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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The media construction of Simon Whitfield : producing a Canadian Olympic champion Darnell, Simon C.

Abstract

This thesis analyzes the media coverage and marketing of the Canadian Olympic athlete Simon Whitfield. Whitfield, a 25 year-old from Kingston Ontario, won the first ever gold medal in the Olympic men's triathlon at the 2000 Sydney Games. The victory propelled him to the status of Canadian celebrity and afforded him increased commercial opportunities including corporate sponsorships and product endorsements. This research combined two methodologies: 1) a textual analysis of Canadian media coverage of Whitfield and a keyword search of the coverage, and 2) interviews with five Canadian sports journalists that covered Whitfield and four marketing representatives from companies that sponsored Whitfield or employed him as a product endorser. Whitfield was also interviewed to provide an athlete's perspective on the media production and marketing processes. The results revealed thematic consistencies in the Canadian media coverage of Whitfield, particularly with respect to Canadian national identity, the value of an Olympic gold medal and Whitfield's status as a Canadian hero. These results support previous research that found recurring themes of athletic heroism and myths of Canadian nationalism in the production of Canadian sports media (MacNeill, 1996, Gruneau, 1989). Interviews with journalists confirmed the observed elements of the Whitfield story - his Canadian identity, gold medal victory, heroic performance, as well as other features (genuine personality, athletic good looks) - that made him newsworthy. Covering these attributes of Whitfield helped newsmakers to produce news that was attractive to audiences, and maintained circulation, viewership, and ad ratings, strengthening the media "audience commodity" (Sparks, 1992). Interviews with marketers revealed that Whitfield was commercially attractive because the meanings associated with his media image could be attached to brands through the endorsement and sponsorship process in order to improve brand equity, the value that consumers attribute to a brand of product or service (Keller, 1993). The results support a model of celebrity product endorsement based on the transfer of meanings from the endorser to the product and subsequently, to the consumer (McCracken, 1989). Overall, the results suggest intertextual linkages between media production and marketing as they relate to celebrity athletes in Canada. Whitfield's positive media image was understood to impact his marketability and contributed to a "vortex of publicity" (Wernick, 1991) by linking stages along the promotional chain.

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