Olympic Objectification: Everyday Sexism at Rio 2016
2016 is turning out to be an amazing year for female athletes, both current and aspiring ones. Women have been competing at the Olympics, breaking records and making history. Saudi Arabia has four female athletes at the Games, as opposed to the two who competed in London in 2012; and despite the continued discrimination in the country, like banning women from playing sports and competing in sporting events, the government is implementing revolutionary positive changes. There are a lot more female than male athletes in the United States’ Olympic team competing in Rio currently, 292 women to 263 men. Just this week, cyclist Laura Trott became the first British woman to win four gold medals, adding her two won in Rio to the ones from London in 2012. However, the impressive and inspiring performances of female athletes has not been the main focus in a lot of the news coverage. Instead, some reporters focused on factors unrelated to sports, such as the athletes’ makeup, outfits, or marital status. Here are four points to sum up the Rio 2016 Olympics so far!
Photograph credit: Getty
1. Reporting on Women, But Still Talking about Men
Speaking of Laura Trott and her incredible performance, despite her historic win in the omnium, some news outlets did not succeed at presenting her win as her own standalone achievement. The Independent, for example, opened their article on Trott like this:
“There you go my love, follow that. If Jason Kenny needed any inspiration in his push for a third gold at these games and a sixth in all fiancee Laura Trott provided it with history of her own, the first British woman to claim a fourth gold with victory in the omnium.”
Clearly, some people are unable to see that Trott and Kenny are two separate and independent people and can be successful athletes in their own right. Apart from the statement devaluing Trott’s victory by opening an article on her talking about her fiance, blatantly reducing the female cyclist’s victory to inspiration for her fiance. The amazing woman just became the most successful British female athlete at the Olympics! Let her have her moment of glory.
An even worse example of sexism came in the swimming, when Katie Ledecky winning gold medal and breaking a world record became only a subheading to a title about Michael Phelps’ tying for silver. It looks a bit like a parody, doesn’t it? As Nancy Leong remarked on Twitter, “This headline is a metaphor for basically the entire world.”
This headline is a metaphor for basically the entire world. pic.twitter.com/5WpQa04N0o— Nancy Leong (@nancyleong) August 14, 2016
2. Reporting on Sport, But Actually Talking About Family
Reporters have further overemphasised female athletes’ partners or children. Yes, they were talking about men when discussing female athletes again. Like in the Trott and Kenny case, as the Chicago Tribune report on Corey Cogdel’s medal in Women’s Trap by saying, ‘Wife of a Bears' lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics’, forgetting that women have names too, not just husbands.
Laura Keeney slammed the Tribune on Twitter, as she fixed their ridiculous title to actually include the female athlete’s name and her achievements.
3. Reporting on Sports… But Focusing On Looks
Female athletes have been criticised about not wearing makeup in irrelevant commentary on the women’s appearance on Fox news. Gabriella Paiella reported on the gross commentary, in an article entitled, ‘Finally, Some Brave Men Speak Up About Why Female Olympians Should Wear Makeup’. Other news sources have made news out of what the female athletes are wearing rather than their performances, like ranking their competition outfits.
Photograph credit: Emmanual Dunade/AFP/Getty Images
Lindy West has written an awesome piece for the Guardian on how to report on female athletes. She says, ‘Do write about the sports they did. Don’t bring their makeup, very small shorts and marital status into it.’
Athletes were not the only ones criticised about their appearance. The internet was flooded with remarks on BBC sports presenter Helen Skelton when she reported on swimming from Rio, claiming that the skirt she was wearing on the air was ‘too short’.
Men were in no way excluded from being objectified and sexualized at the Olympics. The outfits and appearance of male athletes made global ‘news’, with puns on the word ‘abs’ making headings in various news outlets worldwide. ‘Tonga’ started trending on Twitter because of the country’s athlete Pita Taufatofua, who carried the national flag in the opening ceremony topless.
Male swimmers’ bodies have also been a topic of conversation and the objectification has gone so far there are not only articles, but entire blogs dedicated to them. On the other hand, Ethiopian swimmer Robel Kiros Habte made news when he was mocked for not being as 'physically fit' as the rest of the Olympic swimmers.
4. The Radical Notion That Women are People Too
On the bright side, some of the sexist remarks have been rightfully slammed. BBC presenter John Inverdale was interviewing Andy Murray after his win and got his facts terribly wrong. He asked Murray, “You’re the first person ever to win two Olympic tennis gold medals. That’s an extraordinary feat, isn’t it?” Murray quickly corrected Inverdale: “Well, to defend the singles title ... I think Venus and Serena [Williams] have won about four each but hadn’t defended a singles title before.” Thanks for reminding the BBC that women are people too, Andy! (And congratulations on your win! We were rooting for you.) The tennis player also openly proclaimed himself a feminist earlier this year and Laura Bates wrote a must-read piece on it for the Guardian.
Photograph credit: Getty
We need more followers of Andy’s example, people who won’t stand for sexism in sport and who appeal to actual facts relating to sport when reporting on it, no matter the gender of the people that are spoken about. The importance of changing sports commentary for good is clear, as is the desperate need for feminism even in 2016. Let’s leave sexism out of the Rio Olympics, and learn how to speak about athletes, and about people, with respect.
What have you thought about the Rio Olympics so far? Let us know in the comments section below!