It was suggested many times that defending gold medalist Missy May Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings may not manage to bring it home again because of aging. They just had birthdays, turning 34 and 35. Even after they won, media continued to belittle the strength of their win asking them if being older had slowed them down and made it harder. Didn’t they feel challenged because they were older? Correct me if I’m wrong. They did just win the gold, right? Enough already! I get that the shelf life of an athlete is counted in dog years, but when winners compete, they do it in whatever body they have. As Tim Gunn would say, they make it work, and they win. Sometimes, when women do make it work, that is not to their advantage either, being considered too beautiful and ultimately, a distraction. And trust me, it’s more than a LoLo thing. One male commentator reported that he had a hard time keeping up with the beach volleyball match when Brazil was playing claiming, and I quote, “sensory overload.” The reply from the other commentator? “I’ll bet.”
If such defeatist language regarding age and sex were not enough, there are all the other insulting, patronizing, and just awkward things that have been said in the past two weeks. This has been amplified by a series of World Olympic Committee decisions and wildcard invitations to the games. Take for example the only woman of Afghanistan to compete in any event, Tahmina Kohistani. She was identified as “other” when she hit the blocks of the track for her event, head covering and all. Before the race even began, it was made clear to the listening audience that she was just there symbolically and not to be taken seriously.
The same for Olympic rower, Hamadou Djibo Issaka of Niger, a country that has no access to open water, just began his rowing three months ago and was sent to the Olympic stage to stand before the world and represent his country. In the day’s recap, they emphasized how he was dead last, how he struggled, how he probably wouldn’t have even crossed the finish line had it not been for the encouraging British crowd cheering him on. And then they announced that he had come in a whole 100 seconds after the winner, and how he just barely made it out on the water. Immediately, I thought to myself, “He only came in a minute after the winner who has been doing this for years? And only 60 seconds after the last professional competitor? What were they doing wrong?” From the commentator’s point of view, it was all part of a faux inspired moment. That segment has come on several times through different news stations, and never once did I hear it mentioned that with the proper training, this guy could actually become good at this. Because, that is not the point. They are practically the butt of an inside marketing joke. They have been discussed on this world stage as a backdrop, not a true success story.
Except, it happens sometimes organically. The “underdog” occasionally has its day. The one with all the visible limitations who has every card stacked against him comes out on the bright side, even in the midst of a subjective firestorm of wrought comments. Oscar Pistorius of South Africa is a prime example. A double amputee since childhood, Pistorius competed in the Special Olympics in 2008, but advocated for more. He had his chance this year, with a special approval. Commentators dug in deep, ranging from low-key addressing him as an out-matched disabled guy to a competitor with an unfair advantage due to the bounce of his prosthetic running legs. Still, suggesting that he was lucky to get this far and would probably loose, they reminded all of us loyal viewers that it was just a miracle to see him compete at all. And when he did NOT come in dead last, when he advanced instead of heavily favored and able-bodied runners, they retracted a bit of the dismissive tone and jumped on the historical band wagon.
Among some incredible and triumphant moments, the use of tremendously disappointing and culturally insensitive language for an international competition of this magnitude has tried to dim the lights on some of the world’s athletic champions. As a facilitator and consultant for diversity training and marketing, I encourage NBC news and sports commentators to participate in a training on the subjects of ablest, ageist, nationalist, gender discriminatory and offensive language before they head to Brazil. I do not wish to be subjected to such tasteless buffoonery in South America.
If you found yourself cheering for an underdog, who was it and why? Did you ever feel the urge to silence the commentators during the Olympics? What was your WTF moment?