As I watched the Olympics recently, I stood up from my couch and clapped.
Not because of any gold medal performance or super-human feat. No, it was when analyst Rowdy Gaines, noted that, “A lot of people say she swims like a man,” but really, “She swims like Katie Ledecky.”
That was a subtle dig at anchor Dan Hicks, who has made his share of sexist remarks as he’s called women’s swimming events in Rio — most notably, when Katinka Hossza of Hungary demolished the world record in the 400-meter individual medley. As Hossza won, the camera panned to her husband and coach, Shane Tosup, and Hicks said, “There’s the man responsible.”
The woman just destroyed a world record and the man standing on the sidelines is somehow to credit for her success?
Why do we always need to qualify a woman’s accomplishments?
The measly 2 percent
Yes, Olympics coverage is filled with sexism.
It showed when a three-time Olympian and two-time bronze medalist in women’s trapshooting was identified by her husband’s (less impressive) job of “Chicago Bears lineman” rather than her name: Corey Cogdell-Urein.
During profiles of female athletes, we’re subjected to an endless parade of mommy vignettes. The highlight reel for swimmer Dana Vollmer — a six-time Olympic medalist — centered on her post-baby body. Beach volleyball extraordinaire Kerri Walsh Jennings was hyped as a three-time mom, not a three-time gold medalist.
Despite the challenges in Olympic coverage, overall coverage of women sports is far worse.
In 2015, a study by professors of gender studies from Purdue and the University of Southern California analyzing of 25 years of television sports news coverage found ESPN’s flagship program SportsCenter dedicated just 2 percent of airtime to women’s sports — events with only female athletes, as opposed to male or mixed-gender participants.
Could you imagine if the Olympics only dedicated 2 percent of airtime to women’s sports? “Sorry, we can’t show you Lilly King or Aly Raisman today because we’ve already reached our woman quota.”
That’s not to say the Olympics are perfect: Research from Cambridge University Press found that men are mentioned three times more than women in Olympic coverage. The study notes that the only context in which women are mentioned more during Olympics coverage is to discern the sport and athlete as separate — a female sprinter, not a sprinter.
When there’s no gender, the assumption is that the sport or athlete is male, as if men are the norm and women are always somehow “other.”
At least the Olympics specify a gender for all sports in which both genders compete: men’s swimming and women’s swimming, women’s handball and men’s handball. Other professional sports do not receive the same treatment: the Women’s National Basketball Association and the National Basketball Association or the Ladies’ Professional Golfers’ Association and the Professional Golfers’ Association.
What we talk about when we talk about women’s sports
While coverage of men’s sports is inundated with exclamation words abounding in inflection, the study of ESPN finds that the minimal commentary of women’s sports is “matter-of-fact,” noting that, “The general lack of an excited tone…helps to mark women’s sports as less interesting and, in many instances, even boring.”
Ultimately, though, increased enthusiasm for women’s sports won’t solve the heart of the issue.
As a society, we often struggle to talk about (literally and figuratively) powerful women without subtly and blatantly undermining them.
We gender them — “Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player.” We dampen our enthusiasm — “Dana Vollmer is awesome, but check out Michael Phelps!”
We feel compelled to put them in the context of men — “Katie Ledecky swims like a man”, “Simone Biles is the Kobe Bryant of gymnastics” or “Hillary Clinton wouldn’t be here without Bill.”
We can’t just let them be powerful women.
We’re making progress when Rowdy Gaines can use prime-time Olympic coverage to maintain that “Katie Ledecky swims like Katie Ledecky,” but maybe one day that can be the expectation and not the exception.
For now, just please stop telling these women to smile.
This is part of an occasional series of guest amExpress columns. Did someone forward you this email? Subscribe at amny.com/amexpress.