Athletes in action behind the Olympic rings during cross-country ski training ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the National Cross-Country Centre in Zhangjiakou, China, February 3, 2022. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

On the menu today: Wowsers, “NBC is facing a cataclysmic loss of audience for the 2022 Winter Olympics.” That’s not only because Americans are appalled by the policies of the government hosting the games, but it’s hard to believe that those policies aren’t a big factor; the International Olympic Committee’s treatment of Peng Shuai crosses the moral event horizon; and finally, that deer in your backyard may well have Covid-19. Good luck testing Bambi with a nasal swab.

The Olympics Dud

Dear readers, is there a more beautiful phrase this morning than “cataclysmic loss of audience”?

NBC is facing a cataclysmic loss of audience for the 2022 Winter Olympics as viewership tanked for Friday’s Opening Ceremony, averaging just 16 million.

It is a record low for the Opening Ceremony (20.1 million for 1988 in Calgary was the previous record) and a whopping 43 percent below the 2018 Games in South Korea that notched 28.3 million viewers despite also dealing with a less than advantageous Asian time zone for American audiences.

It comes on the heels of Thursday’s ratings disaster that saw just 7.7 million people tune in, dramatically below same-night audiences of 2018 (16 million) and 2014 from Russia (20.02 million).

The Associated Press elaborates: “Through the first four nights of competition, NBC is on track for the lowest-rated Winter Games in history. . . . Thursday night’s audience of 8 million marks the smallest primetime Olympics audience on record, surpassing the 9 million that tuned in for the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Games.”

Discussions about whether Americans should watch this year’s Winter Olympics or boycott them often veer into what people think of the Olympics themselves. I won’t be watching, but I don’t begrudge anyone for tuning in to cheer on Team USA. I actually like that, once every four years, we get really fired up about downhill skiing, figure skating, curling, etc.

It isn’t the athletes’ fault that the IOC selected Beijing — not even a particularly cold or snowy city! — to host an Olympics for the second time in 14 years. It is not even NBC’s fault, although apparently the network’s billion-dollar investment in broadcasting the games makes it a hostage–partner to whatever propaganda the Chinese government chooses to present.

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review hockey columnist Tim Benz doubts that viewers are boycotting China in significant numbers: “I’m not sure the average American refusing to watch luge on a Tuesday night genuinely qualifies as a grand political action. . . . C’mon. If the Steelers had their first preseason game in China next August, it would pull a 30 share in Pittsburgh.” But that’s an unfair measuring stick. If the Steelers held their first preseason game within the reactor core of the Yongbyon Nuclear Facility in North Korea, Steelers fans would still watch. Pittsburgh Dad would do a whole video on how the radiation was healthy and would turn T. J. Watt into the Incredible Hulk. (Love you, Steelers fans!)

Benz points to NHL players not participating (eh, maybe), the time difference (eh, it’s not much different from Tokyo or Pyeongchang, South Korea), wonders if patriotism is perceived as too uncool these days, and observes that, “The Olympics are a two-week-long network television miniseries in an era when no one watches network television anymore.”

On paper, that last argument makes sense, but there’s the glaring exception of this year’s wild NFL playoff games, which generated monster ratings for three straight weekends.

One other curious factor is that certain American companies that are Olympic sponsors are soft-pedaling or cutting back their efforts this year: “In Atlanta, soda aisles in grocery stores are bereft of Olympics-themed displays [from Coca-Cola]. As the opening ceremony unfolded in Beijing on Friday, the main page of Coke’s U.S. consumer website made no mention of the Games.” On NR’s home page today, Michael Mazza scoffs that Coke and other Olympic sponsors “are telling both Beijing and the IOC that, despite corporate commitments to uphold human rights, all they really care about is making a buck.”

What shifted — besides Covid-19 and the lack of spectators for the second straight Olympics — is that the IOC is no longer getting caught in an awkward spot between autocratic regimes and the democratic West. The IOC is now clearly on the side of the autocratic regimes. It’s one thing for the IOC to fail to stand up for de facto hostage Peng Shuai; we’re used to such cowardice. But it’s another thing for the IOC to voluntarily participate in the propaganda effort, as our Maddy Kearns reports:

In Beijing, Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player, gave an interview with the French sports newspaper L’Equipe while a Chinese Olympic official stood nearby. When asked about her sexual assault allegations against a former high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party, Shuai said that international concerns about her safety and whereabouts had been “an enormous misunderstanding.”

