The Olympics & selective moral outrage

We’re pretty good at selective moral outrage here on the internet. Ethical condemnation can quickly go viral, but our acute concern for some issues can be easily juggled with complete indifference for others.

Also big on the internet recently was the Olympics, which took place in Rio de Janeiro these past two weeks. As a sports journalist I’ve been covering the games, and have written plenty about the doping scandals that shook this year’s games.

This article uses my experience in covering the Olympics to address a particular issue that lies at the intersection of sport and moral politics.


My train of thought left the station after an idiosyncratically lame joke I made while discussing a result from the women’s football tournament at the Olympics, which saw the USA lose to Sweden. Unlike their male counterparts, the American women’s football team is highly-rated and headed to the Rio 2016 games as favourites.

The subject of my joke was American goalkeeper and Olympic gold medalist Hope Solo, one of the better-known female football stars in the world. Solo is one of the figures who are helping women get a place in a traditionally male-dominated sport. She even appeared on a Daily Show segment that highlighted the wage differences between men and women in football. An interesting discussion, but not the focus of this piece.

So anyway, when I heard that Sweden had won, I made the joke that “I wouldn’t want to be Hope Solo’s husband when she gets home”, referring to her earlier charges for domestic violence. Solo is able to invert the gender norms not just on the field, but also at home.

My colleague did not appreciate my quip, not just because it wasn’t very tasteful or clever, but also, I think, because it has the potential to ruin an otherwise admirable sporting hero.

I’m not making any claims about Solo’s guilt or innocence in her assault cases, but I do think that there are certain actions, including domestic violence of any kind, that we as society cannot accept.


Now let’s skip forward a couple of days and I’m once more in the office covering the Olympics. I’m asked to do a story not on the games themselves, but on boxer Floyd Mayweather. It was a nothing story about the undefeated American saying he won’t return from retirement, but it got my blood boiling.

Now there are plenty of reasons not to like Mayweather as a person, not least because he is a “serial batterer of women”. That’s right: the man who is “widely considered to be one of the greatest boxers of all time” likes to practice his punches on the women in his life, including the mother of his children.

So back to the article I was writing on this cunt (you hit a woman, I label you a cunt), who at the time was staying in Rio to check out the boxing event from the stands, where “dozens of fans hurried his way for selfies” before being “quickly shooed away and blocked off by member’s of Mayweather’s friends known as TMT: The Money Team”.

Who are these fans who are so eager to get their picture with a man who “hit his ex-girlfriend in front of two of their children” and “punched [the mother of his oldest daughter] several times in the face and body”? Are they aware of his crimes?

What Mayweather, the obnoxious millionaire who is really good at punching people; and Solo, an ambassador for gender equality in sports; have in common is a public image stained by accusations of domestic violence.


Now back to doping. During my two weeks covering the Olympics I wrote plenty about the use of banned substances, which seems to be a prevalent practice for athletes competing at an elite level.

Revelations of Russian doping ahead of the tournament were followed by an Australian gold medal swimmer calling his Chinese rival a “drug cheat”, prompting other athletes to agree that those busted for doping should not be allowed to return to competition.

I see their point: allowing convicted dopers to compete only serves to encourage the pernicious practice. Perhaps we need to show more clearly that we will not tolerate cheating. Part of that discussion involved young American gold medalist Lilly King calling out her countryman, sprinter Justin Gatlin.

Gatlin is a veteran of his sport and a former Olympic gold medalist who served a four-year ban for doping before returning to competitive action, and featured in Rio. King rhetorically asked herself “do I think people who have been caught for doping should be on this team?”. The answer was a resounding “No”.

For the athletics body to exclude convicted dopers would send a clear message that they do not tolerate the practice, and would surely go some way to reducing its prevalence. This is exactly why I am shocked that people can still be fans of Floyd Mayweather.

Gatlin has been something of a pantomime villain in Rio, not least because of his pre-game banter with rival Usain Bolt. The controversial American acted as the perfect foil to the affable Jamaican.

So when the athletes took to the track for the 100m final, Bolt was cheered by the adoring Brazilian audience while Gatlin received boos as he walked out. Bolt said he was “surprised” by the incident.

“It is the first time I have come into a stadium and they booed someone,” Bolt said after winning the race. “It was shocking.”

Shocking indeed, but not nearly as shocking, I would suggest, as the affection shown to Floyd Mayweather. ~