Brazilians long before sports fans began to take notice -- it's much easier to overlook these and other harsh realities when you have two pretty faces guiding your view.
The athletic achievement and heartwarming stories of triumph often serve to distract from the darker side of the Games, but the use of Ambrosio and Lima is problematic in other ways. It's a nod to the tired stereotype of hyper-sexualized Brazilian women, which was invoked to disastrous effect by sponsors of the 2014 World Cup in Rio. The local and Western elite have historically reduced Brazil to beachwear and body waxing, an image sold to tourists that largely boosts the sex -- and sex trafficking -- industry.
The perception that Brazilians hold a liberal attitude toward sex and nudity comes at the expense of women's safety. A 2014 survey from Brazil's Institute of Applied Economic Research found that 26 percent of respondents believed women who dressed in revealing clothing deserved to be raped, while 58.5 percent believed there would be fewer rapes if women behaved properly.
Similarly, choosing supermodels to guide the cultural coverage shows a disregard for women Olympics fans. If it's a ploy for viewers, it's very clearly a ploy to gain male viewers. You could argue that that just makes strategic sense, because the majority of Olympics ratings are driven by female fans. But beautiful women are deployed throughout sports broadcasts whether or not male viewers are in the minority.
Some writers more optimistic than I are holding out for the possibility that Ambrosio and Lima might lend their own perspectives as native Brazilians on what's going on in their country. That very well could be the case, and if so, I look forward to their insight. But neither woman has been particularly outspoken when it comes to politics -- nor should they have to be; that's not their job. And while I'm sure they both have opinions on the state of affairs in their home country, I think it might be asking too much to expect a meaningful discussion on the social and economic impact of the Olympics on an entertainment show moderated by Seacrest.
Hopefully NBC isn't using these two very beautiful women to mask the ugliness we're seeing in Rio. We can be entertained, but let's not be fooled.