Shuai also had a face-to-face meeting with the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, which no doubt is supposed to alleviate international concern for the tennis star. When asked whether or not the IOC believes Peng’s speech is being controlled, the IOC spokesman told the press conference that while they were pursuing “personal and quiet diplomacy,” “It’s [not] for us to be able to judge, in one way, just as it’s not for you to judge either.”

How can you feel good about the Olympics after reading something like that?

Jules Boykoff, the author of five books on the Olympic Games, wrote in Politico yesterday:

The authoritarian challenge to democracy and human rights is arguably the defining geopolitical story of our time. Rather than oppose this trend, the IOC seems to be participating in it. Bach says his group’s primary “responsibility is to run the Games in accordance with the Olympic Charter.” But that charter speaks of “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity” — goals that feel impossible to square with the IOC’s unwillingness to engage with critics and call out human rights violations. Faced with an opportunity to align their sentiments and actions, the overlords of the Olympics have instead accelerated the Games’ years-long shift into an economic juggernaut and ideological black hole with sport appended to its flank.

Americans could grit their teeth and just live with an Olympic games hosted in Sochi, Russia, or Beijing the first time, or Sarajevo in socialist Yugoslavia back in 1984. But this? This is way beyond the pale.

Bad News: The Deer in Your Backyard Just Refuse to Get Vaccinated

A point in my recent cover piece:

Another major complication with the natural spillover theory is that no one in China has been able to find SARS-CoV-2 naturally occurring in animals in China — or at least, that is what Chinese health authorities are telling the world. A detailed analysis by Antonio Regalado in MIT Technology Review in March 2021 noted that “no food animal has been identified as a reservoir for the pandemic virus. That’s despite efforts by China to test tens of thousands of animals, including pigs, goats, and geese, according to Liang Wannian, who leads the Chinese side of the research team. No one has found a ‘direct progenitor’ of the virus, he says, and therefore the pandemic ‘remains an unsolved mystery.’”

As we know, SARS-CoV-2 is quite contagious among human beings. So why is this super-contagious virus so difficult to find in a bat?

As it turns out, SARS-CoV-2 isn’t just contagious among human beings; by 2020, we knew that the kinds of animals that Americans keep as pets could catch Covid-19, and by 2021, we’d seen evidence that significant percentages of pets were testing positive for Covid-19.

The New York Times, late Monday, offered this fascinating look at the rapid spread of Covid-19 among white-tailed deer:

In late 2020, the coronavirus silently stalked Iowa’s white-tailed deer. The virus infected large bucks and leggy yearlings. It infiltrated a game preserve in the southeastern corner of the state and popped up in free-ranging deer from Sioux City to Dubuque.

When scientists sifted through bits of frozen lymph node tissue — harvested from unlucky deer killed by hunters or cars — they found that more than 60 percent of the deer sampled in December 2020 were infected.

If SARS-CoV-2 is spreading so quickly and widely among deer . . .  once again, why is this virus so hard to find in bats in China? Why is it so hard to find in any animals in China? (Or did some Chinese investigators find the virus occurring in nature and cover it up, because they didn’t want to have to shut down all the wet markets?)

You know what would explain why SARS-CoV-2 can’t be found naturally occurring in bats in China? If it was a bat coronavirus that had been altered through gain-of-function research in a laboratory, making it slightly genetically different from all of the other bat coronaviruses existing in nature, and more contagious among human beings! Just sayin’!

Separately, there’s another question: Most deer don’t come within six feet of human beings, or anywhere close to that . . . so, how are these deer catching the virus?

How humans are transmitting the virus to deer remains an open question. “It’s definitely a mystery to me how they’re getting it,” said Dr. Angela Bosco-Lauth, a zoonotic disease expert at Colorado State University.

There are many theories, none entirely satisfying. An infectious hunter might encounter a deer, Dr. Mubareka noted, but “if they’re good at hunting,” she added, “it’s a terminal event for the deer.”

If an infected hiker “sneezes and the wind is blowing in the right direction, it could cause an unlucky event,” said Dr. Tony Goldberg, a veterinary epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Or if people feed deer from their porch, they could be sharing more than just food.

But once one deer is infected, it is easy to see how it could quickly spread, as the Times offers this lovely detail: “Wild deer are social — traveling in herds, frequently nuzzling noses and engaging in polygamy — and swap saliva through shared salt licks.”

ADDENDUM: My friend John Daly’s latest thriller novel, Restitution, drops today. As I mentioned when John asked for a blurb, I think what impresses me the most about him as a writer is his range. Restitution brings Sean Coleman fans the series’s traditional strong sense of setting and mood; clipped, realistic dialogue; and adds a refreshing, subtle sense of heart and hope amidst all the Vegas grit and Western landscapes of the Nevada desert.