Sexism at the Olympics: a charge that barely holds water

Peter Kammerer says while some remarks admittedly objectify women and demean their skills, sometimes the meaning falls through the generation gap

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 August, 2016, 1:20pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2018, 11:43am

There has been a lot of buzz about the sexist media commentary at the Rio Olympics. So I scrolled through some of the examples and, frankly, wondered what all the fuss was about. Yes, there are remarks that objectify women or demean their athletic ability, but the outrage also seems, in a number of instances, to be misplaced.

I put it down to one of the following: either there’s a misperception of what sexism is; the world has become too politically correct; or, I am a throwback to an outdated generation.

Talk of catfights on the judo mats, how fitting it is for a woman athlete to have a body that is anything other than “tight” and focusing on fashion sense rather than performance is obviously not on.

Nor is it acceptable to infer that women’s sporting events are less important than those of men or that female spectators are watching not for the results “but the journey”, as US television network NBC said in defending a decision to delay some broadcasts to prime time.

It is also indisputable that the male-dominated sporting world has long referred to men in terms of strength, speed and greatness, while the performances of women have generally been gauged in the eyes of some according to age, marital status and pregnancy.

It hasn’t helped that there has always been unequal representation of women at the Olympics, although there are more at the Rio Games than ever before, 45 per cent of competitors.

But to me, the accusations of sexism are not always justified. There was outrage when a US presenter credited Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu’s new world record in the 400-metre individual medley to the skills of her coach and husband, American Shane Tusup.

That’s only a little sexist. While it needs talent, hard work and huge effort to pull off such a performance, there is no denying the athlete’s times have improved markedly since she took on her new coach in 2013.

I’m not so sure that it was wrong for another commentator to say that “a lot of people think that” American gold medallist Katie Ledecky “swims like a man”.

Live commentary isn’t easy and this remark doesn’t make sense; what was actually meant, that the athlete’s abilities are equal to those of male counterparts, is hardly demeaning.

Complaints that women athletes are at times referred to as “girls” can be readily countered with the fact that the men are sometimes called “boys” – and why not, as a good number of the participants are teenagers?

Men far outnumber women in commentary boxes, so it would be interesting to see what would happen with equality. The US editions of two popular American women’s magazines give a hint.

The Cosmopolitan website has a slideshow headed, “36 of the greatest Summer Olympics bulges”, which draws attention not to performances but genital endowment, while Elle has a feature, “Hot shirtless Olympic dude of the day”. Social media has drawn attention as much to the physiques of male athletes as females’.

Can China’s adorably awkward Olympic darling Fu Yuanhui turn fame into fortune?

Would we have taken as much notice of the unusual facial expressions of Chinese backstroke swimming specialist Fu Yuanhui after her bronze-medal-winning performance if she had been of the opposite gender? How much would we have cared had it been a male gymnast who broke down in tears after failing to win a medal rather than Shang Chunsong?

Plucky Chinese gymnast Shang Chunsong tells family ‘don’t worry, I’m fine’ after uneven bars defeat

Both have become social media darlings and, with that sentence, perhaps I have shown myself to have an in-built sexist streak. I can’t help it and blame my upbringing, generation and the conservatism of the city in which I live.

With political correctness, it’s really a matter of being aware and then thinking before speaking. But as I know with my two adult sons and those from what is known as the millennial generation, there are different points of view and ways of thinking.

It’s why some comedians refuse to perform at university campuses or have social media accounts.

It’s why I find people of my mother’s generation racist and why I think the charges of Olympic sexism are overblown.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post