Coverage of the Rio Olympics: A Study in Sexism

As Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu finished the 400-meter individual medley, clinching gold and shattering the world record, the camera panned to her husband, who NBC commentator Dan Hicks blithely described as “the guy responsible.” Um…excuse me? Because I’m pretty sure I just watched a badass woman accomplish something incredible: winning Olympic gold a full 5 seconds ahead of her nearest competition. I’m all about recognizing the people who support athletes (parents, partners, coaches, etc.), but there was only one person in the pool who touched that wall first…and it wasn’t Shane Tusup.

So sexism is alive and well at the Rio Games. It’s not exactly new for coverage of the Olympics to be sexist, but in 2016, it’s incredibly frustrating. We should be celebrating that 45% of the athletes this year are female, but instead we are chronicling the many instances of casual sexism in sports. The advent of social media has given such commentary greater visibility, which is actually a good thing (we have to call it what it is before we can demand change). Lest you think sexism at the Olympics is merely anecdotal, a recent Cambridge University study found that male athletes are two to three times more likely to be mentioned in a sporting context than their female counterparts. The only time women are mentioned more is when overt gender marking is used to label their sport as “other.” Women athletes are more likely than men to be described in terms age, appearance, and relationship status. Let’s take a look at each of those more closely:

Age: Is it just me, or do sports commentators seem obsessed with infantilizing grown women? I am so tired of hearing female gymnasts, cyclists, golfers, swimmers, volleyball and soccer players, and others referred to as “girls” when their counterparts are rarely referred to as “boys.” It seems to me that people feel the need to use the term in order to make dominant female athletes more palatable to male viewers who may find them threatening. The media also seems hell-bent on highlighting the “girlishness” of female competitors, particularly gymnasts. Simone Biles’s backstory focuses on her love of nail polish and shopping rather than her athletic prowess. As the “Final Five” huddled together during the team event in which they obliterated the competition, a commentator remarked, “They might as well be standing in the middle of the mall.” When gold medalist Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands wrote in a notebook after what would be her winning balance beam routine, the NBC reporter said he could only assume it was a diary. Former Olympian Nastia Liukin corrected him: Wevers was calculating her potential score. Look, I know Biles loves Zac Efron, but I think we can do better than reducing incredible athletes to teenage behaviors.

Appearance: When it comes to coverage of women’s sports, aesthetics wins over athletics. The UK’s Daily Mail ran an article about the best and worst leotards at the Rio Olympics. Seriously. Fox News’s Mark Simone and Bo Dietl debated the merits of female athletes wearing makeup, with Dietl remarking, “When you see an athlete, why should you have to look at some chick’s zits?” Wow. And that’s just the mainstream media. People have taken to Twitter to body shame Mexican gymnast Alexa Moreno and criticize Gabby Douglas…for her hair. And apparently objectification of athletes isn’t just for women anymore. The shirtless Tongan flag bearer (Pita Aufatofua…he has a name, people!) gained notoriety during the opening ceremonies. And then he was oiled up on live TV by some female Today Show hosts. So apparently we are more equal opportunity when it comes to sexualizing our athletes. Yay?

Relationship Status - Marriage: So we have Hosszu whose accomplishment was credited to her husband, but we also have American trap shooter and three-time Olympian Corey Cogdell-Unrein whose bronze medal was outshone by her role as…wife. The Chicago Tribune ran a headline that read, “Wife of a Bears’ linemen wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.” Some claimed that newspaper was simply providing local context, but if that was true, they simply could have said she was from Chicago. And, I don’t know, named her directly. When Chinese diver He Zi received a proposal on the podium from her boyfriend, some anchors suggested it was even better than a medal. I’m all for celebrating an engagement, but not when it’s used to diminish an achievement like a silver medal. Unfortunately, being defined by one’s husband is fairly ubiquitous in this country. Amal Alamuddin is an accomplished lawyer and activist and an advisor to United Nationals Secretary-General Kofi Annan, but we know her as Mrs. George Clooney. When Hillary Clinton broke the glass ceiling as the first woman nominated for the presidency by a major political party, newspapers around the country ran pictures of her husband. It just goes to show that, no matter how high you go, you’re only as good as the man closest to you.

