The Narrative of the Olympics Is What the Media Wants It to Be

The fascinating part of the Olympics to me isn’t just how badly NBC manages to screw everyone. It isn’t even the athletic achievements. What really catches my attention is the way certain stories are presented. We get fed storylines by the media to make us feel sympathetic towards one athlete, or disdainful towards another. It’s amazing how perspective on someone’s story makes a huge difference.

Let’s look at the story of athlete A. There were major expectations placed on this athlete in Beijing, and she sadly failed to deliver. In the four years since, she’s suffered some ups and downs, including injury. She was raised by a single mother, who struggled to support her family. As a teenager, she had to choose between her sport and her family, and she chose to train with a coach instead of moving with her mother and siblings. Now she’s an adult, an accomplished athlete, in a sport where the base pay is basically nil, so she hustles, gets her endorsements, puts up decent performances, and makes a good living.

Then there’s athlete B. Sure, she’s had a sob story childhood, but so did many of the athletes in the Olympics. What matters here is that Athlete B is an unabashed famewhore. She isn’t as good as the worlds best, yet everyone knows her name. She’ll endorse anything for a buck, and she rivals “Real Housewives” for self promotion in the media. Meanwhile, she doesn’t deserve any of it, because why should she get attention when someone with more talent isn’t being profiled?

You may have figured out by now that A and B are the same athlete-Lolo Jones. How you look at her is probably colored by the media. If you read the New York Times, you might not see a strong woman who came from nothing to be successful, you might see a famewhore who overshadows her teammates. That’s how the New York Times portrayed Jones over the weekend, and she has said it was hurtful enough to affect her eventual performance in the 100 meter hurdles. Meanwhile, Slate has torn the New York Times to pieces in two articles about this. One does a fantastic job of exorciating the Times for blasting Lolo Jones for her endorsements, when every athlete is hustling for a chance to make some money. The other pointed out that while the Times is insane and harsh, it is true that prettier athletes get more attention from the media…however, that’s not Lolo Jones’ fault, despite how badly the Times wanted it to be.

Honestly, the Times article made me insanely angry. I don’t even follow Lolo Jones that closely, but the Times was just so nasty that it turned me off as a reader. They nailed her to the wall for not being the strongest runner but getting a great deal of attention. But as we’ve said before, most athletes don’t make a ton of money. Jones was out with a back injury for several months, and during that time there was no injured reserve list, no team to pick up the slack, and no franchise to represent. She is a single runner, and if she drops off the radar and retires from running, she won’t have many endorsements in the future. So she’s better at advertising than other runners, and she looks good naked-so what? The New York Times had less to say about former doper Justin Gatlin winning a bronze medal (a far, far more controversial occurrence) than they did about Lolo Jones posing naked. It is not exactly a complement to the journalistic integrity of the Times that a clean, non-doping runner gets chewed up and spit out, while a cheater gets a glowing article with only passing mention of his crimes.

Not only does this whole thing make my blood boil on Lolo Jones’ behalf, but it makes me wonder how the media is shaping the narrative of the Olympics as a whole. As I said above, the Justin Gatlin story didn’t get a lot of attention. And the stories about Michael Phelps were enough to give someone whiplash; he’s going to make history, he’s a failure, he’s amazing…the story changed quickly because the media did not give anyone, least of all Phelps, a chance to let it play out naturally. Instead, the storyline had to be prepared, scripted, and presented in a nicely narrated fashion. Or, in the case of Lolo Jones, a rather harshly narrated one.

Obviously the media storm around the Olympics is something that happens every time. But this is an Olympics where social media makes everything interconnected, and as a result all the coverage becomes magnified. The New York Times may not have expected the vociferous and angry response to their “nasty gram” about Lolo Jones, but they should have. And we should all know better than to take any of it, good and bad, at face value.


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