Sixteen-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen put in an extraordinary performance. Her achievement was immediately questioned by US swim coach John Leonard, who raised the spectre of drug use.
With remarkable aplomb, Ye faced a clamouring pack of some 300 journalists, one of whom asked her directly, are you on drugs? Her father became involved. This was an example of the Western media’s arrogance and suspicion of Chinese people, he claimed. Chinese media took the accusations as an example of anti-China bias, and how the media spreads the unfriendliness of the West. “If Ye were an American the tone would be different in Western media,” the Chinese claimed.
Meanwhile, sports body FINA declared Ye Shiwen has been rigorously tested for drug use, has fulfilled all testing requirements for the last twelve moths, and is clean.
It isn’t only Chinese swimmers who attract the attention of a media set on making mischief for the women and men who make it to the Olympics. The fabricated scandal over Leisel Jones’ fitness is a fine example of how a pack behaves when it has nothing much better to do and craves our attention.
Then there was Emily Seebohm’s emotional reaction when she failed to win the gold medal in her swim race. It was gold for the media. So much more for them to mine than if she’d just won the damn medal.
Not only do Olympians have to be exceptional at their sport, they also have to negotiate a media that adores them when they achieve and trashes them if they come second, because apparently coming first is the only thing that counts.
A dysfunctional relationship has evolved between spectators, media and Olympians. Somewhere along the line, it has become the norm to expect gold and behave with punitive contempt towards the athlete when the expectation isn’t fulfilled. No wonder Seebohm felt she’d let everybody down. The reality is, she had let down a dysfunctional audience for whom winning means everything, while the achievement of representing the country in the first place, and winning any medal at all, counts for far less than nothing.
This is not Seebohm’s fault. She, like all the Olympians, is the figure upon whom the couch-bound audience and its slavering media project all the hopes and dreams they are incapable of fulfilling in their own lives. When their idols fail them, they turn feral and savage them. I’d challenge any one of those miserably carping, critical voices to test themselves in their own chosen field to the extremes these young Olympians must.
The attitude of many spectators and much of the media to Olympic athletes strikes me as infantile. “We want our country to be a country that wins lots of gold and if you don’t do that for us we’ll hate on you.” This nationalistic attitude, in which the individual gains a sense of self-worth and identity through the achievements of his or her country’s elite athletes, is dysfunctional. We all have a responsibility to achieve our own personal best in our lives, not to project that onto others to do it for us.
I’m not very interested in sport, but I do have a huge admiration and respect for the athletes who make it to the Olympics. Somewhere along the way we’ve stopped acknowledging that as an achievement in itself and giving credit where credit is due. I don’t believe the Olympics is all about winning gold. It’s very sad that it has come to this, saddest of all for those women and men who have the determination and spirit to get themselves to that level of competition.