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Rio Report: Sexism Is Alive and Well in Olympic Media Coverage

Ryan Bailey@ryanjaybaileyFeatured ColumnistAugust 15, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 08:  (BROADCAST - OUT) Trap shooter, Corey Cogdell-Unrein of the United States poses for a photo with her bronze medal on the NBC Today show set at Copacabana Beach on August 8, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

OLYMPIC PARK, RIO DE JANEIRO - It should have been an evening of unbridled celebration for Team GB. Andy Murray had just won his second consecutive gold in men’s tennis, bringing the tally for the nation to five for the day.

This triumph had propelled Team GB to second place in the medal table. Sunday was Britain's most successful day ever at an overseas Olympics. All the investment in British sport had paid dividends—and the man who carried the union flag at the opening ceremony had done his part to further enhance the reputation of Olympic tennis.

However, most of the headlines surrounding Murray on Monday morning were not about his achievement. They were about sexism.

"You’re the first person ever to win two Olympic tennis gold medals," said the BBC’s John Inverdale in the aftermath of Murray’s gold-medal victory over Juan Martin Del Potro. "That’s an extraordinary feat, isn’t it?"

The tennis star—who declared himself a feminist last year—immediately reminded Inverdale that he had neglected to remember the women’s game: "I think Venus and Serena [Williams] have won about four each but hadn’t defended a singles title before."

B/R Football @brfootball

#GBR gold medalist Andy Murray gives BBC presenter John Inverdale a lesson in tennis history at the #Olympics 😂 https://t.co/djYo93FTql

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Murray has won plenty of praise for his quick defence of the opposite sex, while the BBC has stood by Inverdale for his "simple error" (as per the Guardian). The under-fire broadcaster will need no reminding that he was relieved of his duties at Wimbledon in 2013 for suggesting that Marion Bartoli’s father may have said to her: "You’re never going to be a looker? You’ll never be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight."

Sadly, this isn’t the only sexism that has embroiled the BBC during the Olympics. During the swimming coverage, presenter Helen Skelton was lambasted for wearing a short skirt. Curiously, there were few objections when Gary Lineker hosted Match of the Day in just his underwear a few days later.

Also, controversy came in the Beeb’s coverage of the women’s judo final. Majlinda Kelmendi made history by earning Kosovo’s first-ever gold medal, but the male BBC commentator referred to her final match as a "catfight."

Rachel Marcer @recramred

@BBCSport and yet your commentators called it a #catfight not acceptable

Vicky Roberts @vickyroberts09

No words after hearing a @BBCSport commentator describe the women's judo final as a "cat fight". #RioOlympics2016 #femaleathletes

Inequality has also been a predominant theme in American coverage of these Games. When Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu smashed the world record in the 400-metre individual melody, NBC commentator Dan Hicks spoke of "the man responsible" for her achievement: her husband Shane Tusup. 

Charlotte Wilder @TheWilderThings

"There's the man responsible for turning his wife into an entirely new swimmer..." REALLY, NBC?

Tim Gibson @timgibson

OK, so Hosszú (swimmer) shatters a world record by 2 seconds, and NBC's broadcaster gives the credit to her husband and coach. WTF? #Sexism

Elizabeth Picciuto @epicciuto

After a woman just won a gold medal, announcer literally said, "And there's the man responsible," as camera showed her husband/coach.

Evidently, the implication that Hosszu’s medal was earned by a man who was not even in the pool did not sit comfortably with the television audience.

NBC’s coverage has been littered with comments that have, at best, been careless. Shortly after gymnast Simone Biles, proud owner of three Olympic gold medals, completed a spectacular balance beam routine, she stood beside her team to wait for the scores. The commentator said: "They might as well be standing in the middle of a mall."

Sardonic the Hedgehog 🦔 @GinnyLurcock

"They could be standing in a mall" ...you wouldn't be talking about male gymnasts like that. #TeamUSA #ArtisticGymnastics #Rio2016

It appears that sexism is ingrained in NBC's process. When the American TV network took the controversial decision to delay the broadcast of the opening ceremony, they were apparently inspired by gender stereotypes. NBC chief marketing officer Jim Miller said:

The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the Games than the men, and for women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.

The implication here is that women are not sports fans; they need to have their coverage tailored as if it is mindless reality TV.

It’s not just broadcast coverage that has suffered from incautious moments. When the Chicago Tribune drew attention to the bronze medal won by trap shooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein, her name was omitted from the headline. She was instead defined as the "wife of a Bears linesman":

Chicago Tribune @chicagotribune

Wife of a Bears' lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics https://t.co/kwZoGY0xAX https://t.co/VZrjOvr80h

Copy McPasty, Writer🇭🇹🇭🇹🇭🇹 @KashannKilson

You spelled "3-time Olympian Corey Cogdell-Unrein wins second bronze medal today in Rio Olympics" wrong. https://t.co/jZSsCYYgkv

The San Jose Mercury News has also fallen foul of offensive coverage. When Simone Manuel became the first African American woman to win gold in an individual swimming event, she was not name-checked in their headline or a subsequent tweet. Michael Phelps, however, was name-checked:

Los @GrapeSodaPapi

The internet never forgets foh @mercnews https://t.co/OzeoGLuHwA

This kind of overt sexism seems even more incongruous when one considers the role of female athletes in Rio. Vox.com note that the 2016 Games boasts more female athletes than ever before: 45 per cent of the athletes’ village are female.

That’s nearly double the proportion of female athletes who competed at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles (23 per cent). At the 1900 games, there were just 22 women and 975 men.

Furthermore, NBC should be reminded that Team USA boasts more female athletes than male for the second consecutive Olympiad: 292 of the 555 representatives are women. Nobody has ever brought more female athletes to an Olympic Games.

The Olympics also provides several stages on which female athletes garner more attention and praise than their male counterparts.

Female gymnastics, for example, receives much more coverage than the men’s discipline. Beach volleyball also creates a lot more household names in the female category (although, it might be cynically suggested that this interest stems from the needlessly small uniforms the female athletes wear).

And in the USA, the women’s football competition arguably holds more weight at the Olympics. (For the USWNT and its fans, an Olympic victory is deemed equally as important as a World Cup—this is certainly not the case with the men.)

And one may even argue that women’s football has captivated the locals: Marta is certainly a greater hero than Neymar in the South American nation right now.

In a sporting world where it is difficult to name a female superstar who does not play tennis, the Olympic puts a welcome focus on women’s sports.

Clearly, the media coverage of the Games has some catching up to do when communicating this message of equality.

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