Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Support your athletes, guys!

Lolo Jones finished fourth in the 100m hurdles Source

A few days ago, the New York Times published a scathing article on Lolo Jones. Jones was torn apart for being all style, no substance. Then, when she finished fourth in the 100m hurdles finals, the haters jumped on the opportunity to say "I told you so," pointing to her disappointing finish as proof she was overhyped and overrated. It's really shameful to lose to favorite Sally Pearson, who won in an Olympic record time, you know.

But wait. Can we step back for a second? Jones' "failure" meant that she finished fourth at the Olympics. For now, she is fourth in the world. Sure, this is a sport where there is really only one winner, and where the top three get hardware and glory while fourth gets to pee in a cup, but let me repeat that for you. Fourth in the world. Allow me to quote Allie Kieffer here:


Professional athletes put themselves out in the public eye for all to see. Criticism comes with the territory. However, fans (and haters) sometimes go way over the line. I read LetsRun because it's a pretty good source of news and one of the easiest ways to see what's going on in the running world. And believe it or not, there are several good posters who provide good insight into all things running. But LetsRun is also notorious for having message board trolls who go well past what's appropriate. Many other media outlets (like the New York Times, apparently) are no better. 

Here's another example. Now, in no way am I qualified to speak about gymnastics. I know only slightly more about gymnastics than I do about equestrian, and that's only because I didn't know that dressage was a word until about a week ago. Seriously, I got into an argument with one of my runner friends last week about whether men competed in vault (I lost...never question a man who was forced to perform vault in one of his college gym courses). However, from what I do understand, McKayla Maroney is the best in the world at vault. Basically, it was her event to lose, and just in case last year's World Championships didn't prove that, she proved it with a near-perfect vault that left the judges slack-jawed at the Olympic team championships. But nothing is ever guaranteed in sport, and she fell on her second vault. Of course, she still finished second after landing on her butt because her difficulty scores were so much higher than everyone else's. However, when she fell and looked disappointed, the media ripped her apart for "choking" (because, you know, people never fall when they're flipping two and a half times through the air...and I'm pretty sure that I read somewhere that Maroney was vaulting on a broken big toe), and for being an ungrateful spoiled brat with a "bitch face." Um, maybe I completely missed it because I was too busy trying to figure out why NBC wasn't showing the steeplechase final at a reasonable time, but all I saw was her looking understandably disappointed, yet still giving the gold medalist a long hug. Like I said, maybe I missed her kicking a trash can and throwing a chair at the Romanian girl while making a face like Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls, but hugging her opponent and saying she was disappointed in her performance during an interview does not really scream "sore loser" to me.

McKayla Maroney in the Team Championship. Source

Now, with the Lolo Jones thing, I know many people are upset about Jones marketing herself. They say she's an attention whore who's not even the best in the nation, stealing the spotlight from those who deserve it (because clearly, being the American record holder in the 60m hurdles isn't very deserving of props). What's wrong with marketing yourself? Look, I'm all for people being humble. Really. Cocky bitches piss me off more than anyone. I love the mild-mannered underdog who blushes in the spotlight and is thrilled and humbled to be on the big stage. And I can understand if the silver and bronze medalists are a little upset if Jones is still the one getting all the attention. But let's face it, track and field is a niche sport where most athletes aren't making that much money, and many are living below the poverty line. It's not the NBA or NFL, not by a long shot. If you want to make a living, you've gotta market yourself, and professional athletes need to pay rent and put food on the table too! Then you have to consider that colorful personalities are good for the sport. For the most part, no one except for a small population of running geeks give a crap about athletics outside of once every four years. Most people who run for fun probably can only name a handful of professional runners, and are almost certainly unable to throw out times the way people toss around football stats for their fantasy league. People like Lolo Jones and Nick Symmonds help to bring track and field out of the shadows and into the spotlight. They're the ones whose names are known outside of track circles, who inspire people who aren't necessarily the track superfan, and that's what this sport needs. Finally, I've seen people calling Jones a sore loser because she looked upset post-race (at least she wasn't called "Bitch Face," I guess). Underdog though she was, we all know that Jones hasn't spent years and years of her life working her butt off with the dream to get fourth. I would never excuse a complete lack of sportsmanship, but come on, she's allowed to be sad. (Someone please tell me if I missed her throwing a tantrum and punching Dawn Harper after this picture was taken, because all I saw was her looking sad).

