Don’t Mess with the Olympic Women


Lisa Ingarfield | @tritodefi

One of the cool things about working from home is I get to watch the Winter Olympics. With a sleeping dog at my feet, and a cup of tea in hand, I can be productive and entertained. I am not sure if Olympics fever has taken over your household, but I have been soaking it in since before the opening ceremony. One of the reasons I like to watch these major sporting events, beyond the daily dose of outstanding athletic feats, is because I want to see how women athletes are discussed and shown in comparison to the men. How much airtime do women athletes get as compared to their male counterparts? What questions do they get asked after winning gold? You may be shocked to learn while women make up 40% of all sport participants, they receive only about 3-5% of the sport media coverage.

During the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, researchers Kara Allen and Cynthia Frisby from the University of Missouri found numerous microaggressions towards women athletes within media coverage, including a focus on their inferiority to men, sexualizing their bodies, or asking questions unrelated to their athletic achievements. You may all remember how 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Corey Cogdell was referred to as the “wife of Bears lineman” in a local Chicago paper reporting on her achievement. Apparently, her trap shooting podium spot wasn’t enough to report in its own right. These microaggressions actually increased from 2012 to 2016. So much for progress. Allen and Frisby concluded:

In many cases, these hidden and subtle micro aggression messages not only demean the accomplishments of elite female athletes, they seem to communicate the idea that these women do not deserve to have news stories that are similar or even better than the stories written about male athlete.

What I have always found interesting is the presumption that women are somehow weaker or less physically capable than men. Take tennis as an example. Women historically have only played three sets to the men’s five. This is still the case in many of the grand slams.

In sports featured in the Winter Olympics, there are similar disparities. The ski jumps for women are shorter than they are for men, women ski and speed skate shorter distances, and their bobsleds are shorter, with no women competing in the four-person bobsled event. The distinction is predicated on the tacit, and sometimes explicit belief that women cannot perform at the same level as men.

Depictions of the difference between women and men's bobsled events, according to The Guardian. Click on the image for more comparisons. 

Depictions of the difference between women and men's bobsled events, according to The Guardian. Click on the image for more comparisons. 

This is an artificial construction. Women at all levels are kicking ass athletically. Look at Courtney Dauwalter who won the Moab 240 (yes, that’s 240 miles), beating the second place finisher by 10 hours. She beat all the men in the race. Women routinely finish ahead of men in Ironman triathlons, and we know Serena Williams can beat most male tennis players, save only a few.

We rarely talk about how formidable women are as athletes. It feels as though if we openly acknowledged just how powerful and amazing women are at sport, doing so would fundamentally challenge the long held belief that sport is naturally gendered masculine. The commentating about women’s sport or women athletes slides quickly into questions about family or relationships. What they do off the field or race course often takes precedence over their athletic achievements. As Allen and Frisby articulate: “Micro aggressions aimed at female athletes, we believe, appear to reflect the active manifestation of worldviews that create, foster, and enforce racism, sexism.”

So, what will this “active manifestation” look like in the 2018 Winter Olympics? It’s easy to consume sport, on television and radio, without a critical eye, but it is important to notice how women are shortchanged. It matters for women now, and it matters for the young girls who watch the Olympics hoping that one day they may take the place of the women they see on screen.