Backlash at the Olympics: Is the Media the Only One to Blame?

Eric SamulskiCorrespondent IAugust 9, 2012

In a recent NY Times article, Lolo Jones was unfairly compared to Anna Kournikova, suggesting she is only famous for her looks.
In a recent NY Times article, Lolo Jones was unfairly compared to Anna Kournikova, suggesting she is only famous for her looks.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Recently the media has come under an enormous amount of scrutiny for seemingly belittling the achievements of American female Olympians. Despite another Olympics filled with successful performances by American females, the attention seems to have drifted off of their achievements and onto their physical appearances. While the Internet has been buzzing with criticism of the national media, I wonder if we're directing our criticism at the right people.

I'll start off by saying that there have been certain stories published by media affiliates that are asinine and beyond disrespectful. For starters, the New York Times column that compared U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones to former tennis pro Anna Kournikova showed no tact and even less intelligence.

While Kournikova never won any major tournaments, Lolo Jones is currently the American indoor record holder in the 110-meter hurdles and a two-time world champion. The only thing she has in common with Kournikova is that they are both marketed by the media to the American public as attractive female athletes. Lolo Jones backs up the attention with results. Being the fourth best hurdler in the world, as she proved this week, is nothing to scoff at.

While the report about Lolo Jones was the most egregious error made by the media in recent days, the fault for the story cannot entirely be lumped onto the newspapers and reporters.

Yes, the media often takes small moments and spins them into stories that will attract attention, oftentimes stories that have no credible link to reality. However, by now athletes need to be aware of this tendency and be careful of the things they say when a microphone is put in front of them.

Jones' teammates, Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells, did her no favors in this regard.

After the race, Harper alluded, rather obviously, to her dislike of Jones' media attention by stating that after her gold medal in 2008, she was pushed aside "because [the media] favorite didn't win...but you gotta respect it a little bit now." Kellie Wells, this year's bronze medalist, was more pointed about Jones' failure to reach the podium, claiming that "on the podium tonight, the three girls that earned their spot and got their medals and they worked hard and did what they needed to do, prevailed, and that's all that really needs to be said" (h/t Business Insider).

Harper's response to Well's comment was a simple: BOOM! Just like that. Regardless of how the media chooses to spin those comments, anybody who has graduated middle school and high school knows a catty, behind the back takedown when they hear one.

While the media's criticism that Jones is only famous for her looks is baseless, and hypocritical since they created the fame in the first place, Wells' comment, and Harper's reaction, show an obvious lack of respect for their teammate.

With those type of comments voluntarily being offered up, it becomes easier for the media to create a story suggesting that Jones was not deserving of the attention. Heck, her own teammates said the same thing, and they are supposed to support each other. It certainly doesn't excuse the media criticism directed at Jones, but if it's going to stop, the athletes need to stop making the media's job easier.

When I stated earlier that Jones' story was the most egregious error by the media, I didn't mean that the other stories that have gained traction are any less ridiculous; I simply meant that they aren't necessarily the fault of the media.

Gabby Douglas' recent gold medal win was upstaged by comments about her hair being unkempt; a comment that created a stir because it not only took away from her achievement, but also harkened back to Don Imus' suggestion years ago that the Rutgers women's basketball team was filled with "nappy headed hoes" (h/t CBS).However, pinning the blame for the Douglas comments on the media is overly simplifying the matter. The comments were made by the American public.

The story was first brought to light when Twitter posts were made suggesting that Douglas' hair was unsuitable for the Olympics and that fellow black athletes should help teach her how to manage it. The comments may have been ludicrous, but they were not made by the media. They were made by American people who have taken our growing forms of social media as an excuse to criticize from behind a keyboard.

It's not news to anybody to say that we, as a country, have become far more critical since the invention of the Internet and Twitter. Now that we have an audience at our fingertips, we each feel as though we have a right to say what we feel whenever we want.

I understand that this seems hypocritical coming in the form of an Internet article, but my point is simply that if we are abusing the right to post our thoughts, the reaction can't be to bash the media. The media can only create this story if we are disrespectful and crass enough to post the comment in the first place.

The Gabby Douglas story doesn't come down to sexist members of the media; it's the fault of members of an increasingly entitled public who feel the need to criticize everything in 140 characters or less.

However, our response to these criticisms and stories has enabled them to continue to gain traction. If we weren't so quick to quote anybody and respond in outrage, there wouldn't be as many stories to shine a light on.

Take the recent comment made about Olympic weightlifter Holley Mangold. During her competition, as she attempted to clean and jerk close to 300 pounds (which means lifting a barbell loaded down with weight from the floor to your chin and then pushing it above your head so that your arms are fully extended) a commentator stated that Mangold was "a beast." Immediately the media AND general public were bashing the comment as a criticism of Mangold's weight.

To me, it wasn't the comment that created the fervor, but the over-simplified reaction to it that seemed as if it was looking to create controversy.

The term "beast" has been used to describe athletes for years and has become an increasingly common term to suggest when an athlete has just done something incredible. When LeBron James dunks over a defender, we say he "beasted him." If Albert Pujols hits a ball 450 feet, we comment that he's a "beast." It has nothing to do with size or weight; it has everything to do with the impressive nature of the feat performed.

So when the commentator called Mangold a beast, it's unfair to simply assume he was referring to weight. Isn't it just as easy to assume that he was commenting on a human being lifting 300 pounds over her head? I've trained with athletes who are in incredible shape who could never even come close to that kind of feat.

If Mangold were a male athlete, nobody would have linked the comment to weight, but because she is female, we immediately started spinning the comment and becoming offended. It was our reaction to the comment that caused the controversy. At times, it even seems like we, the media and the general public, are looking to be offended by certain statements.

If we continue to criticize commentators for using certain expressions during female competitions that they use regularly during male competitions, how can we hope for our female athletes to be treated and viewed as equals? Yes, I understand that in some cases the gender bias from commentators is obvious, but we shouldn't be searching for examples of this. It doesn't help anybody.

In the end, it's easy to blame the media for every unfair or baseless criticism that is brought to our attention, but sometimes the easy answer isn't always the right one. These types of stories have been circulating for enough years now that we should know how they get started. We need to understand that uneducated tweets and disrespectful comments made to the media will always cause a stir.

If we want to stop reading these stories in the paper, then we need to stop giving them reason to be published or giving every small story the massive amount of attention that the media is dying for.

We're only feeding the very thing we are trying to destroy.