Unequal playing field: Olympics media coverage is still sexist

OPINION: There wasn’t as much demeaning commentary in Pyeongchang as there has been at prior Games — but media have a long way to go when it comes to avoiding sexist language, writes Lauren McKeon
By Lauren McKeon - Published on February 27, 2018
members of the Canadian Women's Olympic hockey team
Jocelyne Larocque (left) faced public scorn and media criticism for removing her silver medal following Team Canada’s loss to the United States. (Julio Cortez/CP)

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​To many women, media coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro felt over-the-top sexist. Notoriously, one NBC commentator said Hungarian swimmer Katkinka Hosszu’s husband and coach was “the person responsible for her performance.” Katie Ledecky was so good, she apparently swam “like a man.” A commentator from the BBC called the women’s gold-medal judo event a “catfight.” Another forgot that women’s tennis existed.

We weren’t just imagining things, either. A 2017 study from the University of Missouri’s journalism school found that media microagressions against female athletes increased 40 per cent from the 2012 to the 2016 Olympics — with women of colour, in particular, being targeted. Researchers counted instances of sexual objectification, of treating women as “second-class citizens,” of confining them to strict gender roles, and more. “When examining the data for how the media cover sporting events related to female athletics,” said one of the researchers, “it is evident that we have a long way to go.”

The coverage this year of the Pyeongchang Winter Games didn’t seem to suffer from the same overwhelming sexism. That could be because we were more “woke” this year. But it could also be partly because snowsuits don’t invite the same amount of sexist commentary on women’s bodies.

After all, it’s not as if there was no sexism in this year’s coverage. We did not, unfortunately, enter a magical land in which female athletes — their pursuits, their training, and their behaviour — are treated the same as male athletes. One Sirius XM talk-radio host called 17-year-old snowboarder Chloe Kim, an eventual gold-medal winner, a “little hot piece of ass.” (He was subsequently fired.) And an NBC skiing analyst attributed one Austrian athlete’s struggles not to the brutal knee injury she’d suffered, but to her personal life: “I want to point out that she also got married, and it’s historically very challenging to race on the World Cup with a family or after being married.” We could count on Don Cherry to comment on the Canadian and United States women’s hockey teams’ appearances (and so he did: Cherry called the American players “slobs” and noted that the Canadians looked like fashion models). BBC commentators repeatedly referred to female athletes as “girls.”

Beyond all this, it felt like there was more than a hint of double standard with the initial pile-on of criticism against Jocelyne Larocque, a Canadian hockey player who, after her team lost the gold-medal game to the U.S., took off her silver during the award ceremony and held it in her hand. Social media called her “un-Canadian,” “a disgusting athlete,” a “poor loser,” and more. Mainstream media repeated it all, stirring up controversy. People called Larocque a poor role model, and she apologized for being one, adding that she “let her emotions [get] the better of me.” Maybe, but it was an emotional game. She did not chuck it into the crowd (which, although it sounds like a ridiculous thing to do, is something male athletes — plural — have done in recent years). Her quiet, human moment became just another way in which women are too emotional — not simply passionate about the game.

In many ways, the Olympics have always felt like a man’s world. The first woman joined the International Olympic Committee’s executive board in 1990, nearly 100 years after the first modern games took place. Today, just four of the 15 members of the executive board are women. Male athletes have outnumbered female athletes at every games so far (although we’re slowly approaching parity), and the women did not have as many medal events as men did at Pyeongchang — playing into old stereotypes about what they’re capable of in sports. Both women’s curling and ice hockey only became Olympic events in 1998. Sports such as women’s weightlifting, taekwondo, and triathlon didn’t enter the Summer Games until 2000. Women’s boxing was introduced less than a decade ago, in 2012.

Sexism at the Olympics feels so ingrained that columns, like this one, that call out that sexism feel likewise inevitable. I wish they weren’t. The double standard in sports is like so many other ones women face on a daily basis, and the message is the same: you may be here on (in this case, literally) the same playing field, but you will never belong in the same way. The tilted coverage at the Olympics not only undermines women’s athletic achievements, it undermines their right to be great — for us, as the audience, to be in awe of them. And that is a shame.

Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.

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