Is Sexism an Official Olympic Sport?

Consistently sexist media coverage of the Olympics sets a disappointing tone for female athletes.
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Publish date:
August 15, 2016
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sexism, media, olympics

I still can't quite believe that NBC delayed the entire Olympics broadcast because sexism. But they did. And maybe that's why the media coverage of this year's Olympics — in which a number of women have been kicking butt and taking names — has been so unrelentingly terrible. It's all about the journey, and oh, what a sexist one it has been.

The Olympics are this rare time when we get to see a lot of incredibly talented athletes doing absurdly amazing and difficult things. And for a lot of sports, like lifting, it's one of the few times we see any media coverage of any kind. To have it so bitterly soured with sexism is really infuriating, and it's so deeply disrespectful to Olympic athletes, and to all women and girls in sports, including those who hope there might be an Olympics in their future.

So, a little rundown: The New York Times referred to Katie Ledecky — you know, record-breakingly amazing Katie Ledecky, the swimmer who got so far out in front of her peers that it looked like she was competing in an empty pool? — as Bruce Gemmell's "project." An "innovation" who thrived under his "tinkering," like she's a windup toy. Gemmell, for those who don't know, is Ledecky's swim coach, and it sounds like he's pretty good at what he does, but maybe the process story here should be about her, not him? Just an idea?

This isn't the only sexism Ledecky has faced: Ever since she hit the pool, people have been comparing her to a man. She's a "female Michael Phelps" or she "swims just like a man." Obviously women can't be celebrated for their accomplishments as a standalone thing, because that would upset the order of the world. How will we understand what women are doing without a man as a frame of reference?

Then there was Katinka Hosszú, who won gold and took out some records in the pool along the way, but got to hear an NBC commentator saying that her husband. Deserved the credit. For her win. The man sitting dry in the stands. Was responsible for the woman who swam her heart out.

That nauseating comment really neatly dovetails with what NBC said to justify the tape delay: Ladies, you see, aren't really into sports, but they like the Olympics because there's a narrative. Drama. Like a reality TV show. Because ladies like reality TV shows. Not sports. Just so we're clear. So, obviously, commentary on the swimming itself or, I don't know, just shutting up and letting people watch the race wouldn't be interesting to all those ladies that NBC painstakingly delayed the broadcast for, and those ladies definitely want to hear all about how an athlete's husband is responsible for her win.

Actually, you know what, let's just start referring to women the context of their husbands, like the Chicago Tribune did when it did a story about the wife of a "Bears lineman," who I guess won some medal or something, IDK? They can't possibly have been referring to trap shooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein, right? (I look forward to seeing reporting on football referencing players by their spouses, because I bet Corey Cogdell-Unrein's husband is super great at linemanning, whatever that is.)

Then we had NBC saying that the U.S. women's gymnastics team stands around like they're at a mall, which, what? Doesn't even make sens—OH, because they're girls, right? Just like the girls that Fox news commentators tore apart for wearing makeup, or not wearing enough makeup, or wearing the wrong kind of makeup, because obviously the makeup choices of female Olympians should be thoughtfully dissected on national media, since that is a valuable contribution to the world.

NBC commentators also helpfully identified Larissa França's wife, Liliane Maestrini, as her husband when the two celebrated after the Brazilian athlete got off the beach volleyball court. Meanwhile, the Mercury News may have taken the cake with their "Phelps shares historic night with African-American" headline, since apparently they didn't have room for a story about Michael Phelps AND a story about Simone Manuel.

And that's just U.S. media. The BBC obsessed over an Egyptian beach volleyball player's hijab and referred to a judo match as a catfight; the Korea Times made snarky comments about whether a tall volleyball player would be able to find a boyfriend, and an SBS commentator cracked a joke about a judoka's age; a German journalist spent an interview mocking rider Julia Krajewski with bizarre comments about being a "scaredy cat" on the course; a Brazilian news commentator asked a judoka about her weight; and a CBC commentator said a Chinese swimmer "went out like stink and died like a pig," whatever that was supposed to mean.

All of this sexism is not just your imagination: A recent study from Cambridge took a look at the way people talk about women and men in sports, finding that men get described in terms of what they do, while women get described in terms of who they are. And at the Olympics, where we have a rare opportunity to actually see women's sports in primetime, it becomes painfully apparent.

The only ladies at the Olympics who aren't being subjected to endless sexist commentary are of the equine variety, and that's a sad comment on the state of society. In recent years, U.S. media should have clearly seen that women really are seriously interested in sports, actually, but also that women's sports themselves are a matter of interest when networks bother to air them. It was the U.S. women's team who played the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history, after all.

But when your sports is coming with a heady helping of sexism, it becomes more and more unendurable over time. NBC's quest to "package" the Olympics is making them more unpalatable, displaying a fundamental disconnect, a lack of understanding, between television executives and the people consuming their content.

Women who are passionate about sports love the Olympics, especially since their favorite sports rarely appear in the media. Some women who aren't passionate about sports love the Olympics too, because they're an event, and a chance to see amazing women from all over the world doing incredible things. Some people undoubtedly do enjoy process stories and learning about the journey, but that's what magazines are for. NBC has an exclusive contract to air Olympics coverage in the U.S., so they least they could do is actually air that coverage sans obnoxious commentary.

I haven't been watching as much Olympics coverage this year in part because of the incredibly irritating tape delay, but also because of the toxic levels of sexism. I want people to talk about what the athletes are doing, not who their partners are or when they had babies or any number of other personal details. For color commentary, I look to local interest stories — if an athlete is from the Bay Area, I'd expect to find a feature about her in the Chronicle, for example, but I'd hope that the feature concentrated on her athletic prowess and how hard she worked to get there, rather than minute details of her life.

If women at the literal top of their game can't hope to be celebrated for who they are instead of what they're wearing (or not wearing), who they're married to, how many children they have, where they're from, who their coaches are, and any number of other mundane personal details, how are ordinary women supposed to have a chance?

There's a reason we rarely get to see women's sports on the television, and this is it: because fundamentally, the people in power don't care about what women do, and they assume that holds true for everyone. They think they need to sex up coverage of women's sports because it genuinely doesn't occur to them that...maybe people just want to watch women's sports?