My sister has never cared much for sports. In fact, I can’t remember ever seeing her play an organized sport other than rec basketball — and that was when we were in elementary school. And yet, my sister loves the Olympics. Every two years, she organizes parties and pre-games around watching sports that for four years at a time drift entirely out of her consciousness. As a professional journalist, she revels in the press that comes with the events more than in the actual events. The Olympics would not be complete without the numerous human-interest stories about the otherwise unheard of athletes of unpopular sports, manipulating the emotions of viewers and turning athletes into national heroes.
As an adept news reader, my sister is able to parse between the narrative construction of the athletes’ profiles and the mundane lives they must live. She knows that we may wish to view young Gabby Douglas, the first African-American gold medalist in gymnastics, as a dedicated proponent of civil rights, breaking down unlikely boundaries in a sport dominated by wealthy white tweens and their older, also white, hauntingly pedophilic trainers. But Douglas is probably just a naturally flexible and hardworking 16-year-old who cares more about her niche sport than about her legacy. Most of the stories are done with marketing in mind — their authors hope to establish an emotional connection between the audience and the athletes that they can later manipulate to force viewers to invest in otherwise fairly boring sports. It’s a clever tool, but not the most genuine way to portray the games journalistically.
The reason I bring these stories up is because I am skeptical that the general public of journalistic neophytes is able to separate fact from fiction, or should I say fictitious fact, since these stories mostly consist of false narratives constructed out of true events. I assume that most viewers watch Michael Phelps and see him as an aquatic legend rather than simply as a swimmer. For that reason, I know that many were devastated when South African double amputee Oscar Pistorius failed to even qualify for the 400 meter final, given his remarkable backstory.
I know detractors may think I am trying to ruin one of the world’s few inherently positive bonding experiences. Human-interest stories make the Olympics bearable, they give us people to root for, and they spark interest in things like curling and synchronized diving that would otherwise not have an audience.
Be that as it may, the exaggerated narratives we construct around public figures, especially athletes who may possess no other virtue than being good at an elaborate game, have real consequences. Human-interest stories, ironically, create inhumane expectations that simplify the complexity of the world we live in.
Because of the unreal expectations we placed upon Michael Phelps, it came as such a shock when he was caught drinking and driving or smoking marijuana. Parents were outraged that they had to explain to their children that, yes, someone who spends countless hours training every day might want to take a load off and get high. They were even more outraged, I’m sure, that they had to explain that the people on their children’s posters are human beings, and therefore capable of making mistakes.
Last Friday, Lance Armstrong received a lifetime cycling ban from the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). The once iconic athlete who overcame testicular cancer and won seven Tour de Frances, all while promoting a highly successful non-profit, is now looked upon with disdain, since he was willing to bend the rules of the game by which he made his living. Perhaps the steroid-riddled cutthroat cheater is the real Armstrong and the positive everyday hero was a marketing ruse, or perhaps the heroism associated with his name became too much for even Armstrong to fill organically, and he was forced to take drastic measures to fill his own stretched-out bike shorts. Needless to say, many a parent was forced to explain to his or her child that the philanthropist who made those yellow bracelets was somehow also a no-good cheat.
Even though the next games aren’t till 2016, I assure you that there will be no shortage of human-interest stories creating larger than life myths about the most revered people in all spheres of public life. Already this year, I have read countless pieces about the Romneys’ struggle with Ann’s multiple sclerosis and the Paul Ryan’s trials after his father’s death. The narrative of Obama growing up with in single-parent household, unaware of his African roots, has been similarly overplayed. To be properly understood, human-interest stories demand that we see the world in shades of grey — that we understand that someone can be a good father and an awful politician, or a prolific figurehead and an awful womanizer. And frankly, grey seems beyond the spectrum of the notoriously under-informed American audience.