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5, 10

The other night, I spent about 90 seconds watching Michael Phelps adjust his private parts. In my feed earlier today, I was greeted with a post that collected all of the “best” distorted faces made by Olympic divers. I’ve seen more people cry in the last week than in the four years previous combined.

Did you see that vaulter bust his leg? Gruesome.

This is the price Olympic athletes, all famous athletes in any sport, pay for their prowess. The constant and ever-present gaze allowed by today’s technology: incredibly fast frame rates, countless pixels delivered to each square inch of my 32-inch television (we’re a modest household), seemingly endless zoom.

Add audio to that, and the access demanded by NBC, and we’re suddenly right there amongst the gymnasts as they greet each other after performances. We hear their inter- and intra-team banter. The condolences from their coaches and the admonishments.

In fact, just after Dutch gymnast Sanne Wevers put up a gold-medal-winning score in the balance beam, cameras zoomed in on a notebook in which she was writing. Regardless whether it was a "diary" as one announcer insisted, or merely a vehicle for calculating her score to assure the judges treated her fairly, is there any reason why viewers should have entry to the woman's personal thoughts and strategies written in her personal notebook? Let's err on the side of not showing the personal notations, maybe?

In the National Football League, where they have brilliant mic’d up segments (I’m partial to Julian Edelman’s segment), they also have clearly set boundaries, mostly to keep any sort of tactical information away from opponents. It’s just a bunch of yee-haws and such. Entertaining, but edited to avoid anything too revealing. In the National Basketball Association, there are rules around how much of the coaches’ huddles you get to watch, for similar competitive reasons.

Why do we draw lines to preserve a competitive edge, but rarely to preserve someone’s humanity?

As I watch these women and men be crippled by disappointment, watch Phelps’ mean mug get turned into a meme for everyone’s enjoyment, watch adjusted wedgie after adjusted wedgie, I can’t help but feel how less human these people seem. They become characters, constructions, abstractions.

Do these athletes have any control over how much of their personal information is released to the world about their family lives, their brothers and sisters, their significant others? When the Daily Beast outs athletes with its Grindr stunt, the world condemns them, and they pull the piece down and apologize, but have they truly gone farther than taking an athlete’s heaving sobs and capturing and repackaging them for entertainment and posterity? It seems strange to me that the Daily Beast article was roundly condemned, but no one bats an eye at another sexy story, about how a hook-up split up a Brazilian diving team. Sure, it's news that the team split up. Do I really need the name of the man with whom one of them was having sex? What's that got to do with anything?

Or what about the new feature where NBC gives us access to the “call room,” where athletes wait for their events to start? This has given us much great media fodder, including Lilly King mocking fellow swimmer Yulia Efimova and the Phelps meme, but, as Katie Baker at the Ringer notes, King didn’t even know she was being filmed when she started her international “incident.”

Don’t Olympic athletes have the right to a private space where they can mock their rivals behind their backs when amongst friends and teammates?

Sure, this kind of access gives us wonderful titillation at the moment, but the end result will eventually be a more-boring Olympics. More boring athletics in general.

Already, we’ve seen much of the flair go out of the NFL and Major League Baseball because of the constant glare. Act too far outside of the pre-approved norm and athletes are subjected to righteous scorn from the online moral police. So, they toe the line. We get fewer end zone celebrations. Fewer bat flips.

Here’s how bat flipper Jose Bautista describes it, actually:

format_quoteAfter the game, some of the backlash from small sections of the media took on a familiar tone. I’ve heard this before.

“Disrespectful, mocking, showboating.”

One MLB Network analyst went as far as questioning my “character” and my “leadership.”

Were these same opinions expressed when Carlton Fisk “waved” his home run fair in ’75? Or when Joe Carter jumped around the bases in ’93? When I was growing up and I watched iconic moments like those, I was so caught up in the emotion that I got chills. I wasn’t thinking about the implications. I was fully immersed in the moment and enjoying it. I loved Cal Ripken Jr. for his poise and control. But I also admired Reggie Jackson for showing his passion and flair.

Those moments are spontaneous. They’re human. And they’re a whole lot of fun.

There’s that word again: human.

Soon, now that athletes are aware of the constant glare even in the call room, the mean mugs will go away. So, too, the mocking. Already, the celebrations are less spontaneous and more planned. This year, the women’s gymnastics team told the media they weren’t allowed to “name” them, and that they’d picked out a name for themselves. The first thing they did upon clinching gold was to run to the cameras and announce they were “The Final Five.”

Great for them for understanding their environment and taking control of it. That’s the essence of privacy: Controlling your own information, right down to the name.

But I bet Aly Raisman was less than pleased that the camera caught her breathing out a choice expletive as she waited for her score in the individual floor exercise finals. WTF, indeed.

Clearly, global society will sort out where the line should be in terms of access and broadcast. People will take to social media and decry when things go too far. But does NBC have anyone on staff tasked with debating the ethical considerations of what they’re doing so they can maybe head that moment off at the pass? Is there a member of the privacy team that ever interacts with the editorial decision-makers?

I’m just not sure we spend enough time thinking of these athletes as human beings, as we’re reveling in the human foibles and heroics that make them cover models for People magazines and Wheaties boxes.

Personally, I feel like I know too much. I’ve seen too much. Let’s give these folks a break now and then, so they’re not forced to cover themselves with towels or race down runways to grieve or be angry or be joyous without the cameras broadcasting and recording it.

There are plenty of actual sports events, surely, plenty of competition, to fill up air time. 


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  • comment Amy Sherwood • Aug 17, 2016
    One could substitute the word politician for athlete (though some might argue less human I suppose) as they too live under a microscope.  So often we witness political theater and unauthentic robots just saying things that will please us.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if not every single word was used for a gotcha moments and instead we had *real* policy discussions.  Long live the pundits .
  • comment Kim Smouter • Aug 18, 2016
    Really great piece, Sam. I can only but agree with everything you've written there. I am not sure the coverage has been quite that detailed here in Europe, but I could be wrong in certain countries but it is certainly food for thought for all those covering these global sports events.
  • comment Arturo Cuellar • Aug 18, 2016
    Sam, Great article. I believe it is absolutely relevant in Latin America. It would be great if it could be translated and published by IAPP in Spanish also.