Sexism At The Olympics And Why It Matters

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Olympics coverage and sexism

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Sarah Wasserman
Sarah Wasserman

While Americans are living in a time characterized by immense progress toward gender equality, the coverage of the Olympic games in Rio has shown just how far we have yet to come.

When journalists credit the man behind the female athlete, or first reference her status as a wife or mother before highlighting her athletic achievements (if at all), they reinforce the quaint idea that a woman is successful because of the men in her life and remove the respect she deserves by reassigning the ownership of that success. When Corey Cogdell wins her second Olympic medal in trap shooting, the Chicago Tribune’s tweet fails to even name her or her sport and instead announces: “Wife of Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal…” and later elaborates on her achievement in an article where she is referred to most prominently as “wife;” when Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszú shatters a world record and wins gold and the camera immediately pans to her husband/coach with NBC’s Dan Hicks commenting: “There’s the guy responsible...;” when the reflex to acknowledge the athletic feats of women like swimmer Katie Ledecky or gymnast Simone Biles is to call them the female versions of Michael Phelps or LeBron James; when we don’t explain the technicalities of a sport or what makes it difficult because we assume that the female audience wants only the soap opera—we not only do a tremendous disservice to the athletes, but they also stall our progress toward greater equality in society as whole.

Some of the commentary may seem innocuous, but when put into the context of NBC Olympics’ greater content strategy, a more troubling picture emerges.

NBC Olympics CMO John Miller explains that the Olympic viewing audience is mostly female and, “…they're less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It's sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one.” 

The commentary that flows from those assumptions and that vast generalization of women, which does not reflect the women I know, reveals deep-seated stereotypes that pervade our culture.

So, while the Olympic Games coincide with an unprecedented presidential campaign where for the first time in our 240-year history, a major US party has nominated a woman for the position of commander in chief, we find ourselves in Rio with an onslaught of coverage and commentary that not only attributes the tremendous success and physical prowess of female athletes to men, but fails to highlight first and foremost, the reasons they are on the world stage in the first place. Importantly, we would never talk about our male athletes in the same way, though the absurdity is easily seen when we reverse the story.

What we say matters. Prejudices and stereotypes persist precisely because they so easily roll off the tongue, so while it might not feel natural, it is incumbent upon us all to consider the implications of what we are saying if we want to truly embody the notion of gender equality. These stereotypes undermine the progress we have made as a country and limit us from performing at our peak. What we find in study after study is that the more equality that exists in our society, the more we all benefit (both men and women)—in boardrooms, in government, and according to at least one study, even at the Olympic games.


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