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"Winning Takes Care of Everything" and Other Sporting Myths

Nike's Tiger Woods ad provides a teachable moment, but what is the lesson?

Nike's latest edgy ad in which Tiger Woods claims that, "Winning takes care of everything," has evoked a wide range of responses in the media, and, one might hope, around the family dinner table. After all, why miss a teachable moment when you're a parent of a young athlete?

Tiger Woods

But what exactly is Nike's message? And what lesson would a responsible parent want to convey? Here are some possibilities:

  • Winning is the one and only goal in sport
  • Positive thinking is the key to success
  • When in doubt, deny ... or compartmentalise
  • Fans have short attention spans, brand loyalty lasts forever
  • Bad publicity is better than none
  • Athletes don't sign up as role models 
  • Redemption stories sell sporting goods
  • It didn't happen on the golf course, so it's irrelevant

These kinds of questions raise the issue of values, a topic on which sport, especially Olympic sport, has long presented itself as a leading light. Reading Olympic industry promotional and educational materials, one would think that Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Games, had invented fair play. It wouldn't surprise me if the International Olympic Committee took out a copyright on the concept, despite the fact that fairness plays a very small part in determining winners and losers on the far-from-level playing field of international sport. Even some of the Olympics' strongest supporters acknowledge that big, rich countries win proportionately more medals than small, poor countries.

What is Olympic education?

So-called "Olympic values" are central to an enterprise called Olympic education, offered at your children's school every two years to coincide with a Summer or Winter Games. This is not a well-researched topic in Olympic studies circles, nor is it widely discussed in departments of education, although parents of school-age children are probably aware of its existence.

I began my critiques of the Olympics in 1992, but it wasn't until 2004 that I investigated Olympic education in a paper titled "Olympic Education Inc.: Colonizing Children's Minds?" This was followed by two chapters in my 2008 book, Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda (SUNY Press), and a 2012 article in the Educational Review (63:3) titled "Olympic Education and Olympism: Still Colonizing Children's Minds." By 2012, I had dropped the question mark, with mounting evidence supporting my colonization claim.

All Olympic bid cities are required to produce an Olympic education strategy. Olympic-related themes are introduced through social studies projects, art competitions, sporting activities, and motivational talks by Olympic athletes. Since the 1990s, cross-curriculum materials and resource kits have been widely distributed free of charge to children and teachers, sometimes reaching every child in the host country. They are developed by school personnel, university faculty, or private consultants, with corporate sponsors' funding and highly visible corporate branding.

The values embedded in these resources include fair play and cooperation, as well as concepts that fit sponsors' and Olympic boosters' agendas, including Olympic brand loyalty and the profit motive, with some of the content resembling a mini-lesson in capitalism. Accompanied by dumbed-down histories of the Olympic Games, the materials convey a simple message: "The Olympics are wonderful and our city/country is privileged to be hosting them."  Even at the university level, many Olympic studies courses are equally uncritical, as is the extensive body of sociological and historical literature on the topic. In short, don't expect your children's physical education teacher to raise complex questions of values in sport.

Nike: just doing it ... repeatedly

Nike is famous, even infamous, for its cutting-edge advertising messages, many of which appear at first glance to be tapping into progressive social movements. A 2001 Nike ad in the magazine Seventeen, for example, showed an attractive, somewhat dishevelled young woman wearing the Women's Professional Football League uniform - an image that seemed to convey an alternative, athletic version of femininity. However, the caption read, "I paint my toenails," a not-so-subtle reminder to young female readers that they could still be "pretty and feminine" (heterosexually attractive) even while playing a traditionally male sport.

In 2012, Nike came up with the self-promotional t-shirt message, "Creating role models since 1972," a claim that generations of teachers, coaches, parents and athletes might justifiably challenge. When a multinational corporation co-opts the idea of role model, it's time to consider exactly what the term means.

What's wrong with celebrity role models?

In the 1970s, the early days of the women's movement, some astute feminists claimed that "role model" was generally code for an over-worked, under-paid woman in a male-dominated job. Her individual success meant little for the overall progress of women in the workplace unless there were structural changes in society - workplace day care and anti-harassment policies, for example. Since that time, celebrities have taken over the ranks of role model, and today most world-class athletes can expect to be put on the role model pedestal by their corporate sponsors, at least until they're caught doping.

For several decades, critical educators, mostly in philosophy of education, have been questioning the concept of celebrity role model and all that it implies, but none of their arguments have diminished the popularity of the idea. Having taught in a faculty of education for 21 years, I can attest to its dominance in everyday discourse among student teachers as well as among many of my colleagues. In short, it's a hard sell to suggest that role model is a flawed idea that needs more careful scrutiny.

The basis of the role model concept in sporting contexts is the belief that young people, women, and members of disadvantaged minorities simply lack imagination - they can't picture themselves as "winners." They need to see, in the flesh (or on TV), one of their own (gender, ethnic background, social class, sexual orientation) as a world-class athlete to understand that it is actually possible. Then they should just "follow their dream" (and buy Nike running shoes). In this dream world of sport, there are no barriers based on poverty, prejudice, discrimination, or ability. All that is required is commitment and determination, and companies pay top athletes handsomely to convey that message - Lance Armstrong comes to mind.

Noting the co-optation of the role model concept, critical educators have recommended the terms "moral examplar" or "positive example" to refer to women and men whose behaviour on and off the field is worthy of admiration and emulation. As one critic pointed out, it's not a great idea to elevate a professional athlete to the status of role model when he may appear on the front pages of the next day's newspaper charged with date rape or wife assault.

Equally important, celebrity athletes are distant figures for children and youth, whereas a parent, teacher, coach, or family friend, in the role of mentor, can influence young athletes' everyday lives in positive ways by developing ongoing relationships with them. This connection cannot be replaced by an autographed poster on the kids' bedroom wall.

Nike achieved goal: sparking controversy

Clearly, Nike achieved its goals of provoking discussion through its characteristically controversial advertising strategy. The quote could simply refer to Woods' often-repeated statement that winning is (self-evidently) the way to achieve his goal of returning to re-attaining his long-held status as number one golfer in the world. Or it could be a cynical but accurate reference to the value system of sport, where past transgressions are wiped out by winning performances. Either way, it's a good entry point for a wide-ranging discussion of values and priorities in sport.

Helen Jefferson Lenskyj is Professor Emerita at the University of Toronto who writes frequently on issues of sexuality and gender in sport. 

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