Media spotlight takes its toll on Gabby Douglas, Lolo Jones

The Washington Post | Chicago Tribune | Today
“It took just four days to suck all the vibrancy out of Douglas,” writes the Post’s Sally Jenkins about Gabby Douglas, who went from a gold medal performance last week to slipping off the balance beam on Tuesday. The competition itself was exhausting, but so were all the questions from the media about being a black gymnast:

Douglas genuinely doesn’t see color — it’s not her first thought. Yet she was drilled incessantly with questions about being a woman of color in gymnastics. How can she get more African American children to pay attention to gymnastics, she was asked? “I can’t control that,” she said tonelessly.

But those questions aren’t going to stop anytime soon because race is part of Douglas’ marketability, as the Chicago Tribune’s Diane Pucin reports:

“There’s no doubt Gabby has become a star,” [agent Sheryl] Shade said Tuesday. “She appeals to everyone — to the moms who take their little girls to the gym, to the little girls who want to be like her, to the African-American community. Everyone is relating to Gabby.” …

“Thousands and thousands of African-American kids are going to go into gymnastics because of her, because they will want to be the new Gabby Douglas,” [gymnastics coach Bela] Karolyi said. “With Mary Lou in 1984, her popularity doubled the number of gymnastics participants in this country. I expect a similar effect with Gabby. She came out of nowhere and is now an explosion.”

There may be no better example of the bizarre world Douglas now inhabits than this comment from a sports agent.

Evan Morgenstein, who has represented dozens of successful Olympians, including [gymnast Nastia] Liukin, cautioned that managing a gymnast who continues to compete can be difficult.

“It’s good on the one hand if she stays in the sport because she stays relevant,” Morgenstein said. “It’s not so good in the way that her time is somewhat spoken for with practice and training. She can’t just get up and leave. As her agent, you can’t just leave and take her to a client for a big meeting.”

She can’t just get up and leave because, you know — that gymnastics thing.

Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones is also familiar with the harsh light of the media. In an interview on the “Today” show, she responded to a New York Times story that said all the attention she received was based “not on achievement but on her exotic beauty and on a sad and cynical marketing campaign.”

“I think it was crazy just because it was two days before I competed, and then the fact that it was from a U.S. media,’’ Jones told Savannah Guthrie before fighting back tears. “They should be supporting our U.S. Olympic athletes and instead they just ripped me to shreds. I just thought that that was crazy because I worked six days a week, every day, for four years for a 12-second race and the fact that they just tore me apart, which is heartbreaking.”

Related: How AP photographer captured Gabby Douglas photo (Poynter) | New York Times news apps team ventures into product development with Olympics syndication (Poynter) | NBC doesn’t hold back reporting Olympics results on Twitter (Associated Press) | If Olympics broadcasts are so bad, why is NBC doing so well with them? (Poynter)

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  • F. Douglas

    When I was working full time in journalism, it often seemed as though the many of the journalists I worked with — encouraged by company policies — saw things through the lens of political correctness: What would promote it, what would hinder it, etc.

    Especially sports people, who feel they don’t often do the kind of writing that has much impact on the lives of people, will tend to over-do things when they have a chance to work on stories that they perceive might “make a difference.”

  • Anonymous

     I think that’s just it…she wasn’t used to all of the noise. In between Olympic years we don’t hear a peep about most of these athletes. Even stars like Jones and Phelps were relatively quiet. Then right before the games there is a big media blitz for certain athletes and it’s not just for ratings for the network but also to ensure the endorsement opportunities of course. I believe Lolo and Gabby Douglas knew this (especially Lolo) but they still weren’t prepared for the downside of it (unfair criticism, vicious attacks and jokes, judgment, expectations, etc.).

  • JH

    I get what Jones is saying, but you’d think an athlete at that level wouldn’t be concerned with one article. Part of being a medal-winning Olympian is being able to transcend all the mental stuff/external noise.