Illustration by Joe Lai.
Illustration by Joe Lai.

In the world of the 21st century, where cameras are built into every cell phone and news is published faster than you can say “Twitter,” it has become easier than ever before for the private to become public, for celebrity indiscretions to hit the front pages of check-out aisle tabloids and gossip websites alike.

Olympic snowboarder Scotty Lago found this out the hard way this past week when, after winning a bronze medal in the half-pipe event, he was photographed in what some would consider a rather compromising position holding the medal directly below his groin while a female admirer bit the medal and his teammate looked on.

Although Lago issued an apology to the United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) last Friday when the pictures were leaked onto, he was still dealt a significant punishment when the USSA, in accordance with the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), pressured him into leaving the Vancouver Olympics.

While the salacious photo op may not have been the most dignified way for Lago to celebrate his victory, in no way did it necessitate his “voluntary” withdrawal from the Olympic community. The USSA code of conduct doesn’t have a “no lascivious medal-biting” clause, nor is there any formal rule specifically instructing that an athlete can be sent packing for what the Olympic Committee deems to be a behavioral infraction.

Regardless, Lago’s pose was rather tame, especially in comparison to more recent athlete photo mishaps such as Michael Phelps’ infamous bong hit or the naked pictures of Portland Trailblazers center Greg Oden that were leaked onto cyberspace last month. And unlike most sagas involving professional athletes, Lago wasn’t doing anything immoral or illegal — he was just a young man, celebrating one of the best days of his life, who got caught up in the moment and didn’t stop to think, “Could someone be taking a picture of me?”

In addition, Lago’s decision to leave — heavily influenced by the threat of repercussions from the USSA and USOC — only brought more public attention to the matter. It serves as yet another example of the media focusing too much attention on the daily indiscretions of professional athletes.

While many people can’t help but be intrigued by celebrity gossip, most sports fans tire easily of hearing about the personal lives of their favorite players unless it directly affects their performance come game day. They don’t need a constant tally update of how many mistresses Tiger Woods has had, nor do they need to hear the details of his stint in sex rehab — rather, their response is to plug their ears and say, “Wake me up when he starts golfing again.” It’s gotten to the point where the lines between ESPN, CNN and Access Hollywood are blurring, to where sports are being turned into a soap opera of rumor and innuendo. Is this sort of fodder expected to make headlines because athletes are public figures? Sure. But whether or not it should is a whole other matter.

Instead of accepting Lago’s apology and moving on, the USOC used him as a scapegoat, a poster boy to show what happens to Olympians when they misbehave in the slightest and to implement the strict no-nonsense attitude that its members have adopted in the wake of the Phelps scandal. By doing this, they have only brought more unwanted public attention on the incident, which leads the focus away from the games themselves and to a proliferation of tabloid journalism.

The USOC needs to relax its trigger-friendly attitude and leave the significant punishments to much bigger infractions. And in the meantime, its members should deal with the more pressing issues on their plate, such as ensuring the safety of their athletes during practice and competitions.