The London Olympics have officially ended, leaving us with nothing but our bookmarked links to medal count charts, our GIFs of splash-free platform dives, our images of Spice Girls reunions and our conflicted daydreams about Ryan Lochte. Well, we have those memories and also questions about what’s next for our celebrated Olympians, many of whom — as was noted in this blog before the Summer Games began — must now grapple with the challenges of achieving sudden celebrity.
This issue came up during last Thursday’s Lochte-infused Celebritology discussion when a reader posted a question that essentially asked this: is it fair for Olympics athletes to deal with all the unpleasant side effects of fame? Due to technical difficulties that would have led to a filed protest if the weekly chat were a gymnastics competition, I wasn’t able to share my answer at the time.
But now, as the afterglow of the Olympics slowly fades, here’s that question/comment in its entirety, along with my response.
The reader’s comment/question:
“I don't think it's fair to burden Olympic athletes, or for that matter, singers, actors, etc. with celebrity. Some people really aren't in these things for the money or fame, they are in it because of their passion for the sport/art. I don't think it's right that, just because their talent lies in a field that takes place in a public arena, they should be subjected to sudden microscopic coverage and scrutiny. People say ‘Well, they know what they are getting in to,’ but especially in the case of the Olympics, some of them are just kids pursuing a dream. Why should they have to give up their privacy and endure op-eds about their hair or their dating life? Isn't it possible that this is deterring talented people from pursuing their passions because they don't want to deal with the celebrity machine? Besides, there are enough people desperate for celebrity and fame, why go after people who happen to be good at something but don't necessarily seek out endorsements or TV interviews?”
It’s true that there are some people — yes, even those who pursue careers in Hollywood — who choose to do so out of passion for their art rather than an unquenchable desire to acquire abundant quantities of coconut water based on the language in their tour riders. Even so, I would argue that people who pursue careers on stages or in front of cameras, in an industry known for its ceaseless capacity to objectify individuals and refer to living, breathing human beings as brands, have some sense of the dangers inherent in that pursuit. Yes, it’s possible to be an actor or filmmaker or pop star and maintain a sense of dignity, as long as one is smart enough to navigate the many land mines of modern show business.
But let’s leave the pop culture icon and icon wannabe crowd out of this. Let’s focus on the athletes who entered the high-profile Olympics with the knowledge that they very well could become famous, too.
Did they sign up for fame? By deciding to compete at one of the most widely watched international events in sports, yes, they did. But for most Olympics athletes, the fame is a byproduct of their primary goal, a sidebar to the lead story of their lives, which is to excel at their chosen sport. Most of the competitors in London undoubtedly had publicists, advisers and/or family members coaching them on how to handle all the sudden attention, offering suggestions about what to say on the “Today” show and which way to turn when photos are snapped. But as our reader pointed out, many of these people are quite young. They may have been told that if they go out clubbing, they should probably be mindful that someone from TMZ could be stalking them. But hearing that and actually processing it are two different things, especially for teenagers and young adults whose lives often are a series of epic screw-ups and tough lessons learned.
Being a celebrity, whether you’re Missy Franklin or Jennifer Aniston, involves a greater degree of scrutiny now than it did 10 or even five years ago, before we all know how to freeze frame the precise moment when a well-known figure lands on her backside, then turn it into a GIF, and then transform that into a meme. We’re a society that, as the reader noted, can turn a teenage gold medalist’s hair style into a loud, national conversation. How does someone prepare for that? The answer is one can’t.
And that’s where the celebrity status conferred on Olympians can be a little unfair. Scowl on television, and suddenly the image of you not being impressed is all over the Internet. Grimace during a crucial dive, and within minutes, your ridiculous facial expression is being shared on a million Facebook pages.
It’s unnerving. But I doubt it will deter many from competing in future Olympics. The ones who are serious about beating their relay records or improving their volleyball serves will train, compete, handle their time in the spotlight with the grace often shown by people who don’t particularly care about all the attention, and then, when the Olympics frenzy dies down, resume their lives as.students or employees who also happen to be exceptional athletes.
And the ones who are serious about their sport but also totally game for appearing on the next “Bachelor” or “Dancing With the Stars”? Well, the modern era of instant Olympics fame will suit them just fine.
The celebrity machine will keep on running. But so will the Olympics one, too.