Media Frames in Track and Field

When one thinks of the sport Track and Field, names such as Usain Bolt, Allyson Felix, and Mo Farah may come to mind.  Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world in the 100m and 200m race is probably the most recognized name because of his domination on the track, and because of all the world records he has broken as well.  Allyson Felix also dominates in these sprint races, while Mo Farah is an incredible distance runner.  All of these athletes have more in common than their amazing talent in their event(s), and numerous champion titles.  They are also colored athletes.  In contemporary Track and Field, it seems that, although colored runners like Usain Bolt, Allyson Felix, and Mo Farah are indeed talented athletes and deserve recognition, media representations of athletes of other races are lesser.  Caucasian track athletes, for example, hardly receive recognition for their impressive and winning performances in their event.  Caucasian Jesse Williams, and World Champion high jumper, is never seen in commercials or documentaries, while there is a plethora of media attention surrounding Bolt, Felix, Farah, and other track athletes of color.  In fact, there is barely coverage of William’s event at all, while there is an intense anticipation around coverage surrounding the events with colored athletes in them.  (Disclaimer: I have no problem necessarily in all the attention being on athletes of color, it is simply something I have noticed when watching Track and Field meets on television, and this class further provoked my curiosity.  Basically, I am trying to explain that I not a racist.  Haha) It is my goal to seek how the representation of colored athletes versus the dismissal of talented Caucasian performances affects one’s perception about the sport of Track and Field in general.

Firstly, it is important to look at primary, hard media circulating throughout he world right now.  When looking up “London Track and Field” in the Google Search engine, images of the colored athletes dominating their competitors appear.  This image was taken from within the first few rows of pictures that appeared in the results:

 

Through close analysis, this image is more powerful than one would expect.  The Caucasian athletes are collapsed at the finish line of the track in exhaustion, while a Kenyan athlete walks past them as if he is in no pain at all.  The look on his face connotes that of a dominating, fearless athlete.  These simple observations provide opportunity for further discussion.  The description of the observations gives the viewer the assumption that athletes of color easily top those of other races.  The cultural meaning of this in terms of track and field is that the colored competitors own the sport.  The subtle frameworks of media representation such as a simple picture like this is what ultimately gives life to the ideology that only athletes of color can rise above runners/jumpers/throwers of other races.  

In the world of Track and Field, it is clearly evident that colored athletes do indeed dominate the sport.  Particularly in the running and jumping events, athletes of color frequently top competitors of other races.  Based on factual results and performances, colored runners and jumpers are significantly more successful than Caucasian or other races.  For instance, in the 2012 Olympic 100m dash, the competitors on both the men and women’s sides were colored.  While each of those athletes rightfully earned their spot, other impressive athletes seem to be dismissed, as the Kenyan athlete in the photo seems to brush past his competitors.  David Turner and Ian Jones’ “False Start? U.K. Sprint Coaches and Black/White Stereotypes” looks at this phenomenon and how athletes of color are put on a pedestal over other Track and Field athletes.  They argue that a combination of “disproportionate success”, “overrepresentation”, and “media representation” causes assumption that Caucasians and other races are genetically inferior.  Essentially, they claim the inflation of attention on successful colored athletes by the media is a major attribute to this phenomenon.  They bring up a thought provoking, yet disturbing point that by explaining Caucasian success is assumed because of their “hard work” and “intelligence”, while colored success is because of “instinctive physical qualities”.  Relating back to the picture, it would indeed seem as though the Kenyan athlete is genetically superior to his Caucasian competitors.

One theory that could also explain why athletes of color are given more media attention so disproportionately has to do with the term “the gaze”.  Drawing from Oates’ analyzing of American Football in comparison with Turner and Jones’ work, a better understanding of my research question results.  Turner and Jones mention the media portrays colored athletes as having “instinctive physical qualities”.  Media products of track and field athletes and their “instinctive physical qualities” greatly promote this idea of “the gaze”.  Taking our picture back into consideration, and the close analysis of the picture itself, it can be concluded that this is a product of “the gaze”.  “In addition to such routines, extensive media-facilitated public display of the athletic body, presented as entertainment, has become a staple of sports media coverage” (Oates).  Essentially, contemporary media coverage of Track and Field accelerates “the gaze” by focusing on the colored athletes, who, according to Turner and Jones, have more athletic bodies than fellow competitors of other races.  Perhaps there is not as much attention on these other races because they are not depicted as being physically up to par with colored competitors. 

Also, it is vital to discuss the history of white supremacy in connection with the gaze as well, in order to explain, “…why the mostly black prospects are available for this kind of perusal and assessment”(Oates).  The gaze more-or-less dehumanizes the subject, making them a product for enjoyment and amusement for the audience.  Anthony Harrison in his article states that white power can be simply defined as: “’a constellation of ideologies, a series of sociohistorical formations, an ordering principle, and a specific set of structures’—as a means to more explicitly target the political nature of racial authority and inequality in sports”(Harrison).  In relationship to my theory about media overrepresentation of colored athletes, this would seem to have no merit at first.  How could showing the public more of colored athletes be considered as a form of white supremacy and power?  But when one adds Oates concept of “the gaze” into the equation, answers do start to appear.  White power is exercised through the gaze because it dehumanizes the colored athlete into being a form of entertainment.  They are categorized as a basically a different breed of human because of their supposed more advanced physical attributes.  This is one way to keep the colored athlete and race in check, even though they dominate the rest of their competitors.  It ultimately keeps Caucasians in control of the sport, by allowing the colored athlete to obtain the audience’s attention. 

Ultimately, this is a difficult and abstract concept to grasp.  Track and Field exhibits a wide variety of different events to truly test the boundaries of the human body.  Athletes of color have begun to take over the sport since their integration in the mid 20th century, breezing past Caucasians and other races.  The way the media represents this phenomenon is by allowing them into the spotlight, making them appear to be more of a spectacle than a human being.  Real life media products are seen to take part in this cultural development.  The picture of the Kenyan athlete after his race provokes feelings of “oohs” and “ahhs” as his perceived advanced physical qualities are exhibited.  Media frames and representation possess “white power” ideologies that are then bombarded to the audience.  By connecting these concepts together, one can piece together the answer to my original question of why they are represented so much more than any other race in the sport of track and field.  As the integration movement of the mid 20th century falls further into history as time marches on, it is interesting to see how the sport will be covered by the media, and if the sport is still framed in the way it is seen today.    

 

Google Images

http://media.oregonlive.com/oregonian/photo/2012/08/11388467-standard.jpg

Oates, Thomas P. “The Erotic Gaze in the NFL Draft.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 4.1 (2007): 74-90. Print.
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14791420601138351#.UyTlfl7HJK4-NFL Draft

David Turner and Ian Jones “False Start”

http://uhra.herts.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/2299/8871/900739.pdf?sequence=1 

Anthony Harrison “Black Skiing, Everyday Racism, and the Racial Spatiality of Whiteness”

http://jss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/08/21/0193723513498607.full.pdf+html

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