Journalists know they can’t please everyone with their words and don’t expect their audience to always agree with them. However, there is a line writers shouldn’t cross from a fairness perspective.
To some Canadian athletes, Paul Gains, a freelance writer at CBCSports.ca, might have crossed that line.
His story about Canadian athletes struggling to succeed at the 2011 IAAF world track and field championships titled: “Canadian track athletes have a lot to learn” published on Aug. 31 offended a certain number of athletes, even those who aren’t competing in track.
Gains expressed his discouragement in an aggressive tone about Canada falling further behind the other countries in track and field following a fifth day with no medals (that was before British Columbia’s Dylan Armstrong won silver in the shot put).
He wrote that Canadians might as well forget about being successful at the 2012 London Olympics next summer.
“Brace yourselves. The London Olympics are only a year away and, if it’s medals that are the yardstick of sporting success and entertainment, we Canadians are in for a dull time next summer. Might be better to watch re-runs of Canadian Idol.”
He also says that Canadian track athletes must spend less time on their mobile phones and social media networks such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter in order to train harder and learn from the best.
“The social media phenomenon is a Western one”, he wrote in an e-mail interview with the Toronto Observer. “I’m pretty sure that the athletes from third world countries like Sudan, Botswana, Kenya, Iran, Grenada, etc who were taking medals that the U.S. and other Western countries normally got aren’t writing blogs, twittering what they had for breakfast and the like.”
Gains believes that if athletes were training harder, they would be finishing in the top eight.
“Canada had three athletes out of 32 who advanced to the finals [In Deagu, South Korea]. That’s one of the worst showings ever at world championships”, he said. “Even more sobering is the fact that this is a pre-Olympic year.”
Olympian and swimmer Julia Wilkinson didn’t like what she read and replied directly to Gain on her blog on CBCSports.ca.
“I have to say that, when I read the article, it was the journalistic equivalent to a slap in the face, even though it was a commentary about Canada’s track and field team, not the swimmers,” she said.
Gains, who was a middle distance runner at Colorado State University in the late 1970’s, has been covering the world track and field championships since 1987, and has written about the sport for numerous newspapers and magazines.
He’s also a regular contributor to the IAAF website and magazine. His knowledge and experience in track and field might be indisputable, but the approach and tone used in the story seemed mean-spirited.
It’s fine to say that Canada is struggling in track and field, because it’s a reality.
While it’s okay to comment on the struggles of the Canadian track team and to speculate about the potential Olympic performance, many feel his tone towards the group of participants was malicious and unnecessary.
However, there is no need to use a negative tone and speculate about how social media habits affect training, motivation and performance. It might be true, but there have to be facts to support this claim, because we don’t know.
We don’t share athletes’ lives and we can’t measure this, therefore it’s not a solid fact to support an opinion.
It can be used as an acceptable suggestion explaining that the communications in the sports world are changing and impact athletes in certain ways.
It is wrong to suggest that Canadian track athletes focus more on shoe contracts and having the top facilities to train in than putting in the work, and that they don’t have the desire to succeed.
Like Wilkinson said, it’s a slap in the face of athletes to be told they don’t have the desire to succeed and train when that’s pretty much all they are doing.