Image: New Zealand vs USA women's rugby sevens at the 2016 Summer Olympics / Tim Hipps / Wikimedia Commons
Here’s a profound statement: women can be athletes too.
Shocking, isn’t it, the idea that women can do amazing physical things?
There’s nothing shocking about it at all – but you wouldn’t think that by watching coverage of this year’s Summer Olympics.
Aside from the usual disgusting load of sexist nonsense ranking the “hottest” female athletes at the Games (particularly online, a massive problem in and of itself), this year has been especially frustrating because of the progress that’s been made.
Or rather, that should have been made.
Although nearly half of the athletes at this year’s Olympics are women – an all-time record – and countless world records have been shattered by athletes performing incredible feats that 99.999 per cent of the population – female or male – could only dream of, those accomplishments have all too often been overlapped by a select few words. Wife. Mother. Daughter. Sister.
Seriously, what does these athletes’ personal relationships have to do with anything? Why can’t we simply acknowledge them for being, well, athletes?
Take what happened to American trap shooter Corey Cogdell. The Chicago Tribune decided that, rather than identifying her as a two-time bronze medal winner, it would call her the “Wife of a Bears’ lineman,” referring to the local NFL team. What does her marital status have to do with anything? Oh, that’s right: nothing.
Before the first weekend of the Olympics had even ended, Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu set a new world record in the 400 individual medley. US television network NBC decided to show Hosszu on a split-screen with husband Shane Tusup, who commentators dubbed “the man responsible” for her record.
What. The. Hell.
NBC even defended their comments, with commentator Dan Hicks mansplaining that it was “impossible” to tell Hosszu’s story without discussing her husband.
It gets worse, too. We’ve had countless cases of women being compared to men, such as US swimmer Katie Ledecky. Despite winning medals left and right, NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines thought it would be a brilliant idea to proclaim that “some people say she swims like a man.” The Daily Mail dubbed her the “female Michael Phelps.”
How about the only Katie Ledecky? Just an idea.
There’s also US women’s basketball star Elena Delle Donne. Known as perhaps the best female basketball player in the world, outlets thought it was more newsworthy to focus on the fact that she had recently announced she had gotten engaged.
NBC has been particularly awful in its coverage. In fact, NBC’s chief marketing officer John Miller declared that, because more women watch the Olympics on TV than men, coverage needed to appeal to women specifically. The way to do that, he said with no amount of sarcasm, was to delve into athletes’ personal lives, because “women aren’t into sports, but they’re very into reality TV.”
It’s unknown if Miller is a cave-person who was magically transported into the 21st century, but that seems the most likely explanation for his boneheaded statements.
Even the words the media have used to describe female athletes have been ridiculously sexist, sometimes outright infantilising. Soccer goalie Hope Solo caught a lot of flak for her offensive comments about how the Swedish national women’s football team were “cowards” for beating the US (proving sore losers can come from any country). But some outlets decided to take things a step further, dubbing her a “hot mess.”
Are these people aware it’s 2016, or that Solo – despite her comments – is one of the best goalkeepers in the world, of either gender?
Kiwi media hasn’t been perfect, either. Field hockey player Gemma Flynn is well-known for being engaged to retired rugby star Richie McCaw – a fact we seem to be reminded of every single time Flynn appears on TV. But guess what? McCaw’s not in the Olympics – Flynn is. So why should we care one iota about who she’s dating? Why not focus on her on-field performance?
The treatment of Flynn is far from the only infraction. Heartbreaking as it was to see the women’s rugby sevens team fall to Australia in the gold medal match, it was equally frustrating to hear commentators constantly talk about the All Blacks. If a female sevens player happens to be related to an All Black, just why is that relevant? When the All Blacks play, do the commentators talk about which Black Ferns they are related to?
Oh, and did I mention how shot putter Valerie Adams kept getting compared to Steven Adams? Again, Steven is not in the Olympics. So why talk about him? And Adams is one of our most-recognised, best-loved athletes. She's famous (and amazing) enough on her own, without bringing her little brother into it.
Let’s step back a moment and think about what would happen if the television depictions of female and male athletes were reversed. What if we had a male athlete like Sonny Bill Williams, and TV commentators talked incessantly about his personal relationships while the camera lingered on certain parts of his body like his butt or his abs? And how ridiculous would it be if they used words like “perky” or said that he “ran like a woman?” Yeah, it’d be pretty dumb.
So why do it to women?
While there are other issues with sexism at the Olympics (for instance, Aotearoa has more female than male athletes competing for the first time ever, but fewer than 10 per cent of the coaches are women, and gender testing of female athletes is among the most discriminatory practices in sport today), it has been the media treatment of female athletes that has been among the most easily recognisable, and grievous. By depicting women in such ways, it's almost as if media are saying that female athletes' accomplishments are lesser than those of men, that they're somehow second-rate sportspeople because they're, well, women.
That, simply put, needs to stop.
While it’s been positive to see major media outlets around the world acknowledging the problem, there’s a huge difference between acknowledgement and action. A good start, though, would be to follow the example of US women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma, who’s reportedly infuriated by the coverage. Speaking to The Guardian, he said: “We live in that Trumpian era where it’s OK to be sexist and degrade people that are good, just because they’re the opposite sex.”
Athletes are athletes – female or male. Why can’t the people covering the Olympics seem to get that right? It’s not even something they should get a gold medal for – it’s something they should have been doing all along.