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Arts & Entertainment

Olympic athletes in the limelight, and the tabloids

The members U.S. Olympic girls gymnastics team have received a lot of tabloid attention, both positive and negative.
The members U.S. Olympic girls gymnastics team have received a lot of tabloid attention, both positive and negative.
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Throughout these 2012 Olympic Games, we’ve heard many stories, stories griping about NBC’s coverage, stories of hope and praise for those athletes who’ve overcome adversity to compete, and stories of controversy surrounding possible acts of cheating.

But there has also been a plethora of stories with a very tabloid-esque spin. Anything from Ryan Lochte’s intelligence and Gabby Douglas’ family finances, to Lolo Jones’ media prowess and McKayla Maroney’s on-camera attitude has been fodder for the media.

Associate Professor of Marketing at University of Delaware's Alfred Lerner College of Business & Economics, John Antil says the celebrity-like gossip is, “very unfortunate and unfair,” but, “to be expected,” when athletes enter into the public eye.

“It’s human nature to want to know more about a person — what are they really like?” he said. Antil explained that information regarding many athletes can help humanize them and flesh out their personalities for fans and spectators. For example, the Douglas families’ finances were able to paint a picture of a mother who made endless sacrifices for her daughter, highlighting the heavy price tag on the Olympic dream.

“It’s certainly not relevant except it’s part of the background story of how difficult it can be for an athlete to reach that level of expertise,” Antil said.

Director for the International Centre for Olympic Studies at Western University in Ontario Canada, Janice Forsyth, says there are two major reasons we see athletes making the tabloids: an increasing interest in athletes and the advent of social media.

“What we see with the women is a very long history of feminization or sexualization of female sports,” Forsyth said. “With female athletes it’s important that they look good first and they be good second. … None of this is new, but what is new is the spin social media is putting on it and it can go viral as it did with Lolo Jones.”

Listeners online and on the phones seemed fairly split on whether or not athletes were fair game when it came to celebrity-like gossip.

Online, netizen Matt wrote in, saying, “I think the media should back the hell off … There is a difference from wanting to know more about someone and shredding them apart for page views.”

But on the phones, John from Newport, disagreed saying in the end, these athletes were entertainers and needed to put themselves in the spotlight to profit off their Olympic fame.

“How many of us remember [Olympic skier] Lindsey Vaughn? She and all of these other women need to commoditize themselves,” John said. “As an athlete aspiring to make a National team, I know I have a very limited window of time to make money … because athletes are all ultimately forgotten. There are only so many Subway commercials.”

In the end, it can be argued that it boils down to money, to potential sponsorships, and to a life and career post-Olympics. Antil said the Olympics is “the only shot” for many athletes and a little shameless self promotion, a la Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, is OK if done tactfully and sparingly.

Forsyth too said athletes, like Lolo Jones, can create a public image in pursuit of a career post-Olympics. She pointed out that many athletes have managers and agents, and she can’t blame them for trying to make more money because, ultimately, they are “workers in the [Olympic] industry.”

“I’d love to agree … the Olympic games should be about the spirit of sport, but when you take a look at the industry itself, what you see is a very different picture,” Forsyth said. “This is where Lolo Jones is getting caught up — athletes too want a piece of the pie and they’re recognizing more how much the Olympic industry makes and recognizing how little they make in comparison.”

Weigh In:

But should it be? How far is too far when it comes to the coverage of these celebrity athletes? And is the phenomenon something to be expected or condemned?


John Antil, Associate Professor of Marketing, University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business & Economics

Janice Forsyth, PhD, Director, International Centre for Olympic Studies at Western University in Ontario Canada