Sexism and sports collide at Rio Olympics

Representations of female athletes reflect age-old scrutiny of women’s bodies
Photo: Anirudh Koul

Five days of competition remain, and incidents of sexism have been too numerous to list.

“Even if none of this is exactly on purpose, it’s not by accident either,” observed Denise Balkisoon in a great piece for the Globe and Mail highlighting how sexist media is the highest hurdle that female athletes face.

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The Olympics, while involving superhuman athletes engaging in superhuman feats, remain a microcosm of the real world that carries on once the flags have been put away and everyone goes home. And the real world still grapples with sexism.

Superhumans have zits too

We’ve seen it all in 2016. From Katinka Hosszu's husband getting the credit when she destroyed the 400m individual medley swimming world record, to two-time Olympic-medal-winning trapshooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein being referred to as the “wife of” some barely known football player on the front page of the Chicago Tribune. Imagine busting your butt your entire life to excel at your sport and being addressed as the “wife of” when the announcement of your triumph is made.

Sports Court featured an unnecessary debate about whether female athletes should be wearing makeup. Not only is the topic inane (whose business is it what they do or don’t wear?) but the discussion featured two dudes (a radio host and a former NYPD detective) who clearly knew nothing about sports or makeup. Maybe Fox thinks being male makes you an expert on everything. (The former detective, Bo Dietl, revealed his knowledge of sports by referring to Michael Phelps as the “skinny guy who won all the gold medals.”)

Completely free of shame or self-awareness, Dietl went on to utter this gem in defence of makeup: “Why should I have to look at some chick’s zits?” Though to be fair, he felt the same way about male athletes. That Dietl believes whether he finds them eye-pleasing or not should be a top priority for any high-level athlete (or human on this planet) is fascinating and speaks to the notion of ownership of what’s public.

Couch potatoes pass judgement

This might all seem like little more than a series of questionable off-the-cuff comments, but they aren’t simply irritants for militant feminists to complain about on social media (I see you, trolls). How we speak about and cover women in sport matters.

Representations of female athletes affect how they are treated; how they are viewed by sponsors, fans, young Olympians-in-the-making, and TV networks; and how they are funded (now and in the future) by their respective governments.

Because the Games are broadcast, couch potatoes around the world get to have an opinion on the lifelong dreams, actions, and appearance of these Olympians. That opinion and criticism is even louder and harsher for female athletes, in keeping with the tradition of ruthlessly scrutinized women’s bodies.

The best piece about sexism at the Olympics was penned by the unstoppable Lindy West, who offers a fantastically snarky list of “Do’s and Don’ts” to help bewildered media figure it all out.

“The way we talk about women – particularly women at the top of their fields, women whose power and prowess is undeniable – has a tangible impact on the way we treat female colleagues, female job interviewees and female presidents,” concludes West. “This is not an accident. It is the system working as designed.”

But it hasn’t all been bad. For every beer-guzzling, Doritos-munching weekend warrior who’s suddenly an expert on the modern pentathlon or rhythmic gymnastics, and for every sportscaster who let their casual sexism seep through, there have been countless examples of true supporters and fans who have rejoiced at the feats of sheer strength and drive that Olympic female athletes have demonstrated.

And some of the people calling sexism out have been Olympic athletes themselves, such as Canadian four-time Olympic medalist Adam van Koeverden and Andy Murray.

Canadian women shine

More women than ever are competing at the Olympics this year. An impressive 45 per cent of Rio’s athletes are women, and they will be chasing both perfection and that podium. Of Canada's 13 medals so far, 12 have been won by women.

It’s been a point of pride to see our women do so well at Rio. It speaks volumes about the Canadian Olympic program, which has funnelled money into its Own the Podium initiative, giving athletes the best chance of succeeding internationally. Since female athletes make up about 60 per cent of Canada's 279-member team, the odds were good that they would feature prominently in competition. But the fact that our women dominated the podium gave me much more than pride; it gave me hope.

As a lifelong jock, I’ve always felt that sports are the perfect antidote to a world still obsessed with superficiality, good looks, the perfect weight, and the dumbing down of women. For every one of our female athletes on that Olympic podium, there were a thousand young girls back home suddenly seeing what they could become: a fierce competitor. Whether they do it in the realm of sports or somewhere else, that is worth celebrating.

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