Tennis star Li Na is familiar with media controversy, but it’s typically due to her off-the-cuff remarks or political jabs. This time, however, an international sports-journalism-shitstorm was started when Brook Larmer, an American reporter for the NYTimes mistranslated “hormone medication” that Li discussed taking for menstrual issues as “steroid pills.”
Larmer wrote a lengthy profile of Li for the Times which included the “steroid pills” quote, and the Chinese state media (not fans of the outspoken Li) jumped on it, leading to an international clusterfuck, as Global Times reports:
Steroids aren’t illegal in themselves, but, used in a sporting context and without further clarification, people would naturally assume that these steroids were of the anabolic variety, which are all banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. That’s exactly the conclusion that sections of the Chinese media jumped to following the piece, before taking another leap and claiming that Li took testosterone.
The truth was that Larmer had mistranslated the phrase for “hormone medication” – The New York Times was forced to issue an apology – and Chinese media then misconstrued the already erroneous translation. The reason for the medicine, Li says, was menstrual issues she had prior to the 2002 Asian Games.
Larmer, The New York Times and Chinese media all share part of the blame for a non-story that was hyped into something sensational: Larmer should have used the word “steroid” with more care, not to mention the mistranslation; The New York Times should have fact-checked the story, and Chinese media, whose collective relationship with Li has often been strained, should have restrained themselves.
But here’s the thing: The original source for the “story” was Li’s own autobiography Fighting Alone. If she had indeed taken an illegal substance, would she really have written about it in her book?
It’s a terrible day when the Global Times runs a story criticizing the NYTimes reportage standards and they’re not wrong.