Too busy trending to focus on actually winning
Earlier this year sportswriter Patrick Smith wrote a thoughtful column about the difficult transition of rugby league champion Israel Folau to his adoptive code of Aussie Rules with the fledgling Greater Western Sydney side. Smith contrasted Folau’s struggle with the success enjoyed by the late Jim Stynes, the Irishman who went from playing Gaelic football to becoming a Brownlow medallist and genuine superstar with Melbourne in the AFL.
Smith pointed out how Stynes hadn’t enjoyed success straight away, but was allowed to spend a couple of years playing amateur footy for Prahan honing his basic skills and no doubt making all sorts of clangers before crowds of 1000 at suburban grounds, rather than 50,000 at the MCG. Folau in contrast is trying to learn a new code in real time in the full glare of football’s elite, with plenty of sneering at the million-dollar price tag he attracted as an AFL scalp from rugby league.
Israel Folau is also on Twitter (@IzzyFolau). The bloke must have the hide of a rhino, as this uncensored and frequently unpleasant social media site has been the venue for some pretty blunt assessments of his performance in his debut season in the AFL.
Folau is just one of hundreds of athletes who tweets. Two of our biggest sporting tweeters are Stephanie Rice and Emily Seebohm. They both imploded in London this week, Rice failing to win a medal at all and Seebohm, who is just a kid, crying inconsolably as she got it into her young head that a silver medal was a symbol not of success but failure.
For both these women the weight of expectations was too great. The venue where expectations were raised, and their subsequent performance attacked, was on the social media sites Twitter and Facebook.
Rice and Seebohm are typical of a generation which has grown up living every aspect of their life on social media. In this space there are no longer any barriers between real friends and cyber-friends. Once upon a time - about 10 years ago that is - most of us went through life being friends with half a dozen to a dozen people. These days you have hundreds of them, if not thousands.
Social media also deprives you of your inner monologue – that is, it lets you turn a stupid or offensive thought which would normally pass harmlessly through your brain, into something you will publish in a moment of ill-advised spontaneity for the entire world to read. Hence Rice saying “suck on that faggots” on Twitter when the Springboks lost to the Wallabies. I have said equally offensive things off the cuff myself, as have many people, but the difference for Rice’s generation is that they can say silly things in real time and find themselves completely incapable of managing the consequences.
Generation Y is the generation that lost its privacy. It wasn’t robbed of its privacy by government or corporations or an intrusive media. It simply gave it away. Like the drunk guy in Darwin this week who stuck the firecracker up his bum, who appeared in a very fitting (and funny) photograph with his shirt off drinking from a bottle of Bundy with a live snake entwined around it. The publisher of this photograph was not the media in the first instance; the publisher was the guy with the cracker up his clacker, to quote the evocative headline from The NT News.
As a parent whose kids are under the age of 10, but who are already aware of social media sites such as Facebook and keen to get on them, one of the biggest challenges in 2012 is trying to convince young people that not every aspect of their life needs to be paraded and photographed and discussed in a forum which 6 billion people have access to.
Seebohm was criticised this week for crying both immediately after her race and again the next day after winning the silver. The criticism was totally unfair given her age. She has probably been waking up at 4am every day since she was five, and winning gold was all she ever wanted. You can understand and sympathise with her, living as she does in the full gaze of everybody who is online, the pressure compounded by spending days fixating on the social media traffic around how she had one hand on the gold medal and needed only turn up to claim it.
Australia’s Chef de mission Nick Green said Seebohm’s case showed the downside of social media, where the young swimmer was initially pumped up as a dead certainty, and then either ridiculed as a dud, or revved up further by loyal fans who were even more irrational in their sorrow at her second-placing.
“Listening to Emily, one of the things athletes need to ensure, particularly when they go into a major final, is they don’t get caught up in what the outcome’s going to be,” Green said.
“Maybe what we might have seen through that social media banter which Emily’s a participant in is that everyone’s saying you’re going to win and the outcome was done,” he said.
The Australian Olympic Committee has quite fairly said that it won’t be banning athletes from using Twitter or Facebook, provided they used it responsibly.
For my part I think more athletes should take their cue from the former Swans star Micky O’Loughlin, who said on Q and A on Monday how he couldn’t believe how so many young AFL stars would be tweeting minutes before the game while they were getting Goanna rubbed on their legs. Beyond sport, there are issues here as to how we all live, and particularly how our kids live. There is a hell of a lot to be said for growing up and making mistakes in private, for saying dumb things in the company of family or friends, rather than your army of fair-weather cyber-friends, none of whom would ever get you out of a scrape in real life, and are just as likely to start tweeting about it should you fall victim to one.
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