Magazine

Is some Olympic commentary sexist?

  • 11 August 2016
  • From the section Magazine
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  • Descriptions of some women athletes have been called "offensive"
  • The husband of a gold medallist was referred to as the "man responsible" for her world record
  • One gymnast was criticised when her leotard "failed to complement her skin tone"

When US gymnast Simone Biles gave a storming performance on the uneven bars, an NBC commentator complimented her by saying: "I think she might even go higher than the men." Meanwhile American swimmer Katie Ledecky was praised as being the "female Michael Phelps" in the Mail Online. Both women were already world champions so why was there a need to compare them to men?

"So far some of the Olympics commentary on female medallists that we have seen and heard has been offensive and demeaning. They are Olympic stars in their own right," says Sam Smethers from women's rights charity The Fawcett Society. "For far too long women's sport has been treated as a second-class game."

Another commentator caused outrage on social media when he implied a female athlete was reliant on her husband - after Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu won gold in the 400m individual medley with a new world record, he referred to her partner, who is also her trainer, saying: "This is the man responsible."

The Chicago Tribune has also come under fire for the way it described Corey Cogdell-Unrein, the bronze medal winner in trap shooting. In a tweet, the paper called her "Wife of a Bears' linesman."

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Image caption Swimmer Katinka Hosszu (left) and trap shooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein (right) celebrate their medals

"I'm shocked at how we seem to have gone backwards in how we describe women competitors," says Prof Kath Woodward from The Open University. "There is an assumption in the media that if a straight female athlete wins then her male partner made it happen for her.

"But if a female partner of a male athlete is pictured, such as during a tennis match, it is only to confirm his heterosexuality."

A BBC commentator was criticised too when he referred to the judo final between Kosovan Majlinda Kelmendi and Italian Odette Giuffrida as a "cat fight." And, back at NBC, eyebrows were raised again when it was said that the US women's gymnastics team looked like they "might as well be standing in the middle of a mall" during their team final.

The media needs to be more careful, says Olympic gold medallist Anna Watkins. She came to appreciate the "sheer power" of the press after she won the double sculls in 2012. "They define how the public see you," she says. "I think often it's an unintentional thing but in some ways that's more concerning as it shows an unconscious bias... Men aren't immune from comments about their physique, such as when wearing tight trunks, but women get it more and it's more important because of the history of inequality."

She wants all journalists covering Rio to realise that they have a "huge responsibility" to tell a narrative "they would want their daughters to hear."

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Image caption The judo final between Kosovan Majlinda Kelmendi (left) and Italian Odette Giuffrida

Sexist language isn't a new phenomenon at the Olympic Games - in 2012, US TV host Conan O'Brien sent a tweet saying weightlifter Holley Mangold would "bring home the gold and 4 guys against their will." While in 2008 comedian Frankie Boyle made jibes about the appearance of swimmer Rebecca Adlington.

But these examples are just the tip of the iceberg, according to a recent study by Cambridge University Press. Researchers analysed millions of words relating to men and women and Olympic sports in the Cambridge English Corpus (CEC) and the Sport Corpus - massive databases that include news articles and posts on social media.

The study revealed common word combinations for female athletes included aged, older, pregnant and married or unmarried. In contrast, top word combinations for male athletes included fastest, strong, big and great.

It also found that the language around women in sport also focussed disproportionately on appearance, clothes and personal lives.

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Image caption Some people criticised the words "Bikini vs Burka", used on a BBC social media post, asking why the outfits were being discussed

More examples from Rio include the Mail Online's decision to pick out the appearance of female gymnasts including Oksana Chusovitina from Uzbekistan, whose pink and white leotard "failed to complement her skin tone", and Australian Larrissa Miller who "turned heads for all the wrong reasons" because of a leotard "with an unattractive teal hue and a rhinestone-covered collar."

In an article about Australian 100m hurdler Michelle Jenneke, The Sun website described her as "abs-olutely fabulous". It featured a picture of her competing in 2015 in her team uniform with the caption: "Michelle Jenneke certainly isn't shy about showing off her body."

Image copyright The Sun
Image caption A caption from the "abs-olutely fabulous" article in The Sun about 100m hurdler Michelle Jenneke

The Cambridge study also found that it's much more common for women to be referred to as "girls" than it is for men to be called "boys".

"Many commentators say 'girls' in sport even if they know they should say 'women'. This is because they think it's a trivial issue to do with political correctness and they forget in the heat of competition," says Woodward.

"But when you call a woman a girl you are actually infantilising her. A girl is a child. Women's bodies have long been infantilised in popular culture as youth is seen as attractive."


More from the Rio Olympics


It's not just language where there is a difference in attitude - female Olympic athletes are still garnering far fewer column inches and given less TV airtime than their male counterparts. Researchers found men were mentioned twice as often in the CEC and three times more often in the Sports Corpus. When a sport was mentioned it was usually assumed that the report was about the men's game - so for example the media is inclined to refer to "women's football" and call men's football just "football".

"When we stop talking about women's sport and instead just recognise them as equal to the men and athletes in their own right we know we will have changed the terms of the debate," says The Fawcett Society's Sam Smethers.

However, some things are changing. The proportion of female athletes competing at the Olympics has increased with every games since 1964 when it was 13.2%. By 1988, 26.1% of competitors were women and in Rio 2016 it is 45%.

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Image caption Anna Watkins (l), pictured with Katherine Grainger (r) in London 2012, thinks the media has a huge responsibility when covering women athletes

"Female participation in sports has increased and the fact we are debating how women are described and questioning assumptions is real progress," says Woodward.

Rower Anna Watkins also sees a positive side. "Ten or 20 years ago we didn't question what was said as we were just pleased to get coverage for women's sport.

"I think overall the coverage is getting better and so we notice more when someone says something sexist. It sticks out and jars more and the commentators are often embarrassed afterwards."

Some might even find their comments sought out as people play Megan Ford's Olympics sexism bingo game which has been widely shared on Twitter and Facebook. She has created a grid where players tick off when "a woman over the age of 21 is called a girl" and "a black female athlete's hair is criticised."

It is a game, she notes, in which "everybody loses."

Follow Claire Bates on Twitter @batesybates

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