Olympic challenge: Watching the Sochi Games from Jerusalem

NBC coverage doesn't reach me here and the only free broadcasting is on Ugandan iTunes.

Felipe Dana/AP
United States' Andrew Newell leads Norway's Eirik Brandsdal as they ski past the Olympic rings during the men's cross-country sprint quarterfinals, at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Feb. 11, 2014. Finding a way to view the Olympics in the Middle East is daunting.

Growing up, our tiny black-and-white TV stayed in the closet except for one quadrennial event, which we watched nightly: the Olympics.

So I wasn’t about to break the tradition just because I’m living in the Middle East. 

But finding a way to watch the Sochi Olympics from Jerusalem proved to be an Olympic challenge – and an urgent one, since my former cross-country skiing teammate Kikkan Randall was coming into the Games as a medal favorite in today’s individual sprint. If she made the podium, it would be the first-ever Olympic medal for US women in the sport – a moment that the US ski community had been looking forward to for decades. 

By the opening day of the Olympics this weekend, I still hadn’t found a way to watch the Games. Instead of settling in for the familiar NBC anthem, once the soundtrack for my own Olympic dreams, I was digging into a hearty Palestinian dinner with friends in a village outside Bethlehem. As we peeled savory chicken off the bone and scooped delicious stuffed peppers into our mouths, the muted TV showed nonstop coverage of Mecca pilgrims milling around the Kaaba.

When our host picked up the remote and started flipping through the channels, I secretly hoped to see a figure skater’s triple axel, or – even better – the stars and stripes of American ladies charging up the cross-country trails. Instead, we landed on Al Jazeera, muted it, and continued our lively discussion about everything from Palestinian arranged marriages to Islamic perspectives on 9/11. 

The next day, I hit multiple dead-ends in my Olympic pursuit. The local Israeli sport channel offered a Hebrew-language explanation of luge dynamics, but somehow I find it hard to trust explanations of physics on ice in a language that originated in the desert; when I did check back for live coverage, they were featuring European basketball. I found out about a free app for fans in countries not covered by the mega-monopolies like NBC, which paid a record $4.38 billion for the right to ensure a complete lock on US Olympic coverage from 2014-20, but my iPhone informed me that it was only available in the Uganda iTunes store. 

With the help of a generous friend back in the US, and a little cyber trickery to mask the fact that we were in Israel, we managed to get NBC’s online streaming working yesterday. It really wasn’t the same, watching replays on my husband’s little laptop in the silence of our living room – no family, no teammates, no friends joining in our excitement. People here seemed vaguely aware, at best, that it was Olympics time.

But for me, the Olympics has become not so much a place or a period in time but an idea. 

As I went for an early morning run this morning amid the olive trees and rocky slopes of Jerusalem, carpeted not by snow but a tinge of bright-green spring and red anemones, I thought about how the motto “faster, higher, stronger” expands well beyond the bounds of Olympic stadiums, even to this troubled corner of the world. If there is any place in the world where long-held aspirations have not yet realized their full promise, it is arguably the Middle East. 

So whether it’s a demand for grace as people of opposing viewpoints talk through difficult issues, or for persistent hope amid decades of inertia, or for courage amid deep insecurities, there are plenty of Olympic opportunities here. 

I’ll be watching the cross-country events faithfully over the next few weeks, because I’m confident that even though Randall missed a medal today she has a good shot in other events. But I’ll also be looking for new opportunities to recognize and savor the Olympic spirit right here. Maybe even over delicious chicken, surrounded by Palestinian friends showering us with Olympic hospitality.

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