Anyone who has been through the wringer of the longest Democratic primary in US election history has come away with one undeniable learning – the blatant irresponsibility of the media. Using the crutches of “They say” and “Polls show” (“they” and “polls” being the anonymous aggregate of our fears and prejudices) the American mainstream media perpetrated and encouraged the most egregious misogyny, fanned the flames of racism and demonstrated the kind of bias one usually experiences in countries under the yoke of dictatorships.
But when a sports column demonstrates the same kind of feckless reporting, it makes one sit up and take notice. Ann Killion’s article in the San Jose Mercuty News today administers the shock right at the headline – “Swimmer Torres’ achievement hard to believe.”
Now Dara Torres, who qualified for the Olympic team last week at age 41, is no stranger to headlines. She made news 8 years ago when she had a comeback of sorts at age 33 after a seven year hiatus. Both times, she overcame competitors young enough to be her daughters. Even then, there were hazy rumors about her suddenly improved performance. Yes, her achievement is extraordinary. Yes, it does make you wonder. But to take your doubt and turn it into an article that completely relies on innuendo to support its argument is really poor journalism.
We’re all more skeptical, but we’re also smarter. We know better than to bite when someone points to their amazing training regimen as evidence that they are purely the product of hard work. We know that doping allows those kind of grueling training regimens. We know that money can buy not only enhanced training, but also pre-test testing and all sorts of edges and nuances. We know that a little storefront in Burlingame can’t be the only place in the United States that was ever peddling undetectable substances…..
The first exposure many Americans had to Olympic doping scandals were freakish female East German swimmers whose performances seemed too good to be true. And they were. We used to think it was just “them.” But the past few years have taught us the hard truth: American athletes are just as suspect.
Dara Torres is an Olympian again.
Incredible. Unbelievable. Exactly.
All Ms. Killion has to offer is the fact that East German athletes, once thought to be almost racially superior because of their Olympic prowess, were finally caught abusing performance enhancing drugs. Ergo, goes the logic, there is something fishy about Ms. Torres’ achievement as well. Once you eliminate the impossible, as Sherlock Holmes was fond of saying, what is left, however improbable, is the truth.
I see the attraction in posting an article of this sort. There is no downside. If Ms. Torres, who has asked for the most stringent doping tests in a bid to clear the smoke, does turn out to be a user, Ms. Killion would have been proved right. And if she doesn’t, well, Ms. Killion has cleverly covered herself by mentioning that tests today are by no means foolproof.
Why would a respected journalist put out a piece that is pure smear? Two explanations come to mind. One is that there is a real fire behind the smoke that Ms. Killion has generated, except there is no way of mentioning her sources. And this is the charitable explanation. The other is that the entire article is founded on a personal belief that women beyond a certain age are simply not capable of the kind of strength and stamina that gave Ms. Torres a berth on the Olympic team. ( The third, more mercenary explanation, is that of sensationalism, but I am going to give Ms. Killion the benefit of the doubt here.)
I hope, for Ms. Killion’s sake, that it is the first explanation that is true and her argument substantiated with facts in the near future. Even so, she has just downgraded herself to tabloid journalism and diminished the reputation of the paper she works for. A wet noodle goes to the sports editor as well, for letting this article through.
As for Ms. Torres, I wish her well. As a 41 year old myself, I would like nothing more than to believe that us middle-aged mamas are capable of just about anything. I am going to wait for the results of the test, hope for the best and then cheer myself hoarse when she competes.