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Olympics always include grace and lack of it; why are we surprised?

Even the media training that is now part of elite athlete education cannot “teach” grace or humility.

Ashley Wagner reacts to scores during the Team Ladies Short Program on Saturday.

It’s Olympics time again. And what would the Olympics be if we didn’t have athletes who react to scores, less than desired medals, or lack of medals in ways that make them fodder for unfortunate comments and photo spreads?

Mary Stanik

The current athletes who have received the most coverage for behaving in ways that would be considered unacceptable by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the idealistic founder of the modern Olympics, so far include figure skater Ashley Wagner and moguls skier Hannah Kearney.

Wagner is being mocked for the not graceful facial expressions she displayed upon seeing her not so excellent score in the team-figure-skating short program. And for releasing an expletive, one best left unsaid in most public situations and especially when one is on international television. Oh, and maybe that vampire film scarlet lipstick that made her scowl all the more prominent. Three-time Olympian Kearney took it in the shins for the copious tears she shed upon “only” winning a bronze. Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times called Kearney “the saddest bronze medalist in recent Olympic history.”  

Both later expressed gratitude

To be fair, both Wagner and Kearney either came to better wisdom on their own or had it brought to them by someone, maybe even a possible future financial sponsor, and later expressed gratitude.

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For the majority of Olympians who with react with dignity to their slips, slides, and less than just scores, there are always a few who don’t seem to realize billions of people are watching them and thinking, my God, they’re Olympians, they seem so privileged, and yet they cannot accept their outcomes with any measure of happiness and pride.

But it probably wouldn’t be the designed-for-television-dramatics Olympics if we didn’t have (to cite one of the most famous cases) a Nancy Kerrigan expressing contempt over a silver medal and the gold medalist’s fountain of makeup-dissolving tears, as she did during the1994 Winter Olympics. To be fair, some say figure skater Kerrigan might have been rooked when she received silver and the makeup-dissolving Oksana Baiul (who, in the years after the games, encountered many celebrity problems) was awarded gold. Saying Baiul was crying off her cosmetics even marred some of the sympathy Kerrigan had gained from being knee whacked at the U.S. nationals just before the Olympics by persons connected to her main rival, the never charming Tonya Harding (who, as it were, sobbed about a broken lace seconds before she was to skate in the 1994 games). At least Kerrigan and Harding didn’t trash the Olympic village, as happened when some on the 1998 U.S. men’s hockey team, composed solely of NHL professionals, caused about $3,000 in damage to their apartments after being eliminated by the Czech Republic.

Early money and fame

Undignified behavior among athletes is nothing shocking. And though many of us idolize and emulate many professional athletes, a lot of us believe most poor athletic comportment is due to way too much money and fame that comes much too soon.

Huge money and fame definitely play a role for some, but not all, Olympic athletes, many of them younger than 25. Most of those who make it have done so due to tremendous family financial sacrifice along with sacrifice of much of what defines the ordinary, often difficult but richly experience-laden path to mature adulthood.

In figure skating and other Olympic sports, most of the very best have been marked for future glory and elite training by the time they are no more than about 8. They do compete against the relatively few others who also have been so designated, but the best seldom experience great defeats that might make them realize life is not fair and is certainly not all about victory. If they had experienced much defeat, they might not be marching in any opening ceremonies.

When one knows one is marked for enormous achievement at an age when most kids are still learning to ride bikes without falling down, when one has private tutors while others go to school, it seems reasonable to expect that qualities that usually come through the school of everyday living, including grace, humility, and acceptance, might not always be plentiful. Many former Olympic athletes who found ordinary, post-Olympic-fame-and-money life to be full of difficulties they thought only happened to average people or in movies have said they weren’t prepared for ordinary life. Of course. Because stars usually aren’t trained to be ordinary.

Media training has its limits

Even the media training that is now part of elite athlete education, training mostly intended to communicate the athlete’s desire to compete and win, cannot “teach” grace or humility.

In the cases of Wagner and Kearney, as the world’s comments and photos make clear, media training and star status didn’t prevent bronze medal weeping and expletives unleashed for all the world to see and hear.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in Minneapolis. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”


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