As Women Succeed at Olympics, Commentators Fail to Discuss Their Success Without Sexism

female olympians
Photos: Getty Images

One hundred and sixteen years ago, the second modern Olympic Games were held in Paris — and women were only allowed to compete in three sports: tennis, croquet, and golf.

A century later, the 2012 London Summer Olympics marked the first time that every participating country had female athletes in their delegation, it seems that few strides have been made in how the media and the world at large talks about the apparently still shocking fact that women play sports, and that some are super good at it and even win medals.

Because while commentators and journalists seem to be able to discuss male athletes and their achievements at the Games without having to constantly discuss their gender — indeed, I have yet to see a headline boasting, “Cisgender Male Swimmer Takes Home Most Medals Ever” — the struggle continues to be all too real when it comes to giving female athletes equitable treatment.

Nancy Leong, a professor at the University of Denver’s law school, lays out the fundamental problem in one simple tweet how the media in general have been covering the Olympics:

Indeed, the Rio Olympics have become a master class in diminishing women’s achievements and of attempting to do one worse by trying to force female athletes into a certain standard, image, and narrative predetermined for them by an old-school patriarchal press who seem to not get the whole thing that women can be athletes — and that they don’t always have to qualified as “women athletes.”

Let’s look at a few examples:

Remarkably, when Michael Phelps scowled at a South African rival before a meet, his intensely angry face, while quickly turned into a meme, was still noted as “remarkable” and ultimately seen as a sign of the seriousness and intensity he brings to his sport. No one told him to smile.

And this weekend, when Chinese diver He Zi received a marriage proposal from her boyfriend, fellow Chinese Olympian (and mere bronze medalist) Qin Xai, right after receiving her own silver medal, the BBC called the marriage proposal “an even better prize” than medaling in her sport. (Interestingly, there was no comparable news story exclaiming that Xai’s imminent walk down the aisle was a bigger achievement than his Olympic medal.)

But wait, there’s more.

When female athlete Corey Cogdell won a bronze medal for trap shooting, she was ID’d by the Chicago Tribune not by her name, but as a professional football player’s wife.

Meanwhile, NBC’s commentators had the audacity to compare the #FinalFive, the gold medal-winning American women’s gymnastics team to a group of teenage girls hanging out at the mall. Clearly, if you are a young woman hanging out with other young women, the only thing you could possibly be doing is shopping and not simply making Olympic history.

That said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with young women hanging out at the mall. The mall is great. No woman should be judged if she likes going to the mall more than she likes playing sports. But we need to dismantle the hierarchy of merit that women are expected to conform to in order to be considered successful by society.

Michelle Carter competes in the women's shot put final on Day 7 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo: Getty Images)
Michelle Carter competes in the women’s shot put final on Day 7 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo: Getty Images)

Consider Michelle Carter, the American athlete who won gold for women’s shot put — and the very first American woman to earn such an achievement. She’s made a point of insisting that women can be (gasp!) more than one-dimensional. In addition to breaking sports records, Carter, who calls herself “the Shot Diva,” is also a makeup artist who herself wears makeup, including false eyelashes, onto the field to compete. The reason? Because she wants to.

That is, after all, the fundamental idea that too many Olympic commentators and sports journalists seem to be missing: that women, like men, do things because they want to, whether it’s to play sports or wear makeup. (Not to mention that it’s par for the course for women in stereotypically “feminine” sports like gymnastics to wear makeup to compete; it’s only when a woman competes in a sport seen as more “masculine,” like shot put, does such a choice garner headlines.) And this is why women who also happen to be phenomenal athletes need their achievements to be talked about fairly and objectively and without emphasis on their gender.

Because while the most amazing stories of this year’s Olympic Games have unquestionably emerged from the success of women athletes — um, hi, Simone Biles (aka, not “the Michael Jordan of gymnastics”) — the stories have been told in a way that makes these successes seem less than. We need to talk about athletes — all athletes — in terms of what they bring to their sport, their drive and their integrity. Gender has nothing to do with getting to gold, and it’s way past time for professional Olympics’ commentators to get with the times.

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