With the Olympics drawing to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about their connection to human-interest journalism and the role it plays in the lives of the profiled athletes. Historian Charles Ponce de Leon suggests that human-interest and celebrity journalism plays two roles. First, features pieces and profiles work to reinforce and model certain character traits and values championed by the middle class. These pieces offer instruction and inspiration for future success promoting certain behaviors, such as hard work, determination, and self-discipline. At the same time, human-interest pieces also provide an inside portrait of celebrity lives that show their complexities and realities. Reporting on scandals, failures, and flaws of the famous keeps them relatable and real.
During the Olympics most of these pieces fall into the first category. The 2012 London Olympics had its share of inspiring and uplifting stories. Athletes like Gabby Douglas, Missy Franklin, David Rudisha, and Kirani James became champions and introduced themselves to the world. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt continued their narrative of dominance boosting their legacies as all-time greats. Oscar Pistorius and Manteo Mitchell also endeared themselves with inspiring tales of perseverance. There was, however, one story about Lolo Jones that fit more into the second category.
Human-interest pieces are powerful and any one of these stories is worthy of close analysis. The critical New York Times story about Lolo Jones, however, helps us expose the ambiguous and problematic nature of celebrity journalism. Despite their pandering, writers are often “eager to appear responsible and connect their work to the serious business that engaged other journalists — and made the press look good to civic leader and big advertisers” (272). The Times piece is undoubtedly an example of this.
But the Times pieces is also more than that. As Ponce de Leon reminds us, “while the press offered celebrities a vehicle for realizing their ambition, the ride was not free, and it sometimes involved detours that made the life of celebrities more difficult” (105). Many have derided the Times piece as overly critical and even harsh — sentiments that I tend to agree with — but the article also exposes some real truths. The writer is critical of Jones’ self-promotion and marketing despite her limited success, especially given the limited spotlight give to her sport. Yet, a closer look at both the nature of human-interest journalism and the careers of successful Olympics examples reveals that this is quite normal and has become the industry standard.
In my scholarship I argue that sports provide a middle ground for the negotiation of complex power dynamics and representation. While my research focuses on Native American athletes, the same is true for women and other minorities. Athletes will often participate in self-deprecating behavior that capitalizes on their ‘difference’ and ‘appeal’ whether is be cultural, racial, or sexual. I’ve argued that by over-emphasizing these traits and playing them up, athletes often benefit and are elevated to new heights (both economically and publicly) that allows them to alter and challenge previous representations and advocate for change. To be sure, there is a delicate balance because power is unequal and the press often serves as a gatekeeper.
Jones falls into this middle ground and some argue that harsh criticism goes with the territory. They point out that there are scores of athletes who have not posed semi-nude nor proclaimed their virginity. These athletes, they submit, have gone on to be just as, if not more, successful than Jones, because they were not subject to the media’s gaze. While these are all valid points, they ignore the complexities and realities of Olympics sports and dismiss the larger work Jones is trying to do. Likewise, they judge her by a flawed double standard(s).
Like it or not, journalists are a part of the marketing system of athletes. This is particularly true for Olympians. This excellent study illustrates the limited income of track and field athletes:
Approximately 50% of our athletes who rank in the top 10 in the USA in their event make less than $15,000 annually from the sport (sponsorship, grants, prize money, etc.) and approximately 20% of our athletes in top 10 in the USA in their event make more than $50,000 annually.
Jones is the American record holder for the indoor 60m hurdles and won three NCAA and two World Championships in the event (note: the 60m hurdles is not an outdoor event contested at the Olympics. The 100m hurdles, which she ran at the Olympics, is not her primary event.). This success has likely propelled her into the higher income levels, but so has the media attention. It has made her a valuable spokesperson for companies.
This post is not intended to be a line-by-line defense of Lolo Jones. My larger point is that income is important to Jones, and other Olympic athletes, and human-interest journalism is an essential element of creating opportunities to earn that income. Once that income is earned, it is up to the athletes if and how they use it. While advocacy has become common, it is not always the chosen path (for a variety of reasons that I wont get into here). Threats and challenges to an athlete’s image, warranted or not, threaten their livelihood. Unlike professional athletes in major sports, the window for Olympic athletes to establish themselves and harness their own economic power is remarkably small.
Billy Mills, the 1964 Olympic 10,000m champion, is a good example of this. He only competed in one Olympics. Prior to the Games he was largely unknown. His memorable race launched him into the media spotlight. In the days and months following his achievement, Mills story captivated and inspired the country. He understood the fleeting nature of his fame and the opportunity it presented. Explaining his approach to creating Running Brave, a film about his life, Mills said:
I couldn’t allow myself to be taken advantage of economically. So I also pursued it as a business venture. The way I would benefit would not be in profits from the movie, but in ways I could market myself the rest of my life.
It is apparent from the New York Times article on Lolo Jones, journalists and fans alike are still not comfortable with these economic realities. Within USATF and the IAAF, the governing bodies of track and field, debates have been raging about the role of corporate sponsorship. Unlike cyclists and NASCAR drivers whose apparel are checkered with logos and sponsors, track and field athletes are expressly prohibited from sponsorship on their uniforms. USATF and the Olympics continue an antiquated obsession with amateurism that reeks of late-nineteenth century Victorianism. While amateurism has mostly evaporated from the Olympics, nostalgia remains. Amateurism embodies the alleged purity and nobility of pursuing sports for their own sake. In reality, it is a classist and greedy system that benefits governing bodies and meet organizers over athletes and inhibits the development of talented athletes.
Amateurism is implicit in most of the Olympic human-interest pieces. Athletes, we are told, sacrifice to pursue their dreams and love of sport. That they often come from impoverished background and struggle to maintain an adequate standard of living is a part of their charm and makes their success all the sweeter. They justify the mega endorsement deals that athletes sign as the reward for their years of toil. Unless, like Jones, they fail to achieve, then they are sell-outs and opportunists.
Mills found balance in his life. He managed his identity and transformed himself into a national brand. While he continues to rely on human-interest pieces to remind new generations of his story and extend his resonance, it is done on his terms. Or is it? Because Mills uses his wealth and fame for what the media decrees as “good” — raising money for Native American causes and inspiring youth — in a non-threatening way, perhaps they are willing complicit in helping him. It’s difficult to truly ever know, but that’s the nature of the sporting middle ground, and hegemony.