A gold medal for sexism?

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This time last year, I wrote an article about the difficulties that women face in football. Obviously, I never expected this to be particularly ground breaking on the world stage, however I think we can all acknowledge that one of this summer’s main sporting events did all it could to show sport’s attitude towards those of us with two X chromosomes: I’m looking at you, Rio 2016.

Every conceivable media outlet has had some comment to pass on the ongoing sexism over the fortnight of Rio 2016, with many of these all too sadly supporting it. How are women expected to perform to anything near their best ability when their world-record gold medals are relegated to the small print beneath a – still impressive – silver medal win for their male counterparts. A now infamous front-page headline saw Katie Ledecky be quite literally put into Michael Phelps’ shadow, when this was how they reported on not only her world record breaking performance in the women’s 800 metre free style, but also her being the first woman to win in the 200, 400 and 800 metre competitions since 1968.

Another moment that fell foul to its media coverage was the proposal received by Chinese diver He Zi. Honestly, I’m sceptical about the whole situation, which saw fellow athlete and He’s partner of six years, propose during her silver medal ceremony. It’s like saying, ‘okay, you won a silver medal but look at me instead!’. Further to that, you would have to be made of pretty strong stuff to say no when basically the whole world was watching. This being said I understand that in China unusual marriage proposals are celebrated, so what better time? And also, the way the whole situation was played out in the media was as if to say that the proposal was He’s real prize, rather than the silver medal she had just won.

It wasn’t just the athletes that suffered at the hands of sporting chauvinism though. Whilst commentating on the swimming competition, Helen Skelton attracted unwarranted attention for her choice of attire. She was leered at by the public via social media and criticised for showing too much flesh in a variety of media outlets. A number of these outlets also insisted on referring to her as a ‘TV presenter’, whilst calling male counterparts ‘commentators’ – surely they were both doing the same job? Whilst the leering public later complained that Gary Lineker didn’t show enough flesh, following his promise to present Match of the Day in his underwear.

Even those of us sat on the sofa at home weren’t safe. A senior marketing officer from NBC commented that most people watching the Olympics weren’t sports fans. And that most of them were women. I’m somewhat confused as I was never aware that being a woman and a sports fan were mutually exclusive, but this probably shows what little I know. He then went on to say that women aren’t interested in the results, but the journey, describing the Olympics as ‘like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one’. This not only detriments the interest that women could possibly hold in sport, but also the achievements of the athletes competing.

I think an honourable mention should go to Andy Murray though. When he was congratulated on being the first tennis player to win two Olympic gold medals, he quickly corrected the commentator, pointing out that  Venus and Serena Williams had four each. But appointing this as one of the best comebacks to sexism at Rio 2016, isn’t it just exacerbating the issue? Commentator John Inverdale should have just done his research properly, and whilst Murray is celebrated as a self-identifying feminist, he just stated a simple, empirical fact.

This wasn’t the only commentator slip up of the games. Look at swimmer Katinka Hosszu, whose partner is also her trainer. Said partner was referred to as ‘the man responsible’ for Hosszu’s gold medal. The women’s judo final was referred to as a ‘cat-fight’, something that is impossible to believe would be said of the men’s final. Simone Biles was told she ‘may go higher than the men’ – to which she replied with a more than fair comment, stating she isn’t the next Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, but the first Simone Biles.

As a final note, a recent Cambridge led study examined various articles and media regarding male and female Olympic athletes, in the lead up to the 2016 games. Women tended to be referred to by their age and marital status, whereas the men were described according to their sporting prowess. Not only does this show how archaic and secondary views towards female athletes are, but it also shows how views are not progressing. Given that, I imagine I’ll be back this time next year in a similar vein.

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