Sunday, August 21, 2016

On the Homefront: Stopping the Narrative Before it Begins

For the past two weeks many of us have watched the Olympics. I say this because it is true, but not because I have partaken. It's been more background noise than anything else. Frankly, as a full-time parent and sometime journalist, I'm sickened at how certain stories have been reported in a variety of mediums.

There was a time when I looked forward to the Olympics every four years. It was something to watch and enjoy immensely. The games were a source of some pride that I just couldn't quite put my finger on, but it was there.
I think I vaguely recall some diving in the 1980s, and I definitely remember USA Hockey getting soundly beat in the latter half of that decade. A decade later I remember watching Kerri Strug stick her vault landing on one good leg, and soon thereafter, for the next decade, I started watching Michael Phelps dominate in the pool. And several years ago I watched - and agonized over - a certain Pittsburgh Penguin who I refuse to name score the Gold Medal winning goal over Team USA. I'm pretty sure that was the same year Sarah Hughes skated her way to an epic figure skating gold. I remember the respective mothers of Phelps and Hughes weeping tears of joy as their children made history.
(Fun side note: I had actually seen Hughes skate at Madison Square Garden in between periods of a New York Ranger game in 1996. She was 10 at the time, and had me and 18,199 fellow hockey fans cheering. She was that good then.)
In the past several Olympiads I've grown more and more disinterested. I honestly don't know why.
Perhaps it's because of the "sports" in which countries can medal.
Perhaps it's because of the sheer amount of unnecessary drama that accompanies each Olympiad and the reported rampant corruption within the International Olympic Committee.
Perhaps it's because of the tragedies or embarrassments that unfold every four years.
Which brings me to this year.
Four years ago the media didn't operate at the speed that it currently does. Also, I think it's fair to say that it was not nearly as easy to offend people.
Four years ago, Michael Phelps won a lifetime's worth of gold, with his mom cheering every stroke in the pool. This year he won more with his mom and fiance and son watching in the stands. He also ceremoniously and symbolically "passed the torch" to Katie Ledecky, whose dominance in the pool where she lapped other swimmers in a final was something Secretariat-esque.
Four years ago, Gabby Douglas won gold in gymnastics. This year, she also passed a proverbial torch, as Simone Biles leapt her way to a gold medal victory by a margin most wouldn't even dare dream about.
The story of this year's Olympics should have been a goodbye to Phelps and Douglas (and Aly Raisman, another multi-medaled gymnast). It should have been about the legendary, almost so dominant they were silly victories by Ledecky and Biles. All of them had proud parents in the stands. All of them represented their country and their families well.
Instead, we were stuck with media and social media narratives. However, you'd be hard pressed to find those narratives believed here.
Douglas represented her country by training for most of her life, and especially the past 8 years, to help win back to back team golds. In '12, she won an individual gold for her all around performance. This year she didn't replicate the feat, but she was there. She was flying through the air with her teammates. Only thing is, they were judged to do it better.
She faced a barrage of criticisms, from her perceived disinterest in the medal ceremony to comments on her hair.
Meanwhile, in the pool, on the men's side of things, Ryan Lochte and three of his teammates became embroiled in a national fiasco in which no one came out ahead, particularly the Americans.
Honestly, I haven't had the time or patience to read all of the details concerning Lochte, who has won many medals over the course of a few Olympiads. But successful athletes shouldn't get special treatment. And, evidently, the narrative surrounding Lochte, according to social media and other outlets, has been he was just a "stupid kid" who did a stupid thing. He's 32. By now he should know better.
Confused as to how this all relates to parenting? Well, I'm curious if there are any readers here who fell into the narrative trap of the Douglas and Lochte "stories." At the absolute worst, all Douglas is guilty of is being too hard on herself. She didn't put her hand on her heart for the anthem? So? Do you get as upset when you see half the fans at a sporting event fail to do so? Probably not. Her hair was messed up? Well, she was jumping, tumbling, and twirling in mid-air. Most of us can't.
If I were a parental figure in the life of Gabby Douglas, do you know what I'd tell her? "Great job! Two Olympics in a row, two team gold medals, and an historic individual gold! I am so proud of you!"
Know what I'd tell Lochte, after everything that's been reported? "You're 32 now. You lied to authorities. You're an amazing of the best in the world. You've got the medals to prove it. But, seriously, what did you think was going to happen?"
I'd like to hope that I never have to administer such "tough love" to any of my children when they're 32. I'd like to hope they've learned such important lessons long before then. Then again, if my wife and I have successfully instilled a sense of honesty and integrity in them beforehand, worrying about anything like that is unnecessary.

Howie Balaban is a stay-at-home dad. These are his stories.