The Rampant Sexism on Display at the Rio Olympics

On Thursday night, American swimmer Simone Manuel tied with Canadian Penny Oleksiak for a historic gold medal in the 100m freestyle. NBC didn’t air Manuel’s medal ceremony right away — even though she’s the first African American woman to win gold for an individual swim.

Instead, the network aired a delayed broadcast of Russian gymnasts. The BBC, however, did air the medal ceremony as it was happening. Watch the contrast between both programs here.

The sexism and racism aren’t limited to broadcast coverage. The San Jose Mercury News didn’t even bother to include Manuel’s name in a headline that read: “Olympics: Michael Phelps shared historic night with African-American.”

Throughout the first week of the Rio Olympics, sexism has been on display again and again in the coverage of the athletic prowess of thousands of incredible women athletes:

NBC commentator Jim Watson on Simone Biles’ uneven-bars performance: “I think she might even go higher than the men.”

Add these statements to the promise of “lots of nearly naked women doing the samba” during the opening ceremony. Then mix in NBC’s explanation for delayed broadcasting: “The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey.”

The outcome? Some of the greatest athletes ever — confident women who embody power, focus and dedication — perform at the highest level of sport, earn medals, break world records, and, in Manuel’s case, push past the history of racism in U.S. swimming pools. Instead of being recognized for their success on their own merits, they’re compared with men, see their hard work credited to men, have their names omitted from stories, and are labeled as wives and mothers. To top it all off they’re paid less than men.

More women than men are representing the U.S. in Rio and women are expected to take home more medals, even though there are fewer events women are eligible for. The Olympics, noted one blogger, “should be a great opportunity to highlight to our daughters (and our sons) how women can not only be athletes, they can be the best athletes on the planet.” (You can read about the sexism on display in Rio at Bustle and the Huffington Post or watch a few examples over at AJ+.)

As a lifelong athlete I’ve always bristled at the inadequate coverage of women athletes, which all too often focuses on clothing, shoes and personal lives as opposed to skill level, training regimen and achievements. Playing sports like swimming and softball has helped me learn to love and use my body, voice and mind. Sports have taught me assertiveness, leadership skills and goal setting. Athletics have given me survival skills, gotten me through some difficult times and given me a sense of belonging and community when I needed it most. All of this is still part of my life today.

In a world that constantly tells women that we should be small, quiet and deferential it’s the ultimate irony that some of the strongest women in the world who are literal professionals of sport can’t get the respect and credit they deserve from our media and technology companies. Instead we receive near-constant messages and images telling us that our bodies are objects of scrutiny rather than instruments we can use for exercise, economic gain and self-expression.

The tens of thousands of hours of Olympic footage and coverage more often than not contribute to a media system that harms us all and reinforces oppressive narratives that divide our neighborhoods and our minds.

Our media system favors profits over people, and there are structural barriers that limit ownership opportunities for women and people of color. This also means that women and people of color are less likely to have access to the tools and formal training necessary to report stories, or to the capital needed to run and sustain media organizations. All of these barriers contribute to sexism in sports coverage.

But imagine if we had a different system.

Imagine what would happen if more women of different races were leading work in newsrooms. What would happen if there were true race and gender diversity among sports reporters? How would things look if news organizations didn’t have to rely so heavily on advertising, clickbait and sensationalism to fund their operations?

Imagine a future in which women athletes weren’t merely the subjects of media but were actively involved in creating their own coverage via community media institutions, cellphone documentation and social media. Imagine reporters giving transgender and genderqueer competitors the respect and attention they deserve. And how would things be different if the media and technology companies that dominate our media landscape took an intersectional approach to their work?

We can create a new vision, and answer these questions. Our media outlets don’t have to continue to harm women, trans and genderqueer communities, indigenous communities and people of color.

Imagine if the media treated Simone Manuel with the respect and admiration she deserves.

Original photo by Flickr user Shawn Carpenter