HOW DARE YOU LOOK UPSET!  Source

So I want to challenge you all to support our athletes. You don't have to like all of them, just be respectful, that's all. Remember that beneath that seemingly superhuman facade, they're human too. They have feelings, they feel disappointment, they get hurt, and they cry, just like anyone else. Stop with the tearing people down, whether it's a 16-year-old girl or a 30-year-old woman...or anyone. While these people do put themselves out there, and they know that a certain amount of criticism and negativity comes with the territory, they are also deserving of our respect. So to all the athletes representing the United States and all other nations, to all the athletes who missed making the Games but who already have the next big event on their minds, and to all the athletes who will never make it to the world stage but will continue to toil in anonymity for their own satisfaction, I salute you all. You all have my respect.


10 comments:

  1. Great post! I have all the respect in the world for our athletes, but is it because I am an athlete. I have a tough time believing the nay-sayers are putting much effort into anything other than their criticizing. What makes it even worse with gymnastics - those girls are still impressionable young ladies. They really don't deserve that at all! My 4 year old daughter is watching every event and every sport and her reaction is always "wow" and "I want to do that too". Why should an adults perspective be any different?

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  2. I like it, good blog post. I agree that Jones was seemingly singled-out in a biased and unfair manner by the NYT. I am a Lolo fan, and not merely for her looks, so I suppose I would miss out on why people might have a problem with her getting media attention. However, it is part-and-parcel of being in the public eye (especially by choice) that there will be backlash. See Tim Tebow, who apparently has never done anything wrong.

    There is another side, though, and it is something that turns me off on sports media, in general, and specifically running/track media: excessive fawning over the sport's stars. The result is too much of substance-free interviews full of softballs and bouquets and mugging for fanboy photo ops. Too many in the media fail to maintain a critical distance from who or what they are covering. Legitimate criticism is typically not a part of their vocabulary, for even legit criticism can lead to losing access for interviews and quotes. And so the mainstream media was loath to question Marion Jones's notorious associations with the likes of Charlie Francis and BALCO. Or Carmelita Jeter's progression plus her association with Mark Block. Or Bolt's and Blake's progressions. Or the associations and/or progressions of a number of U.S. and foreign distance runners. Lack of legitimate investigative writing and critical questioning is just another significant factor that eats at the fabric of the integrity of sport. Typically, and unfortunately, we instead wind up with potshots at easy targets like Lolo Jones or young gymnasts as well as blind, unquestioning support for stars who do have troublesome associations and activities.

    Going a bit further down a tangent, unlike Jason Whitlock (via the above-linked article) I care about clean sport. I care not simply for the integrity or sanctity of the sport and a level playing field (and even if all are doping, that cannot ensure a level playing field given the scientific evidence regarding high and low responders as well as the psychology of individual willingness to put oneself at risk to get a bigger edge), but more for the trickle-down effect it will inevitably have on youth athletics. High school football players are juicing up just for a shot at a partial college scholarship to Anywhere State U., what happens as Salazar's Super Supplementation ideals (brought to bear by Rupp, Farah, whomever else and publicized by a complicit media) spread to young runners with aspirations of Footlocker or Nike Team Nationals, college scholarships, college nationals as well as access to either an unethical doctor or at least daddy's credit card to be used at GNC or MaxMuscle?

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  3. Thanks for your comments, everyone!

    Katy, I sometimes wonder how much happier we'd be if we could see some things through the eyes of a 4-year-old. So our reaction could be "wow!" instead of criticism. Of course, the key here is "some things," since that would probably also mean our answer to bedtime would be "NO!" ;)

    Drew, one thing that I think LetsRun is doing right is bringing more attention to the subject of doping for the sake of a clean sport. I think we have to be careful about accusing someone who has not been proven guilty and the possibility of destroying an innocent athlete's reputation, but certainly, bringing some attention to doping scandals in an effort to keep the sport fair is not a bad thing. I think my point is more what you point out at the end of the second paragraph though...that we are taking potshots at athletes who do deserve our support. Lolo Jones is getting criticized for marketing herself. Gabby Douglas is getting torn apart for her hair. Et cetera. These athletes aren't cheating or doing anything to harm the sport...rather, they're getting criticized by jealous detractors for stupid reasons. I'm sure both of those athletes knew that with fame also comes criticism, but I just think that many of these athletes are being unfairly criticized over trivial things when they instead deserve our support.

