How far can sports columnists go?

Published On August 4, 2012 | By shesgamesports

Mariel Zagunis looks devastated after losing to Olga Kharlan in the bronze medal match. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

By Lois Elfman

When I finally broke down and joined Twitter about a year and a half ago I told myself it was just to promote my work. Okay, maybe I’d occasionally also post links to other things I found amusing and maybe I’d exchange humorous tweets with people I know. One thing I wouldn’t do is get into any Twitter wars. I kept that promise…until this week.

A few days ago, I got into a (fairly mild mannered as Twitter wars go) battle with a sports columnist from the Washington Post (yes, I know you have to have a bit of a death wish to debate the ego-driven mind that is a sports columnist) over fencer Mariel Zagunis.

I don’t know Mariel Zagunis and what I know about fencing could fit on the head of a pin, but since Ms. Zagunis had momentarily put down her sword I felt compelled to pick it up. Since her sense of attack was a bit dulled by devastating losses, I felt the need to stick up for her and for all “small sport” athletes who toil in relative anonymity, not only in the time between Olympic Games but even at the Games.

Let’s call it Olympic Games syndrome and unquestionably the byproduct of being a sports journalist who largely covers women’s sports, where even athletes who vie in big time sports like basketball are relegated to streaming coverage on the web or NBC’s affiliate networks. Yes NBC, I’m still waiting to see the talent-heavy U.S. women’s basketball team shown in prime time. We’re at four Olympics and counting.

Back to Mariel Zagunis and why I broke my own rules for her. In part, I blame her teammate Tim Morehouse, who nominated Zagunis to be the U.S. flag bearer in the Opening Ceremony. As Zagunis was quoted as saying, Morehouse can be very persuasive. He’s such a passionate advocate for his sport that he sucks you in. Every “small sport” deserves a Tim Morehouse.

As a sports journalist, I know the difference between a reporter and a columnist. Reporters report. Columnists offer their opinions. Sometimes those opinions are pretty intense, but they’re rarely meant to be deliberately cruel. This week, in my flush of Olympic Games syndrome, I felt a columnist named Mike Wise crossed the line when he took a sledgehammer not just to Mariel Zagunis, but to all athletes who work tirelessly without TV cameras, without sponsors and with precious little but the love and support of their families and teammates.

Wise said he wasn’t being “mean”, just “harshly honest” when he assailed Zagunis, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in women’s sabre (the first American to win gold in fencing since 1904) for losing her Olympic spirit, her semifinal match and subsequent bronze medal match.

His reasoning, “No one but fencers care about fencing after the Olympics are over. And nothing is as over as when the Olympics are over,” he wrote. “So while they’re going on, niche athletes need to savor the Games and smile more often for those two weeks, give opponents that beat them credit more often—because they really matter to most of us only every four years.”

As much as we’re force-fed stories about sex and partying in the Olympic Village, let’s be clear. Many of these people have sacrificed years of their lives, training diligently while working full-time jobs and put their hearts and souls into competing at the Olympics. It’s not a vacation. It’s the core of who and what they are.

Mariel Zagunis psyched herself out. That sucks, but she doesn’t need a lesson from a sports columnist about what she should have done differently.

Who should a sports columnist go after? Athletes who displays poor sportsmanship or in defeat place blame on others—coach, audience, referee and such.

An athlete who twice rose to the pinnacle of Olympic glory and propelled interest in her sport in a country that knows little about it (I promise to learn the differences between foil, sabre and epee), but who suffered a brain fart at the worst possible time doesn’t need a lesson in Olympic perspective. She and her fellow fencers especially don’t need to be reminded that no one cares about their sport except for when they’re adding to the U.S. medal count. They are what sport is about at its essence. Don’t take away their heart.

I got into a Twitter war. It was about time.

Lois Elfman is a veteran journalist covering women’s and Olympic sports. She is the WNBA editor of HOOP, the official magazine of the NBA, and a correspondent for the New York Amsterdam News and

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