It’s the Olympics! That quadrennial celebration of outstanding athleticism, government corruption, hastily-erected construction projects that will never be used again, and staggering public debt for the host city. Hooray!
All those issues aside, I’m noticing another fascinating aspect of the Olympics. It’s a great snapshot of where media culture is around the world.
This is particularly useful in an age of social media, which by its very nature encourages us to overwhelmingly live within our own little echo chambers of like-minded people. It’s easy to miss the fact that other people have different baseline assumptions and biases when you don’t intersect with those people at all in the news that you consume and the social interactions that you engage in.
For instance, take this headline:
Let me give a bit of background. The story is covering two different swimming races, both fairly remarkable and newsworthy in their own right. The Men’s 100m butterfly was won by Joseph Schooling, which gave Singapore their first-ever Olympic gold. There was also an extraordinary three-way tie for second place between Michael Phelps (USA), Chad le Clos (South Africa), and Laszlo Cseh (Hungary). Over in the Women’s 800 freestyle, Katie Ledecky (USA) beat her own World Record by two seconds, and the previous Olympic record by 14 seconds. She was 12 seconds clear of the second-place swimmer when she finished the race. It was the most sensational individual performance of the entire swimming section.
So why does Katie Ledecky get relegated to the sub-heading? Why are the two most interesting features of the Mens 100m butterfly (Singapore’s first gold and a three-way tie for silver) not even mentioned in the headline? Basically, this headline suggests that “Michael Phelps swam in a race yesterday” is automatically more important than anything else. ¹
I’m not knocking Phelps, by the way. He’s an incredible swimmer and by all accounts a pretty great guy, and my point isn’t about the athletic performances as much as it is about how we comment on them and understand them from our own worldviews.
Here’s another instance, from over in the tennis. Andy Murray won the men’s singles title for the second time in a row, and was interviewed by the BBC’s John Inverdale, who congratulated him on being “the first person ever to win two Olympic gold medals”. Murray was quick to point out that women are people too, responding, “I think Venus and Serena won about four each.”
If this were a couple of isolated incidents, they might be insignificant. Depending on your social crowd, you may have thought that we, as a society were more equitable at recognising excellence. But the Olympics, where most of the events are competed equally by men and women, is a great opportunity to actually test that idea, and the results are not encouraging. There is widespread, systemic down-playing or outright ignoring of female achievement in the media.
Now, on the one hand, you could dismiss this as merely showing the biases and mindset of journalists and editors. But the mainstream media craft their messages in the terms which will most resonate with their readership, who collectively represent the majority of society. So it’s valid to infer something about society at large from the way that media narratives are constructed.
Here’s another interesting trend. The biggest shock of the track events so far came in the Men’s 400m race, which was won by Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa. There were two things that made it remarkable. Firstly, he won it from Lane 8, the lowest-seeded position. There had never before been a gold medallist from Lane 8 in the 400m. Secondly, in the course of winning the race, he smashed Michael Johnson’s world record, which had been unassailable for 17 years. So it was a pretty huge achievement.
Here’s a photo of van Niekerk immediately after the race:
The ABC News report of the race captioned that picture, “Wayde van Niekerk stops to compose himself after smashing the world record in Rio.” But he’s not “composing himself”. He’s praying. He’s taking a moment at the end of the greatest race of his life to acknowledge and give thanks to God. So why does the writer feel unable to say that?
Again, this is not an isolated instance. The other big story from the same day was Usain Bolt winning gold in the Men’s 100m for the third consecutive Olympics, another spectacular achievement from perhaps the greatest sprinter of all time. As he does every time he runs, Bolt paused before walking onto the track to say a quick prayer. As he does every time he runs, he knelt down for a second after the race to give thanks to God. And, as always, this went without comment from the media. The same media who are eager to draw attention to every quirk of an athlete’s particular brand of paleo/vegan/ovo-lacto-pescatarian diet, who obsess about any other little pre-game or post-game ritual, fall silent and look around awkwardly as they let these little religious moments pass.
Personally, I find it interesting that the individuals who have proved themselves faster, stronger, and greater than anyone else in the world, are so often driven immediately to acknowledge true Greatness. But it seems hard for paid talking heads to talk about this most human of things, something that billions of people around the world do every day.
Pause. Forget self. Focus on God.
¹ I should clarify that Paul Newberry of the Associated Press didn’t write that headline, it was drummed up by the Sports Editor at the Colorado newspaper which ran the AP story. Newberry’s article text was mostly focussed on Schooling’s win; he also wrote a separate article focussed on Ledecky’s race.