The Olympics (and media) needs to evolve and stop shaming athletes

I admire the athletic giftedness on display at the Rio Olympics and, like many millions of viewers I imagine, I find myself especially inspired by the back-stories of young people so dedicated to honing their skills in favoured sports.

I also think of the learning ‘bubble’ for each athlete and how it must be uniquely sophisticated, at any time an interface of emotions twining with experience, instruction, aspiration and self-regulation melded by intense training.

Today, each athlete also receives special training in dealing with media and for good reason; for just as quick as an athlete can experience success or fall short of their expectations, the media pounces and commandeers the feelings that any athlete, or audience member, might be experiencing. Most galling of all in such shape-shifting commentary is the propensity of media to directly or indirectly shame athletes who fall short, something I experience in almost every broadcast.

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Hey, Olympics Media: Stop the toxic shaming of athletes who fall short of finishing first, second or third.

In this judgement, media appears to have the full backing of the Olympics juggernaut that continues to prioritize the virtues of extreme competition. Yes, the Olympics is a traditional competition, and it’s also a spectacle like none other. The grand-daddy show that has become so super-hyped and reified – mainly by its kissing cousins, mainstream media and corporate advertisers – that it has taken on the characteristics of a Category 5 superstorm. To its credit, the Olympics has made some attempts to evolve and embrace other facets of society, and their efforts to these ends, such as staging the Paralympics, are to be commended.

But the Olympics can evolve further, and certainly do much more to broaden the acceptance of ‘winning’ beyond just achieving a first, second or third placement in a singular event. It can  do more to recognize and celebrate all efforts – competitive and collaborative. And, for the record, progressive societies worldwide increasingly prioritize the value of collaborating over who wins, places and shows in any given competition.

And the Olympics needs to take a firmer grip on controlling the message being sent by its media partners that shame athletes who don’t meet media expectations of performance.

There’s no ‘sportsmanship’ in such judgement, just a glaring distaste from which wafts the fetid reek of so much tabloid trash. It’s a huge turnoff for many people, myself included, though the damage from this toxic commentary doesn’t end there. When this message is absorbed by children and young people they grok its meaning: fail to meet someone else’s (narrow) expectations and your worth will be diminished, from which which a lesson will also be clear:  the best strategy is to hide out and not make any effort at all. And who can blame them.

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