Sexism in the Olympics

This Rio Olympics, one of the hottest topics on social media is shedding light on yet another form of sexism: namely, the manner in which female Olympians are described, in terms that detract from their incredible, hard-earned achievements at the games. Backlash has hit Twitter, Facebook, and now the headlines, which is great because frankly, it’s about time sports journalists’ word choice regarding female athletes was evaluated.

However, the Rio Olympics’ sexist coverage was likely unsurprising to researches at Cambridge University Press, who, prior to the games, conducted studies “relating to men and women and how they are described in language associated with the Olympic Sports.” Their analysis of at least 160 million words regarding sports showed that female athletes’ outfits, looks and personal lives feature more heavily in descriptions than their achievements and athleticism. Words used in association with competitive males include ‘dominate’ and ‘mastermind’ while their female counterparts ‘compete,’ ‘participate’ or even ‘strive.’

These observations reveal that in general, men are taken more seriously than women in sport, which is problematic because women break down more barriers and take more risks to get to the same elite level of competition, especially in events that are traditionally male-dominated or give the advantage to men. In sports such as cycling, women don’t receive the same amount of pay or prize money and in swimming, the longest race distance available to female swimmers is 800m while men are able to compete over 1500m. There seems to be no good reason for this other than inertia from tradition, and it would be nice to see the range of events open up for female athletes to really give them a chance to showcase their athletic prowess. A possible step towards this would be to alter the way they are written and spoken about in order to give them the respect they deserve.

Women have fought just as hard as men for their place at the games, and put just as many hours into their training and Olympic dreams. So why on earth are their victories attributed to their male relatives or described in terms of well-known male Olympians, like when NBC’s commentator proclaimed Katinka Hosszu’s husband responsible for her world record, or Simone Biles was called the next Phelps?

Some other instances in which commentators and sports writers’ female-directed vocabularies fell short of the mark include the following:

Three-time Olympic trap shooter Corey Cogdell won a bronze medal on August 7, but when the Chicago Tribune reported her win, her name made no appearance in the headline. Instead, it read “Wife or a Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics,” giving the impression that her husband’s fame was more important to her achievement than her own name or athletic history. Although one commenter pointed out that the headline may have been a way for the newspaper to introduce Cogdell in a way that its readers would recognize and understand, it stands to reason that they could’ve at least thrown Cogdell’s name in there somewhere.

Simone Manuel’s historic gold medal—she was the first female, African-American to win an individual swimming event – was reported by one paper as, “Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American.” The newspaper, Mercury News, later apologized, but it wasn’t the only one to overlook the importance of Manuel’s presence at the Olympics, nor was it alone in shining the spotlight on Phelps.

Another American swimmer, Katie Ledecky, was reduced to a small subheadline after beating her own world record in the 800 freestyle while Michael Phelps’ tie for silver took the main headline. Ledecky’s been consistently compared to men, with Ryan Lochte saying that “she swims like a man,” and “her times are becoming good for a guy.” Without a doubt, Ledecky is a strong, talented swimmer in her own right, and she doesn’t need to be held up to a male standard for everybody to see that. Not just that—she’s a walking reminder that women are able to swim just as fast as men, and just because she’s fast doesn’t mean she swims like a man; she swims like a world-class swimmer. Lochte’s unfortunate choice of words carries the implication that if women swim like women, they can’t be as incredible as Ledecky is in the water, and that’s clearly not true.

Also, British tennis player and feminist Andy Murray called out a BBC television presenter who overlooked the Williams sisters’ gold medals, reminding him that “Venus and Serena [Williams] have won about four each” after the presenter, John Inverdale, said that Murray was the first two win two golds in tennis.

These, and many more such incidents, go to show that there’s still a long way to go until men and women are spoken of and perceived as equals in the Olympic arena. Part of this may be attributed to white males making up 81% of sports journalists, leading to a lack of diversity in the media that affects coverage of other ethnicities and genders. This isn’t just a problem at the Olympics; it’s a normality in the world of sport.

There is no good reason that female athletes should be taken any less seriously in their athletic endeavors than men, nor should they be restricted by the variety of opportunity and competition available to them. A significant increase in diversity and respect is needed for all athletes to be recognized for their fullest potential and be noticed for their abilities rather than their lipstick colors. Now, that’s the dream.

This article was written by Jade Carraway, a writer for dusk magazine.

2 Comments on Sexism in the Olympics

  1. Great piece. I find things like this happen not just in the Olympics, but seemingly everywhere we go. Even in such events such as the Red Carpet or the Golden Globes, interviewers aren’t so much interested in what the actresses have accomplished in their field so much as their (as you said) lipstick color, or hair, or what they’re wearing. I feel that maybe in some of the cases you pointed out, headlines and reporters probably didn’t mean to offend or insult the athletes; things have just been that way for so long. Habits are hard to break.


    • wordsjadewrote // September 3, 2016 at 1:14 am // Reply

      Thanks! I definitely agree with the point you made — a lot of the time incidents such as these are unintentional and occur due to misconceptions or stereotypes regarding women that have been present and prominent in our culture for a long time. I don’t think blaming the reporters or writers themselves is the answer, but I do hope that increasing awareness and diversity will help alleviate the issue.


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