You need not self-define as a gym rat, a hardcore member of #fitfam, or a feminist (full disclosure: I’m all of the above) to feel like your newsfeed sends you on an emotional roller coaster every time you tune into the Rio 2016 Olympics coverage.
First comes the surge of you-go-girl glee at triumphs such as those of historic duo Simone Squared or Katie Ledecky’s unbelievable swim times. But then, fast and furious, come the sexist face-palm moments: The Chicago Tribune identifying trap-shooting medalist Corey Codgell-Unrein as the nameless “wife of a Bears lineman,” NBC announcer Dan Hicks crediting Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu’s husband-coach as the man responsible for her gold medal, and the Fox News conversation (between two men) offering the straight-faced reasoning that athletes should wear makeup to protect viewers from seeing “some chick’s zits.”
If chatter on Facebook and IRL are any indication, I’m not alone in experiencing these dramatic feels (not surprising, since the Games’ viewership is regularly over 50 percent female, higher than any other major televised sports event).
So a natural question arises as the two-week athletic extravaganza comes to a close—what is a feminist (or hey, anyone who cares about how women are represented in sports or, you know, life) to make of the Olympics and its antiquated coverage?
Here are some of my thoughts and observations:
1. How we get our news from Rio is revealing.
Except for the lucky live-action spectators and those streaming the unedited version, NBC pre-packages the Olympics in a way they think the ladies will like, heavy on feel-good “human interest” and low on technical athletic analysis.
The New Yorker bemoaned that NBC announcers never get more specific than whether or not gymnasts “stuck a landing,” omitting geeky but amazing details like how Biles always crosses her toes mid-Amanar (a vault jump), a quirk that makes a perfect score unattainable.
With notable exceptions—such as the case of judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison, who was sexually abused by her coach—those human interest stories rarely challenge conventional gender norms; Vox described the coverage as “the same tired storylines about men who are gritty competitors and women who manage to fill some traditionally feminine role in addition to being athletes.” Are you (like me) bored with this yet?
2. That’s why listening to the voices of athletes themselves is so important, especially when they break from these super gendered storylines.
Take Biles, who has been using her voice to redefine ideas about “normal” families. The record-setting gymnast lived in foster care before being adopted by her grandparents, who raised her. When NBC’s Al Trautwig insisted that they are not “her real parents,” Biles simply replied, “My parents are my parents and that’s it,” effectively advocating for adoptive families everywhere.
Gold medal-winning gymnast Aly Raisman also pushed back on the warm-and-fuzzy fiction that her achievement is the result of her family’s unique commitment to their daughter, reminding one interviewer that her privilege—her parents could afford training and travel—enables her success.
As cringe-worthy as some of this coverage can feel from the stands (or on our sofas), the athletes don’t always share in this feminist outrage. Former Australian gold medalist Libby Trickett dismissed the idea that calling women athletes “girls” was offensive, explaining that “we did it with our boys as well.” Similarly, the debate about makeup and empowerment got a virtual eye-roll from soccer player Ali Krieger, who referred to her mascara as “war paint.”
Their reactions echo other powerful and inspiring women in sports history, such as late basketball coach Pat Summitt, who never identified as a feminist, or Jazzercise founder Judi Sheppard Missett, who inspired millions of women to exercise and thousands to launch businesses, but saw herself as on a different mission than those “marching with signs in the streets.”
3. Beyond individual athletes, the sports themselves are gendered—with gymnastics as the ultimate example.
Though women’s gymnastics only became a separate Olympic sport in 1952, the archetypal gymnast is a girl; it’s so instinctual that my 6-year-old asked me if boys are allowed to compete too. (Yes, of course, though their very different routines are intended to showcase strength more than grace, evidenced in the lack of music in men’s floor routines.)
Gymnastics has soared in popularity since the 1960s, showcasing increasingly complex and impressive feats of athleticism while becoming more unapologetically feminine. Title IX empowered girls and women to become athletes, but sports historian Lindsay Pieper shows that the smiles and sparkly leotards of gymnastics also promoted a girlish cuteness that was reassuring when many worried feminism would breed masculinity.
These attitudes are still built into the form today: In what other sport (except figure skating) is a bright smile—rather than the grunts and grimaces that usually accompany athletic exertion—required?
This plays off the mat as well; the internet swooned at Michael Phelps’ simmering pre-race rage but mocked McKayla Maroney’s “not impressed” smirk when she only took silver in Sochi. It’s the sports equivalent of putting “resting bitch face” on blast with the reviled “you’d be prettier if you smiled more.”
4. But feminism isn’t just about “women’s issues.”
For one, Ryan Lochte is arguably the most objectified Olympic athlete; it’s hard to imagine an editor signing off on a story about “boning” a female athlete. Gay male athletes, some of them closeted and from countries with oppressive LGBTQ laws, also bore the brunt of the humiliation of a disastrous Daily Beast piece that experimented with Grindr in the Olympic Village.
Exceptional reporting can also prove the rule. The New York Times ran a profile about Michael Phelps as a young father that was unremarkable (fretting about fevers and FaceTime-ing frequently) except that it was: writing athletes-as-parents is usually reserved for women. The beauty beat is also primarily the realm of lady-mags, but a write-up of Phelps’ haircut at a black barbershop modeled how style can be covered in a way that doesn’t glorify appearance over athleticism.
The next feminist frontier in the Olympics will likely be around transgenderism, an issue we have heard little about in 2016 despite the fact that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has changed its rules to be more open than ever.
And that openness is something to think about more seriously as we, the athletes, and the IOC enter Rio recovery mode next week. And it’s also crucial for media and its broadcasters, who could be pushing Olympics coverage into super-interesting, new terrain. (More diverse, forward-thinking reporters and announcers? Yes please!) Consider it an innovative training program for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018.
Well+Good’s fitness historian, Natalia Petrzela, PhD, is a history professor at The New School in New York City and a premier IntenSati instructor, who regularly shares the sweaty past with us in this column.