Friday, April 11, 2008

Editorial Independence - How Far Is Too Far?

Aspasia Karras' interview of Ryk Neethling is interesting. It stands in stark contrast to her interview of Confessions of a Gambler writer/actor and director Rayda Jacobs. In that interview the interviewer is almost entirely absent and the voice of the interviewee comes through very clearly.

I have interviewed Ryk's sister, and recently Roxanne Meyer who made the final at this year's Nationals in Durban. Karras writes: "Two years ago, I had to strip down to my bikini and immerse myself in his medium — I mean the pool at the High Performance Institute in Pretoria.
I did this so that he could ostensibly teach me to breast stroke."

When I (an older, unmarried male) interviewed Jean-Marie and Roxanne (both teenagers at the time) I also found them to be beautiful, inspirational, tough people. But swimming is a tough sport, and neither of these girls are just girls in bikinis. Swimming is one of the toughest sports in terms of the misery and mind-rot that comes from hours in the sterile, chlorinated confines of a bathroom-like vault filled with cool water. That deserves a lot of carefully considered respect. I believe there is a way to interview these bright young stars that inspires both them and us.

I personally don't think Ryk is 100% comfortable with some of these allusions, but they are made anyway.

"I try not to pay too much attention to it [the celebrity factor] .”
What concerns me is a purely professional interest in his swimsuit. “I’m not too keen on all these new swimsuits,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind if we went back to swimming in briefs and made it a level playing field.”

Me neither, Ryk, me neither.

A long time ago I remember Liz de Bruin won Revlon's Unforgettable Woman competition. I remember an article written about her, that painted her as this sexy, vampish, somewhat lustful person. Knowing the girl (I swam and did triathlon for a while with her brother), and knowing she often wore glasses and whilst confident, she was more modest and shy than most people, it was obvious that a lot of male license had been used to sex-up her image in the magazine story. The fairy tale goes on that she met Jurgen Klinsman (the legendary German soccer player) at a night club, didn't know who he was, until he jogged out onto the field while she was in a private booth in the stadium). Why did he like her so much? Why does Prince Edward of Monaco like Charlene Wittstock? Because swimmers are some of the most humble, intelligent, motivated and down to earth people you are likely to meet. Because of what they do they are also often very well built. So the 'sexy' take on these swimmers is a quick, shallow view that only detracts and degrades from the quality of the actual person. Isn't it stunning to have such an attractive girl (like de Bruin), and find out that behind the scenes there is a female version of the Clark Kent persona. It's an example where truth is better than fiction, and where editorial license is not only inappropriate, but not really accurate either.

In the same way, I was very aware when I interviewed Ryk's sister that I really didn't want to go into the sex symbol stuff about her brother, because it is a cheap look at a hard and difficult sport. I've had really interesting conversations with these top swimmers, because they operate at motivational levels almost no one else is capable of. How do they do it? But of course nobody asks those questions. There has to be a cliche about breast-stroke and body parts, as though it's an interview with a gym rat, or a Paris Hilton-type. How does inculcating this sort of distracting and demeaning image help the athlete communicate who he or she is? I can see how reader's lap it all up (it's a populist approach), but does the exposure (driven by a be-our-sex-symbol mentality) help the athlete more than it hinders them in their quest? Isn't it making them into our own image?

That may be par for the course - celebrities manufacture an image all the time and continually inculcate it through the media. Is it okay to work it - to spin it - the other way round? To turn people and what they say into what we want them to say?

In Roxanne's case I was very aware of how all the attention (for the wrong reasons) distracts the swimmer/athlete from essential energies that need to harnessed for a lifetime best/maximum effort. I think integrity needs to be maintained by the person doing the interview, and providing the exposure - to remain congruent and supportive of who the star is, and not who we fancy them (or ourselves in relation to them) to be.

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