Thursday, June 7, 2012

A tale of two Olympians

Once upon a time, there were two girls, two years apart in age, growing up in two neighbouring towns on the eastern fringes of the Greater Toronto Area. Both daughters of immigrants. Both showed early promise in track and field athletics, and went on to specialize in hurdles. Both won scholarships & went to study and train at American universities. Both competed for Canada at the Olympics -- one in 2004 and one in 2008. Both are hoping to be at the 2012 Olympics in London next month.

Perdita Felicien was Canada's "it" girl heading into the 2004 Olympics in Athens. She was touted as a sure thing for the gold medal in the 100m hurdles. Unfortunately, she stumbled on the first hurdle & wiped out disastrously. She was injured and did not compete in the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

But Canada still came home with a medal in the women's 100m hurdles that year -- a surprise bronze from Priscilla Lopes-Schliep. I can still picture her, post-race, holding up a Canadian flag behind her, the perfect backdrop.  It was a great, feel-good moment, and the country embraced her as a rising new star.

And then -- after having an ovary removed five years ago & wondering whether she would ever have a family (something I can certainly relate to & sympathize with) -- Lopes-Schliep found herself unexpectedly and very happily pregnant. She gave birth to a baby girl last fall.

As you might expect, the media (at least here in Canada) went ga-ga, both during Lopes-Schliep's pregnancy and since then. Of course, I'm hypersensitive about these things -- but I've read a number of stories about her over the past year or so -- first about her surprise pregnancy, and then about her baby. Even if the story is ostensibly about the latest competition she's been in, somehow, somewhere, there's a reference to the fact that she gave birth within the past year.

In contrast, I don't recall reading or hearing much about Perdita Felicien these days, even heading into the Olympics. Perhaps because she's busy training, perhaps because she's been dealing with injuries and hasn't competed as much over the past several years.

Or maybe -- just maybe -- do you think it might be because she hasn't been sporting a baby bump, and then a baby?

The trigger for this post? This morning, the Toronto Star had (get this) a FOUR PAGE "SPECIAL REPORT" devoted to Lopes-Schliep & how she and her family are juggling her baby and her Olympic ambitions.

By way of apology, perhaps, the story acknowledges:  "As every Olympics draws near, sports fans are typically fed saccharine-laced stories of athletes who overcome incredible odds and disadvantages to represent their country. It can be heart-wrenching stuff."

But then, it goes ahead & dives straight into another saccharine-laced story anyway:  "But, sometimes, the challenges are completely and utterly joyous," the story goes on to say. "Lopes-Schliep is an example."

And, further on: "...while having a baby might have created some doubts about here [sic] athletic future, it has made her more marketable and broadened her public appeal."  (Really??! I never would have guessed...)

It's not so much the story itself that bothers me -- it's a detailed picture of the sacrifices one family is making to help an Olympic dream come true, and what it takes to juggle pregnancy and motherhood with Olympic-level athletics. I guess pregnant/parenting female athletes are (sadly) still rare enough to be a novelty. Fair enough. Having been through infertility myself, I am the last person to begrudge Lopes-Schliep her joy over her baby.  She seems like a nice person and good role model who has worked hard to get where she is (the same could be said for Felicien, I think) -- and the baby IS adorable. As the story itself points out, motherhood is highly marketable these days (Lord knows this isn't the first nor far from the last paen to motherhood featured in the media lately...), & getting to the Olympics is an expensive proposition -- I can't blame her for cashing in on the mommy appeal factor.

I just think that a four-page "special report" on the subject is, shall we say, overkill. The actual story is not that long. In fact, it would probably fit on one page with a reasonable-sized photo, or one page and a bit.

However, the article has been padded with not one, not two or three, but SIX photos and... wait for it... ads. BIG ads. For (just guess) disposable diapers. Just one brand. For those of us in the know about journalism &/or advertising, the whole section screams "advertorial" -- advertising, masquerading as legitimate news content. (Not to mention pronatalism run amok.)

Nowhere in four pages do you see an explicit disclaimer, "Sponsored by (diaper company)." But it's clear someone has paid big bucks for this space. There is a logo in the top right-hand corner of the first page of the section, and strip ad across the bottom of that page. There is an ad that stretches across the full bottom half of the centre two-page spread. And there's a full page ad on the back page of the four-page section. In other words, ads consume more than half the space in the four-page section.

Near the end of the story itself, there is a mention  that "Lopes-Schliep’s sponsors certainly believe she will be there [at the Olympics].... Lopes-Schliep now has corporate connections to Pampers, Coca-Cola, Nike and Cheerios, to name a few. She will soon be featured in Chatelaine and Today’s Parent magazines."

The Canadian Olympic trials are on June 30th. I wish both girls luck.

I also wish that the media would stick to reporting the news, and not go overboard with the cute baby shots. And make a clear distinction between actual news and marketing.

But I know I'm trying to stick my thumb into a leaky dike holding back a sea of pronatalism, with a tidal wave called the Olympics fast approaching.


  1. I'm with you.

    Perhaps the media love this kind of thing because they can not only sell the story on the sports pages, but can bring in extra readers on the "family" or womens'" pages or magazines? And if they can get the big sponsors in to make a splash - four pages is a lot of revenue - all the better. Sigh. I'm so cynical.

  2. I totally agree, it's pretty icky how some, no, strike that, most "news" is handled these days.