Sexism and the Games

August 14, 2012

Despite advances, sexism still pervades the Olympics, writes Leela Yellesetty.

THE 2012 Olympics marked a historic year for female athletes. A record 44.4 percent of all Olympians were women, from every participating nation, including Saudi Arabia. The U.S. was one of 34 countries that sent more women than men to the Games this year.

"The Olympics are really the great equalizer in sport," Angela Ruggiero, a U.S. hockey Olympic gold medalist and member of the International Olympic Committee, told USA Today. "I would have to argue there is more respect for women at the Olympics than anywhere else. Usually in sports, you hear it called women's basketball and then just basketball, meaning the men's. Here, your ticket says men's basketball."

Beyond larger numbers and greater visibility, female Olympians are proving their dominance in the field. As of August 10, U.S. women had won almost twice as many medals as the men (100 to 59).

Much of this progress can be credited to the legacy of the women's liberation movement, including Title IX, the program that mandates equal funding for men's and women's sports and that celebrated its 40th anniversary in June.

British contender Natasha Jonas (in blue) battles Queen Underwood of the U.S.
British contender Natasha Jonas (in blue) battles Queen Underwood of the U.S. (Ian Glover)

Female athletes in the Olympics provide a tremendous inspiration for millions of girls and women in the U.S. and around the world who find a source of empowerment through sports. This is clearly a huge step forward from the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, when women were barred from competing because founder Pierre de Coubertin felt that their participation would be "impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect."

Yet this banner year for women in sports is nonetheless marred by the sexism still pervasive in society. In large ways and small, we've witnessed an endless parade of reminders that as far as women have come, we are far from the finish line.

BEFORE THE Games even started, we learned that female Japanese soccer players and Australian basketball players flew coach while their male counterparts flew first class. Incidentally, in both cases, the women's teams out-medaled the men's.

And while nearly as many women competed in the Games, the media coverage remains uneven--and biased. A recent study of past Olympics coverage by NBC noted that when female athletes succeeded, their accomplishments were more likely attributed to luck, in contrast to skill and commitment for male athletes. A previous study noted the tendency to refer to women athletes as "girls" (though men are never called "boys"), use their first names and focus on their personal life as opposed to their professional sports career.

A particularly cringe-worthy moment at this year's Games came when NBC sports commentators covering women's gymnastics asked if they had "seen any diva moments yet."

That falls on the subtler end of the spectrum. The overt is much worse. Some of it is dressed up in the guise of drumming up more viewership, such as the suggestion that female boxers wear skirts while competing. The idea being, according to the Amateur International Boxing Association, "to help viewers distinguish between male and female boxers."

The almost pathological need to enforce the femininity of athletes who are specimens of physical strength and athletic prowess was on display in the New York Daily News' bizarre article on Olympic athletes who are also "Champion Chefs in the Kitchen" (needless to say, they're all women).

Far more prevalent and insidious is the continuous attempt to sexualize female athlete's bodies. According to's analysis of ESPN's annual Body Issue, in which nearly half the athletes featured were women, "[O]ver half of the female athletes were shown only as passive eye candy, while virtually all of the men were shown in action shots." Feministing found that:

-- 78 percent of the photos of men depict an active pose, while only 52 percent of women's photos do.
-- 90 percent of the male athletes had at least one active pose in the slideshow.
-- 46 percent of female athletes had at least one active pose in the slideshow.

Metro's Nate Jones noticed a disturbing pattern in which most stock photos of women's volleyball players zoomed in on faceless shots of butts and abs--he applied the same treatment to men's sports to highlight the absurdity.

Incidentally, only this year was the Olympic requirement that beach volleyball players wear impractical yet optimally revealing bikinis was finally lifted.

THIS INSISTENCE that women Olympian's bodies be not only attuned to athletic ability but sexual objectification has real and devastating consequences.

Consider the case of Australian swimmer and eight-time gold medalist Leisel Jones. On July 24, the Australian Herald Sun newspaper published a photo of Jones with a caption stating: "The Olympic veteran's figure is in stark contrast to that of 2008." The paper also ran a poll asking readers whether Jones was "fit" enough to swim in the 2012 Olympics, which garnered numerous nasty comments before it was pressured to take it down.

It's no wonder that a recent report noted that one in five female athletes suffer from eating disorders.

Not measuring up to conventional standards of beauty can have an economic as well as a psychological cost. A British study found that found that only 0.5 percent of all commercial sports sponsorship goes to women's sports, while 61 percent goes to male sports (and the rest to sports in which both genders compete).

