Even before the Olympics ended, speculation began regarding which U.S. athletes were most likely to cash in from their golden moments.
Gymnast Gabby Douglas, naturally. Swimmers Michael Phelps (again) and Ryan Lochte; volleyball tandem Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings; the U.S. women’s soccer team; diving surprise David Boudia; and decathlete Ashton Eaton — an event that traditionally bestows the title “world’s greatest athlete.” Perhaps runners Allyson Felix or South African amputee Oscar Pistorius, a rare non-American to catch NBC’s human-interest-loving eye.
For all the cynicism commercializing the Games engenders, there’s little one can object to in this formula. These competitors have trained most of their lives (for some, granted, translating to not much more than a decade) to achieve a level of proficiency at which lay people can only marvel.
As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni noted, it’s forgivable to get sappy about the Olympics, exalting, as they do, “the prospect of glory on the far side of sacrifice.” Seven-figure endorsements might be gaudy, but one can understand why a company would want someone who embodies competitive grit and discipline fronting their cereal or shampoo.
Let’s contrast that, however, with the people television — and especially reality TV — make famous on a near-weekly basis.
In many instances, their only real sacrifice is good sense or decision-making. Actions that for many have ruinous consequences — getting pregnant as a teenager, or having sex on camera — have become springboards for high-profile landings on the cover of celebrity magazines, becoming first-name commodities right next to Angelina and Brad.
Journalists (including this one) have had a field day with “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” TLC’s spinoff of the guilty-pleasure children’s pageant show “Toddlers & Tiaras.” Yet easily lost in the characters’ colorfully garbled, heavily subtitled banter and obvious hamming for the camera is the fact the clan’s matriarch, June, is 32, with a 17-year-old daughter who is repeating the teen-pregnancy pattern. In sociological terms, having kids before reaching voting age is about as sure-fire a prescription for endemic poverty as exists.
Similarly, MTV has carved out an entire pregnant-youth niche with “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant,” and even if these shows spur a valuable dialogue about contraception and abstinence — as some research has indicated — that doesn’t precludehow they simultaneously elevate those featured into celebrityhood.
VH1’s decision to shelve a reality show featuring NFL star Chad Johnson (formerly known as Ochocinco) — arrested on domestic violence charges Saturday, for allegedly head-butting his wife/co-star — is surprising. Not because the behavior, if true, wasn’t deplorable, but because deciding not to air celeb-reality programs featuring people who do awful things is a slippery slope, one that risks leaving the cupboards at networks like VH1, MTV, TLC and Bravo frightfully bare.
The conventions of reality TV, moreover, have permeated morning TV shows. It’s small comfort to say this marks an improvement over how most “ordinary” people achieve sudden fame or notoriety, which usually involves either committing or being victims of a heinous crime.
For that matter, even the Olympics now spawn competitors who gain attention for dubious reasons, such as German diver Stephan Feck, whose main accomplishment was surviving a painful-looking belly flop whose video went viral (to “Feck” will no doubt become a verb); or gymnast McKayla Maroney, whose ungracious scowl on the silver-medal stand also took on a photo-shopped life of its own.
If much of this is harmless, it nevertheless explains why the Olympics can be embraced despite their excesses for rewarding those whose instant stardom is rooted in achievement. And it says a lot about the current climate watching former decathlon champ Bruce Jenner cling to notoriety as a real-life Mike Brady, haplessly presiding over his Kardashian stepdaughters.
A common rejoinder to this lament is that actors, musicians, athletes and other more traditional media luminaries also behave boorishly. But, at least they became household names for exhibiting an actual talent before they began head-butting things.
So as marketers and producers begin minting post-Games gold for Olympians, here’s a thought they ought to consider: What kind of people have been carrying a torch for you, and how would you feel about kids eating a cereal with them on the box?