Just a few weeks ago, athletes from across the globe gathered in Tokyo to compete in the Summer Olympic Games. Despite the absence of fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the heat of competition was still palpable across satellite signals and oceans. As competitors exerted themselves to the max, the media followed along with an intense scrutiny: Commentators nitpicked routines and events down to the minutiae, increasing the audience’s understanding, but sometimes reducing athletes to a temporary wobble or inopportune twitch.
In Games past, particularly before the advent of social media, the glare on the athletes was significantly less harsh — inquisitive couch potatoes lacked the ability to Google the history of a sport or an athlete in a matter of seconds, and they were unable to quickly tap their fingers and compose critiques on events that wound up trending on Twitter or featured on Facebook. While the digital age has certainly increased engagement in the Olympics, not all of the audience interactions are positive. Because of the new collective consumption of news due to social media and the rise of clickbait and controversy as journalistic tactics, the Olympics have become a pressure test for athletes: either falter and face widespread criticism, or rise to the occasion and become a national icon.
In the wake of one of the most challenging years in recent history, athletes were forced to hunker down and adjust their training schedules to be ready for the 2021 Olympics. The stress of the delay was likely exacerbated by national media campaigns to get people excited about the Games. The “We are Team USA” campaign, for example, was part of a huge media push that featured notable American Olympians and Olympic hopefuls in a united front. On a surface level, this was a well-intentioned effort to get audiences hyped about Team USA. Beneath the commercials, interviews, and press appearances, however, this course of action treated athletes as expendable talent. What happens when an athlete is part of the Team USA campaign and then misses making the Olympic team? The vast majority of the time, they are cast aside by the same organizations that used them for photo-ops and testimonials just days prior, and are soon forgotten by the public, erased by seas of dialogue around shiny new Olympians who were not on any radar prior to the Games.
Unfortunately, the pressure and scrutiny only grow over the days of the Olympics. Even national heroes who easily made the team suddenly become tabloid fodder as millions of heads behind screens postulate about a less-than-expected performance.
Simone Biles, the darling of USA Gymnastics for the past half decade, was perhaps the most significant example of this phenomenon in Tokyo. Sadly, many of the fans who sang her praises for years became disgruntled when Simone, a human being, dealt with mental health struggles. The skewed portrayal of this situation in the media and the enormous expectations that Biles perform flawlessly certainly contributed to this outcome. Widely considered the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles was reduced to being a “quitter” who had a bad day and as someone who sought to pass the blame onto anything but herself.
In reality, Biles was a symbol for all athletes in Tokyo: someone who admitted that the pressure was real and resulted in feelings that, while inopportune, were too dangerous to ignore.
The general media, while exploitative and overbearing toward some athletes, also has a tendency to diminish the press presences of athletes who fail to fit the overarching narrative they seek to present to audiences. Although many nations like the United States do not have a fully state-sponsored media outlet, there is still subtle national influence on what gets coverage versus what gets overlooked. This phenomenon includes the media shifting the Olympic swimming schedule so that the finals could be streamed live in primetime instead of in the morning, but also more insidious and subtle choices for coverage. Naturally, this occurs, at least in part, because of institutional regulations about what is fair game at the Games.
The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Rule 50, formally introduced in 1975, bans all forms of protest at the Games, including on playing fields, podiums, in the Olympic Village, and at any official ceremonies that are part of the Olympics. The iconic image from the 1968 Olympics of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the podium to protest racial inequality may come to mind as the most notable example of dissent — and the two track and field athletes were clandestinely suspended and removed from the Olympic Village for their activism. These subtle suppression methods have remained in effect, and the media has slowly grown from ignorant to complicit in crafting an engaging, dramatic, entertaining storyline for the Olympics devoid of deeper conversations, no matter the extent to which athletes attempt to bring them to light.
The IOC, responding to the social upheaval and racial reckoning that has been occurring since 2020, did adjust Rule 50 slightly for the Tokyo Olympics, allowing for non-disruptive demonstrations prior to the start of athletes’ events. However, the media has a presence in how widely viewed these protests are: Coverage of an event typically begins right at its start rather than in the moments before in which demonstrations are allowed.
In the women’s shot put event, United States thrower Raven Saunders crossed her arms in an X on the podium while accepting her silver medal, representing the “intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet,” she said. Saunders, despite obtaining a silver medal in her event and making a statement on the podium, received a mere fraction of the attention that Biles did in Tokyo. While Saunders was not sanctioned for her actions on the podium by the International or United States Olympic Committees (the IOC decided to suspend their investigation after news that Saunders’ mother had passed away during the Games came to light), she was also unable to cause a major stir. Of course, she was interviewed and lauded by many for her achievements, but her call to action was a whisper drowned out in the media storm that forced viewers to focus on the greater storyline: the preset plan that chronicled the saga of Suni Lee, the breakdown of Biles, the legacy of Ledecky, the ferocity of Felix, the might of Mikulak, and the dominance of Dressel.
Plots for the Olympics are crafted over the months leading up to the Games, building off the momenta established at Trials and hype garnered through media campaigns like We are Team USA. This dystopian concept of preordained Olympic viewership for the purposes of national unity may be extreme, but it is present. It’s hard to deny the media’s role in how athletes are perceived and how much pressure this puts on the athletes to perform.