Relationship Status – Motherhood: If you are a mom and an Olympic athlete, we’ll be hearing about it. Any story about Kerri Walsh-Jennings or Dana Vollmer centers around their role as mothers. I get it – I’m a mom and it’s a big part of my identity. But these women are also world class athletes. The media seems especially fixated on the fact that Vollmer gave birth a year ago and is competing at the Olympic level again. They marvel that she “hasn’t lost her edge,” as if motherhood is some kind of debilitating condition. I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with the focus on parenthood if it was applied equally to male athletes. We have seen a good deal of little Boomer Phelps, but his dad Michael is defined by his dominance in pool rather than his role as dad.

The media also seems unable to describe the athletic feats of women without comparing them to men. Katie Ledecky’s male teammates have been quoted as saying she “swims like a man” and news outlets have frequently referred to her as the “female Michael Phelps.” When Biles dismounted from the uneven bars, a commentator said, “I think she might even go higher than some of the men.” It’s as if the anchors think we can’t possibly grasp the remarkableness of what female athletes are doing without using men as a reference. Why can’t we just recognize how awesome these women are in their own right? Biles had an excellent response to such comparisons: “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps…I’m the first Simone Biles.”

There’s a discrepancy between the quantity and quality of coverage of male and female athletes as well. Phelps’s tie for silver in the 100-meter butterfly was deemed more important than Ledecky crushing her own world record in the 800-meter freestyle. Ledecky was so far ahead of her competition that she was swimming in the opposite direction at a certain point, but the Associated Press gave Phelps top billing. Consider the difference when the story is negative. Gabby Douglas was utterly vilified for failing to put her hand over her heart during the medal ceremony for the team final. Ryan Lochte and company, however, were given a pass when they concocted a story to cover up a night of drunken debauchery. Lochte and the other swimmers lied about being robbed at gunpoint on national television and may have filed a false police report, but Rio Olympics spokesman Mario Andrada encouraged the public to “give these kids a break.” Lochte is 32. If you take issue with both Douglas’s and Lochte’s behavior…fine. But it’s pretty clear who is getting the benefit of the doubt in the court of public opinion, and that person is white and male. And that’s called privilege, folks.

Things have to change. In another four years, I don’t want to hear a women’s judo final referred to as a “catfight” or a beach volleyball match between Germany and Egypt dubbed “Bikini vs. Burka.” Let’s use social media in a positive way by calling attention to what’s become every day sexism. Outcry does work. The Chicago Tribune issued an apology. Offensive tweets were deleted. Broadcaster Rowdy Gaines asserted, “A lot of people say she swims like a man. She swims like Katy Ledecky, for crying out loud!” We also need to change the culture so offensive comments aren’t made in the first place. Let’s pressure major news outlets to represent women equally and dump commentators who can’t get with the program. NBC’s chief marketing officer John Miller thinks women aren’t real sports fans and that we’re less interested in results (yeah, that’s why you ran all the commercials…because we like reality tv packaging). Why don’t we see how he likes it when we don’t watch at all? We can also act by knowing the names of and celebrating our female champions in the way they deserve.

While watching the Olympics with my family, my husband leaned down to our 15 month-old daughter and said, “You could be an Olympian someday.” That would be amazing. But I worry about her and other young girls who aspire to greatness. According to a study by Dove, 6 in 10 girls will stop doing what they love because they feel badly about their looks. Olympic sexism tells these young women that they’ll be subjected to incredible scrutiny and that their achievements may very well be credited to or diminished by men. I’m so glad there are role models like Biles and Ledecky to inspire and pave the way for the next generation of amazing women athletes. With their efforts, and the support of a public that condemns sexism, maybe the paths of future female superstars will be just a little bit easier.