Post-game interviews are standard practice in sports journalism. More often than not, their primary purpose is to elicit emotion—to puncture the illusion of the unflappable, stoic athlete. Hence, the eternal idiotic query: What does this win mean to you? Of course, most of the time, the answers, like the questions, are not particularly interesting. I’ve always wondered how things would look if we interviewed the losers of high-stakes competitions with the same enthusiasm that we interviewed the winners. But is there a point where the search for a compelling sports narrative becomes a form of exploitation?
This was a sub-theme of sorts at the recent USATF National Championships, where two of the country’s biggest track stars had uncharacteristically poor showings and subsequently decided not to discuss it with the media. At last year’s Olympic Trials, Cole Hocker and Sha’Carri Richardson stole the show by winning the 1,500- and 100-meters, respectively. One year later, neither athlete made it past the first round of heats in their best event, despite racing well in early season meets. Surely, this was news, but there was no on-site debrief for curious fans. Instead, Richardson eventually made a short in-person statement at the end of the meet, in which she took the media to task for not being sufficiently respectful and callously foisting their cameras in athletes’ faces. “Understand how an athlete operates and then ask your questions,” Richardson said. “Then be more understanding of the fact that they are still human, no matter just to the fact that y’all are just trying to get something to put out in an article to make a dollar.”
There is, of course, nothing particularly unusual about pro athletes opting not to speak to the press after a disappointing performance. It happens all the time in more high-profile sports like basketball, where athletes from the losing team frequently opt to pass on the drudgery of the post-game press conference. But one feature of the latter, at least in major sports leagues, is that they tend to take place after players have had time to shower and decompress from the physical and mental rigors of elite competition. Not so in track and field, where athletes are often confronted by the press in the mixed zone immediately after finishing their races. They are still sweaty, jacked up on adrenaline, and on some extreme end of the emotional spectrum when they are asked to reflect on what just transpired. In a way, it’s like being expected to give an interview while drunk.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Ben Rosario, the former head coach and current executive director of the Northern Arizona Elite running team, told me that he thinks the mixed zone is “essential” to the sport. “Seeing and hearing the raw emotion from athletes moments after a competition ends is what makes them human,” Rosario says. “These interviews are how we as fans have gotten to know these athletes over the years. You are never your true self more than in those few minutes.” For a case in point, look no further than this infamous mixed zone interview with 5,000-meter runner Julia Lucas at the 2012 Olympic Trials—a race in which she was out-leaned at the line to miss the third and final spot on the Olympic team. Lucas gives an articulate recap of what has to be the most wrenching moment of her athletic career, seconds after it occurred. Raw emotion doesn’t get any more real than this: in the interview, Lucas says that not making the Olympic team meant that her season was “pretty much a failure” and then starts to laugh, as if still incredulous about what has just gone down. It’s gripping stuff—in the way that it’s usually gripping to be a voyeur of someone else’s pain.
While the post-competition interview has long been part of the deal of being a professional athlete, in the age of social media every utterance has a chance to live on forever in the internet, where it can be publicly dissected by every armchair shitposter. This, unsurprisingly, can add an additional layer of stress. When I reached out to Renaldo Nehemiah, a former professional track and field athlete and NFL player who is currently Richardson’s agent, he told me that, thanks to the relentlessness of social media, athletes today are “far more sensitive” than when he was competing. “To shield themselves from additional scrutiny, I believe today’s athletes try to avoid the media at certain times,” Nehemiah told me. He added that being forced to articulate the sadness of missing out on making an Olympic or World Championship team immediately after the fact can be a traumatic experience in and of itself. “Sometimes it can take hours or days to fully come to terms with that disappointment,” Nehemiah says. “Thus, I don’t fault an athlete if he or she feels that it’s in their best interest to not revisit and speak on those fresh events.”
Last year, when tennis ace Naomi Osaka caused a stir at the French Open by boycotting mandatory press conferences (and eventually withdrawing from competition) out of concern for her mental health, she was criticized by Gilles Moretton, the president of the French Tennis Federation, for “damaging the sport.” Meanwhile, some prominent sports journalists suggested that Osaka was setting a dangerous precedent. It was hard to see these responses without reading them as an establishment coming to grips with the fact that they needed a star like Osaka more than she needed them. The question has been asked before, but it’s worth reiterating: In a landscape where certain high-profile athletes and brands have larger platforms than the news outlets that seek to cover them, what incentive do these athletes have to engage with the press—especially a press that might ask uncomfortable questions? After the kerfuffle about her bypassing reporters at this year’s national championships, Richardson tweeted: “Since you want to talk, I am coming out with my own platform so fans can really connect and learn the sport, as well as the athletes and the stories & questions put out is what the world actually want to know and it’s real, not sold for a dollar.” As of this writing, she has 2.2 million followers on Instagram—far more than the sport’s governing body or any major running publication.
For his part, Hocker opted to explain his underwhelming performance in an Instagram post a few days after the fact. He’d suffered a foot injury a few weeks back and had been forced to cross-train in the 14 days leading up to the U.S. Championships. He’d hoped his training up to the injury would be enough to carry him through, but no dice. Why he chose not to share this information with reporters after the race is anyone’s guess, but since neither he nor Richardson had any obligation to speak with the media after their races at USAs, it’s not like either athlete is guilty of some grave transgression.
Nonetheless, I hope that disappointed athletes will continue to occasionally bare their souls to mixed-zone reporters. I don’t say that because I have a fetish for post-race misery, or because I have a vested interest in certain traditional running media outlets maintaining their relevance. Rather, it’s because I sometimes worry that we’re headed towards a future where the only time we get to hear from pro runners is through carefully crafted social media posts or podcasts where they yuk it up with some overly obsequious host. That’s already the status quo in many sports where access to top stars comes with the precondition that you stick to their terms. How dull is that?