The quadrennial global mass hysteria known as the Summer Olympics ended Sunday, and people everywhere returned to their usual pursuits. But not before watching the British display some of their idiosyncratic humour and – let’s face it – dorkiness. And not before watching a truly stupendous array of athletic accomplishments by people from all over the world.
And especially, by women. Women from everywhere. For the first time, every country that was present at the Games had women competitors. Saudi Arabia got the most attention for having two women athletes, but women from many countries face obstacles in their quest for Olympic gold; indeed, in their quest for simple acceptance and support. Caster Semenya continues to attract controversy: not content with questioning her gender, sports ‘experts’ this year also questioned whether she had actually tried not to win the 800 meters. Really, people? Who spends their life working toward a goal and then throws it away at the last minute before the world’s biggest audience? No one I know. Or can imagine.
Perhaps the most amazing – and yet, somehow not surprising – result in these Olympics was the performance of the U.S. women. Together, they won more gold medals than all but two countries (China and Great Britain – they tied the latter). And they won more medals overall than all but China, Russia, and Great Britain. The U.S. women could be their own country, and would have kicked the butts of most other nations. Equally impressive, they did it across sports, and in categories typically (but not this time) won by the U.S. men: e.g., water polo, boxing. I could go on, but you get the point.
Yet despite the incredible accomplishments of women athletes, sexism persists in the Games, and especially, in the media coverage of athletic endeavors. Some have called out a few of the worst examples, but these are only the most obvious ones. Equally deplorable was the coded (and not so coded) sexist language and so-called “analysis” that pervaded the coverage. Men are skilled and women are lucky. Women gymnasts were criticized if they didn’t smile all the time; men were “focused” when their faces were somber. Which they were virtually the whole time. Women who were “unattractive” (by whose standards?) or “fat” (ditto) were criticized, to put it mildly. And how shameful is it that one of this country’s best athletes lives in poverty, at least partly because she doesn’t fit some Vogue model of beauty? Some of them fought back against the idiocy – you go, Zoe Smith! – but the fact that this is the level of discourse, of “serious sports reporting,” is truly abominable. And let’s not even get into the weird and arguably racist stories about gymnast Gabby Douglas. At least one sports reporter even blamed a woman athlete for sexist coverage.
Mind you, Olympics coverage tends to be dreadful anyway, at least in the U.S. The level of jingoism is embarrassing. We see hundreds of profiles of U.S. athletes, very few of competitors from other countries. Worse, commentators and those who call themselves “analysts” seemingly cannot help thinking American athletes are superior – physically, morally, mentally, emotionally – to everyone in the world. (Please go away, Dick Button, before the next Winter Olympics. You might be a nice man, and you were a good skater 60 years ago, but your nationalistic attitude dates to your gold medals.) Our athletes apparently are robbed by unfair judging, while athletes from other countries do the robbing, and don’t truly personify their sport. Get over yourselves.
As a lifelong sports fan, I enjoy the Olympics, and this year I was impressed almost beyond words by women from all over the world (and many of the men). But until we can persuade those who report on the Games, and on all sports, to examine their preconceptions and biases, I’ll be watching with the sound turned off, and doing my laundry during the athlete profiles.
Photo by the Department for Communities and Local Government.