Coverage of the men's 100m World Championship final seemed more like the plot line of a George RR Martin novel than that of a race.
As an onlooker totally uninvested and impartial to track and field, the BBC coverage of the 100m World Championship event in Beijing, China was so hyperbolically biased and melodramatic, it was quite literally cringeworthy. In all seriousness, I actually recall myself cringing several times before, during, and after the race deemed a ‘clash of good vs. evil’.
The coverage of the event, pitting the ‘two-time doper’ Justin Gatlin of the USA against the ‘fastest man ever’ and apparent godsend Usain Bolt of Jamaica, was so pathetically skewed I didn’t quite know what to make of it at first.
This ‘journalism’, if you can call it that, was problematic on a number of levels.
First things first: there were runners present other than Gatlin and Bolt. Shocker, I know. But there were. Although you wouldn’t have known it from the way the commentators discussed the race leading up to it and thereafter, and how journalists have covered it since.
You also wouldn’t have known that home-country athlete Su Bingtian was making history as the first Asian athlete to compete in a men’s 100m World Championship final event, signifying a proliferation of the sport across the globe. Or that two young up-and-coming student athletes from Canada and the USA, Andre De Grasse and Trayvon Bromell, were in serious contention for medals, both of whom actually won a shared bronze.
These positive and relevant realities within the sport of athletics were completely ignored by sports journalists. They instead chose to go for the easier and simpler version of their job, where they assumed the role of fictional story-teller rather than reporter; weaving Star Wars-esque imagery of a battle between the dark side and the light, rather than describing the events as they actually unfolded.
Another reality they missed was that 3 other competitors in Tyson Gay, Mike Rodgers, and Asafa Powell had all served their own doping bans in the past. But since they weren’t having the same success of late as Gatlin, they had no place in this story.
All we did know from the BBC coverage was that this was the ‘race to save the sport’. Good vs. evil. White vs. black. Right vs. wrong. No room for nuance, no room for humanity. It was the holy Usain St. Leo Bolt vs. the evil Justin Alexander Gatlin.
And quite visibly, everyone bought into this narrative.
At the end of the race, the BBC commentators can be seen quite literally jumping for joy and screaming as Bolt won. What ever happened to impartiality in journalism? Since when did their job description change from reporting on sports to becoming part of the cheerleading squad?
BBC commentator Steve Cram seemed to have a verbal orgasm as Bolt crossed the line, exclaiming: “He’s saved his title, he’s saved his reputation – he may have even saved his sport.” I’m sorry Steve, but if you really think Usain Bolt was running to provide a happy ending to your epic little story, you’re seriously deluded. Matter of fact, Bolt has proved this point time and time again by downplaying this grand-narrative of him being some transcendent being in the sport of athletics.
Given all of this, I’m unsurprised and totally supportive of these latest developments that Gatlin has vowed to boycott British media, and specifically the BBC. After all, hasn’t he done his time and paid his dues? Should he have to be subject to the completely negative characterizations being bestowed upon his character now that he’s reconciled and is dominant? Should we just ignore the actual talent he’s shown the world since serving his sentence?
It really is such an indictment of sports journalism that they have to create these fictional storylines to make a race interesting. It paints athletics, and its athletes, as black and white. This ongoing good-evil analogy only lends itself to the continued objectification of human beings.
In normal life, someone who pays their debt to society for violating a law is, ideally, allowed a second chance. With such coverage of dopers like Gatlin, the media is effectively dehumanizing them, and essentially imposing upon them their own version of a character death-penalty. This is totally unfair and incongruous with the humanity which, surprise surprise, actually exists within these athletes.
On the flip side, painting someone like Bolt as the Messiah of the sport is equally problematic. As we saw in Bolt’s responses to being bombarded with questions like: “How does it feel to have saved the sport? What does this mean for the sport?”, he really couldn’t care less. As he’s said in multiple interviews, he wanted it for himself. Not that he doesn’t care about the sport, but he’s a human being who has personal goals and objectives. Bolt doesn’t exist outside of the physical world we all inhabit; or as BBC likes to put it, in heaven — pitted against hell and the evil Justin Gatlin in an eternal duel.
Nothing was more representative of this fallacy than after the race when Bolt and Gatlin hugged. Or when, in the post-race press conference, Gatlin was asked questions on the result “saving the sport”. Asked three times about what Bolt’s win over him meant for athletics, Gatlin replied “I’m thankful” each time — to which Bolt could seen laughing uncontrollably at the absurdity of the question in the following video at minute 6:25.
The commentators couldn’t explain this moment, nor could the reporters, as it was incongruous with their fantastical beliefs that they themselves have created and bought into over time.
Bolt is no heavenly savior, just as Gatlin is no evil villain. This result does not mean the end of doping in athletics, just as a Gatlin win wouldn’t necessarily have signaled more of the same. It’s about time sports journalism came to grips with this reality.