You know, I was really looking forward to the Rio Olympics this year. I admit that this was partly to see if anything would crash and burn in light of the Zika virus, infrastructure concerns and other such controversies, but I was also genuinely interested in watching the sports. This love runs contrary to my bookish exterior, but it’s true – watching Megan Rapinoe, Tom Daley and Usain Bolt dominate their events is exhilarating. However, nothing killed this pleasure quite like the awfully sexist coverage of this year’s Olympic games.
Most of the exceptionally bad comments probably dominated your social media feeds. The Chicago Tribune introduced trap shooting bronze medalist Corey Cogdell Unrein as the “wife of a Bears lineman,” and an announcer gave credit for Hungarian gold medalist Katinka Hosszú’s feat to her husband and coach – referring to him as “the guy responsible.” Not to mention the constant comparisons of women to girls at the mall or the labeling of breakout swimmer Katie Ledecky as “the female Michael Phelps.” It was easy to feel overwhelmed as constant reports of Olympics sexism rolled in and it made me wonder what was causing seemingly every reporter and announcer to transform into a sexist pig. The vast amount of outrageous stories and reporting that came from this year’s games, however, points to one main conclusion: sexist reporting is still a problem that needs to be addressed. At the same time, we saw how social media can help the general public hold the media accountable.
It is quite disheartening to read and hear example after example of sexism in sports coverage. We like to think that we have advanced beyond blatant sexism in reporting, yet devaluing the accomplishments of elite female athletes shows that our culture is still deeply biased against women. People have tried to defend these gaffes in various ways. For example, it has been pointed out that Hosszú’s husband did in fact play a significant role in her training and coaching and this is perhaps what the announcer was trying to convey. That doesn’t change the fact that she is the one who was in the pool and she is the one who responsible for winning the medal. Crediting her husband minimizes her accomplishments. Is this 1950 or 2016?
Aside from the transferring of credit from female successes to male counterparts, the constant fixation of the commentators and general public on the bodies of the female athletes cannot be ignored. The media needlessly focused on the athletes’ appearances, such as having far-to-detailed discussions of female gymnasts’ leotards. If that doesn’t scream “pointless and objectifying,” I don’t know what does.
There is a deep, underlying problem of sexism in Olympics reporting, and sports reporting in general, that became all too evident in Rio. For me, this raises the important question – why is this happening? Why haven’t we heard such a wall of frankly offensive coverage before 2016? I would argue that this is not a new problem, but that we now live in a culture that is becoming more aware of sexism. We have become ready and willing to call out bad reporting. We truly have social media to thank for increasing awareness of these headlines and comments more quickly than ever. One would hope that this fact gives news reporters a catalyst to improve their reporting and rethink their sexist rhetoric, but it appears that we now have a way to fight this phenomenon until that happens.
A final question ought to be posed now – are we going to actually do anything to fix this problem with the power of the internet, or will we simply make angry posts on Facebook that do not accomplish anything? Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s an easy solution to ending sexist reporting in athletics or in general. Simply tweeting at NBC executives, for example, will accomplish very little. This is a question worth further exploration. If we can figure out how to harness social media in a way that raises visibility of these problems in the first place, perhaps change can actually occur. Anger only gets us so far. Now it is time to make the next step: change the way we talk about female athletes, as well as women in general, and give them the respect they deserve.
Dylan Walker ’18 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Mountain Grove, Mo. They major in classics with concentrations in film studies and women’s and gender studies.