Does the Olympics Media Market the Wrong Stars? by Orrin Konheim


This is a thought-provoking piece. Orrin Konheim writes pieces for @runblogrun around Olympics on marketing and translating what the media espouses and what actually happens.

The idea was this. I wanted Orrin Konheim to consider who and how to market athletes in the sport. I found some of his ideas interesting and would love to see how you, our readers, see the marketing of athletes from Olympic events.

The idea is how the general public sees Olympic track & field athletes, which is one of the keys of success to growing our sport.

Lyles_Noah-200Q1a-OlyTrials21w.jpgNoah Lyles winning the 200m at 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials, photo by Kevin Morris / Kevmofoto

Does the Olympics Media Market the Wrong Stars?

In the first Olympics I got obsessed with, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, 271 events were contested which meant there were 271 individual or teams equally deserving of the title of Olympic champion. The Games are an incoherent mishmash of athletic frenzy and the only way to make it digestible for viewers is to mine these games for narrative arcs that can be churned into heroic stories.

Somewhat cruelly, the recipients of this heroism treatment are not evenly divided and it's extremely unlikely that someone in, say, sailing would be able to get the publicity for his or herself or their sport. In fact, I watch hours and hours of Olympic coverage every time t but I have never seen a single sailing event and am not even sure it pairs with my mental image (a family enjoying a nice day on a lake).

This much is not groundbreaking news and I knew this pretty early on. Instead, I acknowledged the limits of some of these sports to produce legitimately entertaining contests to an audience (I can't imagine the hype or innovation that could make watching someone aim a bow or bench press exciting, but I'm open), and reveled at the moment when someone from a lesser sport gets the limelight like the Icelandic handball team, the Iraqi soccer team or softballers like Jenny Finch or Dot Richardson.

However, in the last 25 years since watching my first Olympic games, a lot has happened. I've competed in sports, followed a wider variety of sports, and, more importantly, covered some of them in the media. In particular, I've become a pretty heavy watcher of track and field which has the exact same logjam problem that the Olympics has: Too many disparate events for the average casual attention span.

Therefore, US track and field has to proverbially bet on some horses and lead the audience into thinking that those athletic commodities are the ones worth your attention. When you think about it, it's incredibly cruel and has real costs to discus throwers and 10K runners who have to work tenfold just to get that slice of the American attention pie that sprinters do. But is it even a good or effective way to promote the sport?

For example, look at sprinter Noah Lyles, who you would probably have heard of from the prime coverage he's getting in NBC's ad spots, his story on ESPN and on the cover page of Sports Illustrated's Olympic preview. The big headline is "Can Noah Lyles popularize sprinting" which is a leading question. By structuring the story around Noah Lyles, the media is at least creating and answering a separate question "Can anyone but Noah Lyles be the face of the games?" and the answer is mostly going to be no because the media isn't really featuring their stories.

This is somewhat bizarre considering that Noah Lyles is only 0.04 seconds faster than Kenny Bednarek and has been beaten by three other Americans this year in his signature event.

So what gives? It made complete sense to give Lyles in 2019 to declare Lyles the heir apparent to Usain Bolt because he was within striking distance of Bolt's extremely unattainable world record in the 200 and seemed to have an undefined upper ceiling as a 21-year-old.

This year, sprinters Trayvon Bromwell, Terrance Laird, Kenny Bednarek, and Erriyon Knighton have all given him a run for his money. Lyles narrowly won the 200 but failed to qualify for the 100 and isn't guaranteed a spot on the relay team.

By the time, a number of these guys had established themselves late in the season, the media was already prepared to write about Noah Lyles and were too late to pivot. In fact, I personally was invited to write an ESPN article in 2020 about Lyles and they probably didn't do their research by the time 2021 rolled around to see that it was a closer spread.

On top of that, a number of his rivals also have interesting stories. Bednarek is a community college grad who clawed his way to the elite levels of the sport just this year. Knighton is only fricking 17 years old and has broken both the junior records that Noah Lyles and Usain Bolt achieved when they were 18 years old. Looking for a comeback story? Bromwell made the Rio Olympics but has been practically MIA for nearly the entirety of the last five years before finally working out his injury kinks this year. He also found God, so I'm sure some marketing guy can do something with that and the Christian community can take it from there.

Make no mistake, the story of Noah Lyles with his interest in art, his struggle with depression, and his extroverted personality is great. At the same time, I often am sent to write stories about random people who aren't necessarily media-ready and it's not terribly difficult to mine a good story about them if I dig a little. It is 50 times easier to mine a good story out of the kind of personality who has devoted their life to such excellence that they are one of the top three people in the country at what they do.

Also, consider:

1. Keni Harrison-110 meter hurdles: She set the world record when she got monumentally upset 5 years ago at the trials. Got a silver last year and has stayed at the sport for 5 years and will be posed to win Gold getting what robbed her. (Editor: Keni Harrison took the silver Olympic medal and holds both the 100m and 60m hurdle WRs).

2. Gabby Thomas-200 meters: Against the most powerful Jamaican team since maybe 2008, she has the fastest time in the world at her event. Also a Harvard grad. (Editor: Gabby Thomas took bronze in the 200m and silver in the 4x100m).

3. Sydney McLaughlan-400 meter hurdles: Former child prodigy who delivered on potential as a 16-year-old Olympian and now owns the world record. (Editor: Sydney took gold in the 400m hurdles, setting WR once again (51.46) and gold in the 4x400m relay).

4. Rai Benjamin-400 meter hurdles: In the last world championship cycle, he was locked in a rivalry for one of the track's most stubborn world records with Qatar's Abderrahman Samba and Norway's Karsten Warholm. Warholm just broke the 46.79 this year but, make no mistake, making the medal stand for this sport will take more athleticism than any other event in the Olympics considering how high the contenders are performing here. (Editor: Rai took silver in the 400m hurdles, breaking the old WR, running 46.17, setting a new, plus he took gold in the 4x400m relay).

But, this is only if you give the community credit for paying attention to the sport for no more than a minute.

The objectively most impressive American athlete would probably be Athing Mu who holds a world leader in the 800 and would have been a medal threat in the 400 if she chose to run that event as well. Despite what the marketing told you if you were around in 1996 to witness Michael Johnson mania, elite performances in the 200 and 400 (Botswana's Isaac Makwala and South Africa's Wayde van Niekerk have been strong contenders at both events and WvN even got Gold-Silver at the 2017 World Championships) are far more common at every level of the sport than 400-800 doublers. Mu has also been dominant and versatile (she would also have been a medal threat in the 400 if she chose that event too) and without the weight of college this summer, the sky's the limit for her.

Beyond that, Tara Davis a gorgeous social media star who has a romance with a Paralympian and JuVaughn Harrison is going to double in vertical and horizontal jumping events for the first time since 1912.

If they dared go beyond middle distance, they could focus on Grant Fisher who ran sub-4 in high school and has racked up one NCAA title but a number of second-place finishes (there's your redemption arc), or Emma Coburn who has medalled three times on the world stage in a very African-dominated sport. She has possibly been the most consistent runner over the past five years in a highly volatile event.

But this is all if (and it's a big IF) the sports media believes that the public might have the patience to expand their comfort zone and see who truly the best is.

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