She Did What?!? Olympic Madness
By ALI CUDBY
Track & Field!!!
In the past few weeks, everyone has had Olympic Fever.
The Olympics always makes some amazing television…young people in the prime of their lives, at the peak of their performance, battling it out in epic dramas featuring clear winners and losers – with a dash of nationalistic fervor for flavor.
Like many folks, I found myself getting excited about sports I barely knew existed. (Coming up next, competitive trampoline? Sign me up!)
And I do love the Olympics – BUT – I definitely didn’t love some of the media’s gender bias that came out of Rio over the past few weeks. In case you missed it, here are a few lowlights:
A man awarded the gold in a women’s swimming event
After Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu’s glorious win in the 400-meter individual medley, the camera panned to her husband/coach. NBC’s Dan Hicks commented, “And there’s the man responsible.”
Well, no, Dan…that’s not how it works. See, the person in the pool – the person who had the talent and endured the grueling training and prevailed in the actual event? That woman, swimming in the women’s event? THAT’s the person who’s “responsible” for the Olympic medal. Yes, the coach has an important role. A critical role, even. Maybe Hosszu wouldn’t have made it to the Olympics without the guidance and support of her coach.
On the big day, in the pool, going up against the best in world, it’s all up to the athlete. It was simply insulting to say the coach was “responsible” for the victory.
Bronze medal winner defined by hubby’s job
Then there was the very unfortunate tweet by The Chicago Tribune after Corey Cogdell-Unrein won the bronze for trap shooting. The Tribune framed her achievement – and, in fact, her existence – by the role of “wife” and her husband’s high-profile job rather than focus on her amazing accomplishment.
Some in the Twitterverse have played defense, suggesting that Tribune readers would care more about a local story given the connection to the almighty Chicago Bears. Maybe that’s true – but don’t define Cogdell by her husband in her well-earned moment of glory.
When does a silver beat gold?
There were other, similar stories from this summer’s Olympic games in Rio. The bold headline from the Associated Press proclaiming Michael Phelps’ silver medal in the 100m butterfly over a smaller subhead, sharing the news of Katie Ledecky’s world record-crushing gold medal win in the 800m freestyle.
Maybe the AP couldn’t find any other Michael Phelps related stories to cover in Rio?? (Yes, that was a joke.)
These stories are not a cluster of isolated events. They’re part of a bigger, systemic picture of how women are covered in athletics. A recent UK study found that “men are three times more likely than women to be mentioned in a sporting context [ie ‘strong, big, real, great or fastest’] while women are disproportionately described in relation to their marital status, age or appearance [ie ‘aged, pregnant, or unmarried.’]”
The study specifically revealed that “language around women in sport focuses disproportionately on the appearance, clothes and personal lives of women, highlighting a greater emphasis on aesthetics over athletics.”
Why does the language bias matter?
How women see themselves is filtered through the lens of the media. Good or bad, we’re all shaped by the messages we get from our screens. So when those messages are systematically skewed in a particular direction, we can’t help it having some impact on how we see ourselves.
When women are shown as extensions of men, secondary to them, or defined by anything other than their achievements in their sports – that’s a problem.
Understanding that this is happening in 2016 gives us a chance to shine a light on it. It means we can be more aware when women come into our businesses. In the fitting room, when we listen to women’s self-talk, we can help subtly shift those messages. By highlighting the absurdity of the examples coming out of Rio, we can take steps toward reframing the conversation.
Because, let’s face it…Michael Phelps winning silver in the 100-fly is awesome. But Katie Ledecky obliterating the world record and winning her race by eleven mind-melting seconds? That’s badass.
Ledecky – and all those women – deserve their own headlines.