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  4. Speculation about significant/rapid improvement by someone training under Salazar or spending time in Albuquerque or Flagstaff would not destroy an innocent athlete's reputation. Apparently Kenyan officials feel that Kisorio's testimony to the influence of doctors and drugs at training bases in Kenya would somehow harm an "innocent athlete's reputation." I disagree, the truth cannot hurt them, it can only hurt those who are trying to conceal it. USATF, USOC, IAAF, IOC, etc. actually have disincentive to catch dopers and the mainstream media are fully complicit partners in the star system that they all draw their income from. Connecting dots of evidence is what an informed fanbase that cares about the sport should do, and it should be led by educated voices in the media. We have to be willing to take good, long looks at clear evidence and stand up to make a tough call when the body of evidence renders it warranted, in the face of a sea of support for a given star. The longer fraud is allowed to stand, the longer youth will look up to it and when that fraud is finally exposed it erodes the sense of integrity and fair play that those of us who care about the sport hope to instill in them. Those who are fans of the sport would do so reluctantly and would want to be careful to avoid reckless accusations. Athletes in the public eye should be careful about with whom they associate and should be highly wary of anything they put into their bodies and they should feel that the educated fanbase will scrutinize those things. The fanbase and media that cares more about the stars than it does about the sport will always be late to the scene and even then will maintain steadfast denial about a given star's transgressions (see: Lance Armstrong), rationalizing them as nothing more than unavoidable symptoms and products of the system, yet without a requisite push to reform said system. Anyway, I digress.

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  5. The reason Lolo Jones has had to market herself to that degree (I have paid little attention to Gabby Douglas, so know nothing of her deeds or criticism) is due entirely to the woefully poor means of support in the sport. If it is tough for someone at Lolo's level to find income, imagine how it must be for the 6th best marathoner or the 4th best hammer thrower in the U.S. USATF gives the pro elite level of the sport an incredibly amateurish level of consideration (see: Fam's appeal to get in the '12 OT, for example). The powers that be have made it unfortunately rather difficult for full-time athletes to make a living and have laid the framework for athletes to have to pimp themselves, often to sponsors that want to take more from that athlete's image than they want to give to the sport or society. I could not list all of Lolo's sponsors, but I do know that I would rather not see someone like her affiliated with BP, P&G, and Mickey D's. One reason I do not follow Meb on twitter is because he has a habit of making too many of his tweets into marketing messages for his various sponsors. It seems like these athletes water-down who they are and what they are about to craft an image to serve as a pitchman (above being an athlete) and draw attention from the public. It came come across as stilted, manufactured, and uninspired. Just one more thought here, I would say that Lolo actually does receive plenty of support for who and what she really is and that the choice to focus on the small amount of criticism tends to amplify it above and beyond what it originally was. Critics will not go away by way of responding to their criticism (in fact, they usually criticize to get a response, to them it legitimizes their opinions) and they cannot be shouted-down (nor should they, in a free society). Instead, let them should their criticisms at a wall and they will drown in the sound of their own voices, they will get tired of throwing out weak criticism because fewer and fewer will feel challenged by it and thus will not challenge it. All Lolo really had to say, if she wanted to say something in response, is that she feels sorry for people who think that way and hopes they find something to feel good about in their lives.

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  6. Oh yeah, thanks for the stimulating thoughts, as always!

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  7. Whoops, sorry Drew, I completely missed these comments somehow.

    I think it's important to remember that athletes are innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, it seems to be really tough to actually prove athletes guilty, which means a lot of cheaters are getting away. And in that respect, I agree with you, we would benefit from scrutinizing evidence, and professional athletes definitely need to be careful with who they associate with. The Mark Block thing comes to mind. Also very upset with the fact that former dopers are coming back and testing clean, yet spent years training under doped up conditions. Just wrote about that in my 1500 post.

    Yeah, good track and field athletes often live below the poverty line because of the way the sport is set up, and that's a shame. The sponsorship thing is a whole 'nother can of worms though hah. Good point about Lolo having far more support than criticism. Though it kind of goes back to "Tell a girl she's beautiful a thousand times, and she still won't believe it. Tell a girl she's fat once, and she'll never forget it."

    Thanks for your comments, good stuff!

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  8. "I think it's important to remember that athletes are innocent until proven guilty."
    Indeed, though the perpetual quibble seems to be over what satisfies proof of guilt. Never mind that proof is routinely subverted for those with the right connections. Even our legal system, from which the sentiment is taken, is corrupt and preferential. With the new biological passport system, that sentiment is rightfully rendered moot in the arena of sport. Testing positive for a specific banned substance is not the holy grail of proof; pertinent levels of circumstantial evidence are proof enough. Ultimately, I think it is good to realize that 'innocent until proven guilty' has proven insufficient in terms of clean sport and a truly level playing field. I likely could have saved a bunch of keystrokes and simply linked to this, which neatly sums my view on pro sports and doping.

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