Dear Olympic Media,
We have to talk. Because, while I know that having to commentate and report on hundreds of hours of events is tiring and taxing, I need you to do better. I need you to start seeing that what you say about gender reaches audiences you might not normally reach—folks who stop their busy lives a few weeks every few years to watch the world come together and compete as athletes, not as adversaries.
And, dear media, you are doing a terrible job. Or—if you are trying to ensure sexism in sport continues—you are doing a bang-up job. University of Denver Law Professor Nancy Leong tweeted an Associated Press headline that sums up your blatant marginalization of women athletes during these games:
This headline is a metaphor for basically the entire world. pic.twitter.com/5WpQa04N0o— Nancy Leong (@nancyleong) August 14, 2016
This headline visually represents your diminishment of women athletes these past few weeks. Even when they break a world record, they are mentioned second only to men. They literally come second.
It seems you still don’t quite know what to do with women athletes: You don’t seem to know how to talk about them, how to cover their accomplishments, how to see them as athletes instead of as mothers, wives or daughters. The proof is in your premier publication: Sports Illustrated featured a woman on only 4.9—that’s four point nine, not 49—percent of its covers from 2000 to 2011—not including its (in)famous swimsuit edition.
Women athletes don’t often grace your covers or your headlines, even though laws like Title IX state that women athletes deserve equal funding—and by extension, equal attention. In her analysis of media coverage of women athletes in the era of Title IX, Mary Jo Kane, professor of kinesiology and director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, writes,
I further argue that until young girls and women are seen, and see themselves, in ways that reflect the diversity of their sport experience, from grace and beauty to physical strength and power, they will not receive the admiration, dignity, and respect that they so richly deserve. As we have seen, women are already breaking down historical barriers to their sport involvement. As scholars and educators we should challenge the media to reflect that reality.
She wrote that in 1996.
How little has changed.
When the Olympics come every four years, the world demands to know how all of the athletes are doing. On the world stage, women cannot be ignored. Along come Olympians such as Simone Manuel, Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, Madeline “Maya” Dirado and Corey Cogdell-Unrein, and your audience demands information about their accomplishments.
Those of us watching have made hay with some of the material you have given us, making funny memes and writing satirical tweets. Frankly, I can barely keep up with the Olympics themselves because all of my time has gone to responding to the carelessness some of your outlets are displaying.
I want you to remember that your work matters. Your words matter. Your editorial choices matter. Because my daughter is watching. My nephew is watching. Young people all over the country are watching. And when they see and hear that, even after a woman wins an Olympic medal, she is really just another famous person’s wife, they are learning about gender roles. When they see Michael Phelps receive medal after medal on a podium and they don’t see Simone Manuel live, standing on a podium, they are learning that women don’t matter as much, that their time in the moment of glory can wait, that their achievements are not as great. When they see women’s achievements overshadowed by their roles as mothers, they are learning that, for women, mothering is the only important job. (I am still waiting for a similar article that talks about dads and how they struggle to train and father…)
So I show my daughter and nephew Serena Williams saying she is one of the greatest athletes, not one of the greatest female athletes. I show them Simone Manuel’s gold-medal ceremony even when the “official” network covering the games decided not to air that ceremony until past most of the East Coast’s bedtime.
But I have to go out of my way to ensure that women athletes are not marginalized in my household.
Media outlets, you have the world watching. I need you to speak about women athletes for what they are first during the Olympics: athletes. All of the other elements of their identities can be secondary on competition day.
You have a couple of years until the Winter Olympics. I hope you will consider some training in how to speak about gender. (I would be happy to oblige!) When you marginalize a population through your words and editorial choices, you reify gender inequality.
We all need to be in this together if we are ever going to see a world in which women are seen as equal in sports—and in life.
Clemens is the associate professor of non-Western literatures and director of Women's and Gender Studies at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.