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June 22, 2012updated 10 Jan 2016 3:19pm

How Can Olympic Champions Cope With Their Sudden Fame?

By Spear's

Becoming an Olympic champion is hard enough. Coping with intrusive media attention when you can’t run, swim or jump out of the public eye may be even harder, says Amber Melville-Brown
Read more from Spear’s about the Olympics

FOR YEARS BEFORE the Olympic torch arrived from its Greek birthplace to start its 70-day journey across the UK, our young athletes had been preparing, hoping to gain a gold. But no amount of lunges and stretches can prepare them for an unexpected hurdle the winners will have to face: coping with the pressure of the press.

The media is known as the watchdog and bloodhound of society. And we rightly laud that animal’s efforts in educating, informing and entertaining us. But in fulfilling that role, this ‘feral beast’, as Tony Blair said, can take a nasty nip out of our reputation or a chunk out of our privacy. On the other hand, media attention will give our Olympian dreamers fame and glory and everything that goes with it.

Decades ago, when the media was not as aggressive and intrusive as it is now, George Best, spotted at the tender age of fifteen, became the first celebrity footballer, commenting: ‘I spent 90 per cent of my money on women, drink and fast cars. The rest I wasted.’ Such a colourful character was a gift for the media, with reporters closely following his antics off as well as on the pitch.

But while Best embraced the ‘everything’ that went with his fame and fortune, perhaps believing the media hype that he was invincible, that ‘everything’ included the alcoholism that ultimately killed him.

Fame and fortune for the young may be best handled when they have the love and support of family and friends. With that backing, they can concentrate on training and improving their chances at the Games. But the pressures of celebrity and living in a media fishbowl can cause painful rifts within family units. Demands for interviews and promises of cash prove enticing and the sporting talent begins to believe his own media myth, finally succumbing to publicity-seeking hangers-on looking for a lucrative kiss-and-tell.

If there is a threat of private information being leaked to the media, our athletes should not tarry in getting off the starting blocks to prevent it. The media has recently pooh-poohed privacy injunctions after several unsuccessful attempts to ‘gag’ the press, as the media would have it, by some of our football friends — John Terry, Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand, to name a few. But the courts will prevent the unjustified publication of private and confidential material, and athletes should not be frightened of asserting their rights to privacy in the mistaken belief that the courts will simply back down to the almighty media.

Pop stars, politicians and pole-vaulters can seek to protect their private lives from prying by the press and public with the protection of a privacy injunction where they have a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’. But they must ensure that they don’t give the media a defence, for example, by taking banned performance-enhancing drugs, which will be justified in the exposure of wrongdoing, or having different standards on and off the field, leading to an argument of hypocrisy that may be exposed in the public interest.

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With the advent of the internet, information anywhere is information everywhere, and indiscretions may be reported and stay festering in online archives for ever. For modern competitors, blogging, tweeting and facebooking come as easily as throwing the discus or sprinting 100 metres, but private information willingly given up is gold dust for the media. Our athletic youth may have learnt lessons from our young celebrities and chosen not to photograph their genitalia on mobile phones to send pics to ‘friends’ from where they end up online or (pixellated for good taste) in the red-tops.

HOWEVER, INOPPORTUNE TWEETS, blogs or texts can damage the reputation of an otherwise remarkable athlete. A spotless reputation is certainly desirable. For an athlete with hopes of going down positively in the annals of history or obtaining a career-boosting sponsorship deal, it is essential. Earlier this year, ex-cricketer Chris Cairns won the first Twitter libel action, being awarded £90,000 damages against former Indian Premier League commissioner Lalit Modi over allegations in 2010 of match-fixing.  

A place on an Olympic podium may bring a mixed bag of offerings as well as the medal and the bouquet of flowers: lucrative offers of sponsorship but also threats of kiss-and-tell stories; opportunities for ego-massaging interviews alongside intrusive demands from a gossip-thirsty press and public. Fame is a fickle mistress.

David Beckham was thrust into the public eye as a young sportsman and half of a celebrity couple. He commented on the attitude of the press more than ten years ago: ‘They put you up there, and then they try and knock you down.’ While their respected coaches may have helped to get them on the podium, our Olympians need their wits — not to mention their advisers — about them if they are going to avoid being pushed off.
Read more from Spear’s about the Olympics


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