“Women winning medals? Let’s just focus on their looks!” Why this drip-feed of sexist Olympics coverage has got to stop

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Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week sportswriter, Anna Kessel, argues that the sexist Olympics coverage we've seen at Rio 2016 is widespread and ingrained - undermining women and their achievements at every turn...

The Olympics: a rare moment in our modern lives when women in the public eye are not depicted as dieting or “showing off their curves”.

Instead we get to watch women use their bodies for real purpose, pulling off incredible sporting feats, a panoply of body shapes, sizes and skin tones, covered and not so covered, driven, joyful, unselfconscious.

Hallelujah, we say, let every woman and girl switch on the television this instant, and let us be liberated! If only the narrative from the Olympic broadcasters and reporters wasn’t doing its level best to drown out the positive messages, and remind us of a woman’s place in sport.

Because for downgrading female achievement there’s nothing better than failing to actually name the woman who has won a medal.

“Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American” ran one headline, referencing gold medallist swimmer Simone Manuel, or “Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics” - because why bother actually naming Corey Cogdell-Unrein, bronze medallist in women’s trap shooting, if we can just shorthand that her importance is really just due to the status of her spouse?

In the pool, Hungary’s Katinka Hosszú won gold in the 400m medley and set a new World Record, but the commentary team at NBC were far more interested in telling us that it was her coach and husband who was really due all the acclaim.

Commentators clearly never got President Obama’s memo about how doing anything, “like a girl means you’re a badass”, because some of the most jaw-dropping displays of female athleticism have been swiftly credited with being “like a guy”.

All hail gymnast Simone Biles then who, after establishing herself as the most dominant gymnast in history, swiftly corrected journalists commenting, “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles.” Hell, yeah.

If only Biles didn’t have to put up with Fox News pundits discussing whether female Olympians should wear make-up, or widespread social media debates about black sportswomen at the Olympics having “nappy” hair needing an “iron on the edges”.

The Daily Mail, meanwhile, ran a full length feature on gymnasts’ leotards, including the comment that living legend 41-year-old Oksana Chusovitina’s outfit “failed to complement her skin tone”. Why a gymnast who performs the “vault of death” in an Olympic final should have to worry about their skin tone is beyond me.

Meanwhile others felt free to launch a full-on sexist Islamophobic assault on competitors - Rod Liddle describing Egypt’s volleyballers as “burqa clad hags”. (*Chokes on cereal*) Then there was Majlinda Kelmendi making history as the first ever Olympic medallist from Kosovo - sadly the BBC commentator preferred to describe her gold medal-winning match as a “catfight” - and of course the ubiquitous references to female athletes as “girls”.  

Even women working in the media couldn’t escape the scrutiny.

One newspaper chose to focus their front page on Rebecca Adlington allegedly stroking the knee of fellow pundit Mark Foster. Meanwhile a nationwide debate ensued over whether swimming presenter Helen Skelton was wearing knickers or not. For pure speechlessness ITV News’ poll titled, “Should women be banned from swimming during their periods?” probably trumps the lot.

Seriously people, the internet is running out of WTF gifs to illustrate the level of outrage right now.

These examples are not isolated slip of the tongue comments, rather they are part of an established trend - according to a new study on language, gender and sport from Cambridge University Press.

The research showed that “language around women in sport focuses disproportionately on the appearance, clothes and personal lives of women”, with some of the most frequent word associations being “unmarried”, “older” and “pregnant”. Meanwhile the most common terms applied to male athletes were, “fastest”, “strong”, “big” and “great”. And while men’s performances were described using verbs such as “dominate” and “mastermind”, the equivalent terms for women were “participate” and “strive”.

What damaging messages we are sending about women and girls, and what we are capable of.

That when it comes down to it women merely make up the numbers rather than battle for victory.

And what power those stereotypes have to reach beyond the sporting arena. Into our workplace, our home life, our schools.  

The worst thing about all this nonsense is that it so detracts from female achievement and the important messages these heroes are trying to put out there.

While Twitter was up in arms about Cogdell-Unrein’s snub, no one mentioned that all of Canada’s medals in the first week of the Games had been won by women.

With all the outrage about Manuel’s “nappy” hair, her bold statement about Black Lives Matter was lost in the ether. With all the focus on Egyptian volleyballers wearing modest clothing, no one mentioned that a non-Muslim athlete from the Netherlands had also chosen to ditch the miniscule bikini top and bottoms, that basketball still bans women from wearing the hijab or that in Saudi Arabia the vast majority of women and girls are still not allowed access to sport.

It is time to change the way we talk about women and girls.

This drip-feed life-ruining narrative has got to stop.

And in sport we have the perfect opportunity to focus on what women and their bodies can actually do - to finally put an end to this relentless, ridiculous obsession with how we look. Through sport we have the means to liberate women and girls from these destructive messages.

But first, we’ve got to make sure we see the medals through the mind-numbing media. 

Anna Kessel's book, Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives, is available to buy here.

Images: Rex Features, Getty

Send your feminist dilemmas to Ask a Feminist editor harriet.hall@stylist.co.uk and she'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.