Tearjerking profiles of odds overcome are a favorite segment of Olympics coverage. A few feel-good stories from these games: gymnast Gabby Douglas’s mom sold her jewelry and has filed for bankruptcy; swimmer Ryan Lochte’s family are losing their home; weightlifter Sarah Robles lives on a $400/month stipend from USA weightlifting and gets food assistance. And look at them now! Perseverance! Overcoming odds! The American way!
Sarah Jaffe argues at AlterNet that these narratives aren’t heartwarming so much as they are a farce of equal-opportunity. We are meant to feel heartened at athletes overcoming the odds, but really, she says, it takes money to become an elite athlete, and the people who are able to do it it either have money or have been given it by someone. The ways that these athletes have been able to make it isn’t because there is a system set up to help them; it’s because they’ve been able to squeeze through the cracks of a system set up for them—as anything other than wealthy Americans—to fail.
We revel in these stories of bootstraps-pulled-up, but these folks are outliers. For every Douglas and Lochte, how many kids are there whose parents couldn’t get get off work to get them to the pool, or couldn’t afford to send them to a gym? For every Robles, how many people are there who have families to provide for and couldn’t hack it on $400 a month? So yes, feel great about stories of overcoming, but don’t think it means the American dream is alive and well.