When Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszú broke a world record by nearly two seconds in the 400 m individual medley on Day 2 of the Rio Olympics, NBC’s camera switched from the victorius swimmer to her husband and coach, while an announcer said, “There’s the guy responsible for turning Katinka Hosszú, his wife, into a whole different swimmer.” While those around Hosszú and her husband Shane Tossup may have several troubling questions about their relationship and her performance, that comment — “the guy responsible” — was an odd one in her moment of triumph, a suggestion that her success wasn’t quite hers.
Tata Salt, in its recent ad campaign for the Indian sportspersons it is sponsoring at the Olympics, has slick ‘Making of an Olympian’ videos for each of them in which they talk about some aspect of their sport. Wrestler Babita Kumari is one of them, but hers is the only video that includes a slide that says, “The only person tougher than her is her father.” Mahesh Dangal, her father, has certainly been a large influence in her life. But to speak of her success solely in connection with him is to take away from her incredible achievements. Here’s an important question: do we refer to male athletes in the same way, finding ways to attribute their work and their success to their coaches, their parents, their spouses?
Olympic track medallist Kellie Wells was referred to in a headline simply as “Linebacker’s wife,” associating her with her husband who is an NFL athlete. After Corey Cogdell-Unrein won bronze in the women’s trap shooting event, a newspaper’s tweet referred to her medal achievement leaving out her name, calling her “Wife of a Bears’ lineman”.
And if sportswomen aren’t being referred to as someone’s wife or daughter, their achievements are still mentioned by placing them in comparison with men. Swimmer Katie Ledecky, who has been praised for swimming “like a man”, and who smashed her own world record in the 400 m freestyle and finished with a nearly 5 second lead, is dubbed “the female Phelps”. So are Missy Franklin and Natalie Coughlin. Footballer Marta, considered one of the greatest female footballers, is still being referred to as “the female Pele” or “Pele in skirts” (a phrase unfortunately coined by Pele himself). American gymnastics sensation Simone Biles has been variously called the “Kobe Bryant” and “Michael Jordan” of her sport. The reward that female athletes are being given for the being the best in their field is being compared to men, instead of being celebrated for their own work.
UK’s Cambridge University Press analysed over 160 million words in decades of newspapers, academic papers, tweets and blogs to find that men were likely to be described as “strong, big, real, great or fastest,” while women are more likely to be “aged, pregnant or unmarried.” Men were three times more likely than women to be mentioned in a sporting context, while women were disproportionately described in relation to their marital status, age or appearance, they found. Their research will continue through the Olympics, with more findings to be released at the end of the month.
In Rio, where the US women’s gymnastics team is killing it, an NBC commentator described the team as looking as though “they might as well be standing in the middle of a mall”. Never mind they are on their way to winning medals. And in a hilarious Twitter exchange that went viral, a man tried to mansplain the “first lesson in bicycling” to Olympic cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten. And it isn’t just female athletes getting a raw deal at the games. Viewers apparently couldn’t handle one reporter’s choice of poolside clothing. Mother Jones points out that the only female play-by-play announcer is pigeonholed in rhythmic gymnastics.
Luckily, the media and the viewing public are taking note of all the ridiculous sexism in sports journalism. But for those who still aren’t clear about how to write about sportswomen, here’s a great, handy list of dos and don’ts by the very excellent Lindy West. We’ll leave you with her wise words: “Athletes are athletes. If you care about sports, write about sports. If you care about gender equality, write about sports.”
Co-published with Firstpost.