In a country like the U.S., which provides no government support for Olympic athletes, sponsorships are a lifeline. But good luck securing them if you're Sarah Robles. Dubbed "the strongest woman in America," Robles was considered the U.S.'s best shot at winning a medal in Olympic weightlifting. "On her best day," notes Buzzfeed, "she can lift more than 568 pounds--that's roughly five IKEA couches, 65 gallons of milk, or one large adult male lion."

Yet prior to coming to the Games, she was living on a budget of $400 a month. "You can get that sponsorship if you're a super-built guy or a girl who looks good in a bikini. But not if you're a girl who's built like a guy," she told Buzzfeed.

But for female athletes of all shapes and sizes, it seems there's no way to win. You may be damned if you don't get the sponsorships, but it turns out you're also damned if you do.

In a scathing article, the New York Times' Jeré Longman lambasted U.S. Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones:

Jones has received far greater publicity than any other American track and field athlete competing in the London Games. This was based not on achievement but on her exotic beauty and on a sad and cynical marketing campaign. Essentially, Jones has decided she will be whatever anyone wants her to be--vixen, virgin, victim--to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses.

Apparently finishing fourth in the world in the 100-meter hurdles was accomplished by having good looks and a marketing campaign! I look forward to seeing Kim Kardashian compete in 2016 then.

Jones is certainly a complicated figure. At her best, she has excoriated the double standard in which men are celebrated as sex symbols while women are shamed. At her worst, she has trumpeted her affection for Tim Tebow, and even engaged in her own slut-shaming of fellow Olympic athletes.

This cannot be defended. But to suggest that Jones is personally responsible for perpetuating the media's fixation on shoving women into sexist categories--"virgin, vixen, victim"--is too much.

ON THE last point--the role of victim, in which Longman argues that Jones should just shut up already about the adversity she overcame--he hits on the sweet spot of combined sexism and racism which female athletes of color get the unique pleasure of experiencing.

Nowhere was this on fuller display than in the case of the Great Gabby Douglas Hair Non-Story of 2012.

As T.F. Charlton notes in Ebony, the story was a pure media fabrication, a case in which a couple idiotic tweets somehow suddenly went viral. Not coincidentally, this came on the heels of the media virtually ignoring Douglas until they were forced to take note of her all-around gymnastics gold medal victory. Charlton writes:

Now that Gabby's excellence is so proven that it can't be ignored, the media has latched on to a manufactured controversy that conveniently distracts from her accomplishments. Some in the media have preferred to portray Gabby's family as "broken" and mismanaged by an inadequate Black mother.

It's no coincidence that hair, one of the most visible markers and symbols of Black women's difference in a white-dominated culture, has become a focal point of Gabby's story. The media must forever make an issue of our difference, even in moments of triumph, but never in a way that engages with critical analysis of power and oppression.

Serena Williams, perennial target of media complaints for being too Black and/or too unladylike, shot back, calling the focus on Douglas' hair "ridiculous" and praising her as a role model.

She's right. These women are exceptional athletes and role models, for simply competing and excelling in spite of all the sexist and racist garbage they encounter. All the more inspiring is when they take a stand and speak out against the marginalization, the double standards and the objectification.

Take British Olympic weightlifter Zoe Smith's choice words for men who berated her for not being conventionally attractive:

What makes them think that we even WANT them to find us attractive? If you do, thanks very much, we're flattered. But if you don't, why do you really need to voice this opinion in the first place, and what makes you think we actually give a toss that you, personally, do not find us attractive?

What do you want us to do? Shall we stop weightlifting, amend our diet in order to completely get rid of our "manly" muscles, and become housewives in the sheer hope that one day you will look more favorably upon us and we might actually have a shot with you?! Cause you are clearly the kindest, most attractive type of man to grace the earth with your presence.

Oh, but wait, you aren't. This may be shocking to you, but we actually would rather be attractive to people who aren't closed-minded and ignorant. Crazy, eh?! We, as any women with an ounce of self-confidence would, prefer our men to be confident enough in themselves to not feel emasculated by the fact that we aren't weak and feeble.

In the Olympic host city of London, the Fair Game Campaign is working to increase media coverage of and funding for women's sports. Hopefully, campaigns like this can build off the tremendous achievements of women athletes at this year's Olympics as we continue to fight for a world in which men and women are on a truly level playing field.

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