Female Athlete Problems, Redux

Well, I wish I could say members of the media who cover the Olympics learned their lessons after everything I discussed in a post last week. But clearly many of them haven’t, and let’s be honest — who’s really surprised by this? I’m sure not. In some ways, it seems like this week’s sexist coverage has been even worse than last week’s.

Let’s hold our noses and dive right in:

On Monday, the women’s gymnastics individual beam final took place. After the Netherlands’ Sanne Wevers finished a fantastic routine, she immediately sat down on the sidelines (or whatever you call the side area in gymnastics…?), pulled out a notebook, and began writing in it. NBC commentator Al Trautwig, his voice dripping with condescension, asked if she was writing in her diary. Fellow commentator Nastia Liukin, who was a member of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team in 2008, explained Wevers was likely doing calculations, figuring out how her score might to the potential scores of the women yet to compete, but Trautwig replied he’d rather think she was writing in her diary. Now, just like last week’s mall comment, there’s nothing wrong with keeping a diary, but there tends to be a negative association between diary-keeping and ditzy, boy-crazy teenage girls. Also, it’s pretty insulting to suggest that Sanne Wevers detached from the competition, rather than staying engaged, doing the math, and following things through to the end (where she ultimately won the gold medal).

Laurie Hernandez, one of the U.S. gymnasts, took silver in the beam competition, and she was interviewed by Bob Costas in the NBC studio after her event aired. He started off by asking her, “The only reason you got silver instead of gold is because of the Dutch gymnast’s routine had a higher degree of difficulty than yours, right?” (That might be a bit of a paraphrase, but it’s basically how he constructed the question.) Laurie responded, “Yeah, probably” and said a couple of complimentary things about Sanne Wevers’ triple pirouettes. And after that, Costas asked her about her age, her Twitter followers, her personality, and what she did during the London Olympics, which she, of course, wasn’t in. He only asked her one question about her sport, and he didn’t even let her explain the rule/feature he was inquiring about. And Hernandez, the youngest member of the U.S. gymnastics team (she’s sixteen; the next youngest person is nineteen), who until three or four weeks ago was virtually unknown to anyone who doesn’t regularly follow gymnastics, didn’t try to course-correct the interview, which I don’t blame her for. She doesn’t have a previous Olympics under her belt, like her teammates Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, and she’s only had a fraction of the media coverage Simone Biles has received over the past several months. It’s got to be intimidating to be on camera in the fancy NBC studio for any athlete, let alone someone so young, and even I, sitting here behind the shield of my computer screen, can’t be sure I would have the guts to speak up if I were in Hernandez’s position. Bob Costas, as a veteran TV presenter who’s surely been aware of the furore around the sexist Olympics coverage, should have been more respectful and asked Hernandez more questions that A) didn’t pretty much feed her the answer and B) were actually relevant to her outstanding achievement in sports.

When British tennis player Andy Murray won gold in the men’s singles, BBC commentator John Inverdale said to him, “You’re the first person ever to win two Olympic tennis gold medals. That’s an extraordinary feat, isn’t it?” Murray replied that yes, he was the first person to win two gold medals in singles’ competition, but Venus and Serena Williams each have multiple golds. (They each have one gold medal for singles and three gold medals for doubles.) A lot of people are trying to explain away Inverdale’s remark, saying he clearly meant Murray was the first person to win two singles gold medals, but Inverdale has a history of saying sexist (and weird, possibly racist) remarks on the air — not to mention that, as a commentator for a major broadcast network, he should have done his homework on the recent history of the sport he was about to cover so he didn’t say anything false.

One of the incidents that made me the angriest during these games happened after Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to win gold in an individual Olympic swimming event (she tied with Canadian Penny Oleksiak, and together they set a new Olympic record for the 100-meter freestyle). Following Manuel’s fantastic achievement, the San Jose Mercury News ran this headline on Twitter: “Olympics: Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American.” Despite winning gold, Manuel apparently didn’t deserve to have her name mentioned, and it was unclear whether it was because she’s a woman or because she’s black. The paper did apologize and post a new headline that actually mentioned Manuel’s name and listed her first, which seems appropriate since she was, you know, the first African-American woman ever to win an individual swimming gold, and Phelps had just won his twenty-second gold. (Not that Phelps doesn’t work hard and deserve to be recognized for every medal he wins. But you see my point, I hope.)

And on the topic of black women in the games, I can’t even find the words to describe my outrage at the hatred and abuse U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas has received on social media. She’s been criticized for how she wears her hair, for standing at attention rather than putting her hand over her heart during the national anthem, and for not looking happy and excited all the time. She smiled a little more during the 2012 Olympics, when she performed a little better than she has in Rio, but even then she clearly had something of a serious personality. Douglas isn’t full of sass like her 2012 teammate McKayla Maroney or bright and bubbly like her current teammates Hernandez and Biles; she’s just naturally more subdued, and so she receives the same criticism that many women receive while walking down a city street — she should smile because some random person wants her to, regardless of whether or not she’s actually happy. Because Douglas didn’t put her hand over her heart and didn’t smile during the only medal ceremony she got to participate in this time around, the LA Times ran a piece admonishing her for “pouting” on the podium — but in 2012, when Maroney (who is white) was obviously unhappy on the podium after she took silver instead of gold in the vault final, her “not impressed” face became a viral meme. President Obama imitated it when he took a photo with Maroney, and her face was photoshopped over the Statue of Liberty’s to showcase America’s sass. And despite the fact that Douglas was obviously cheering on her teammates in the all-around and event finals, she didn’t look happy enough while she was doing it. (I’ll point out that Madison Kocian, who is white, seems to share Douglas’s more serious demeanor, but as far as I know, nobody has accused her of having an “attitude problem”.) People have just been saying truly mean, horrible things about Douglas left and right, without any regard for the fact that she’s active on social media and sees most of it, and even if she weren’t the media would ask her about it anyway. Douglas teared up during her final interview of the games, during which she mostly apologized to people who felt slighted by her behavior that had literally no effect on them, and after she went back to the athletes-only area of the facility, it was widely reported that she burst into tears in a corner.

Gabby Douglas has accomplished amazing things in both her sport and her overall life –she supports her family and single-handedly pulled them out of poverty. She’s a serious athlete who is now on the older end of the spectrum as far as her sport is concerned. She hasn’t performed as well at these Olympic games as she did in London, but that could be due to any number of things, from her recent change in coaches to injuries to events in her private life to just having a couple of bad days at a really unfortunate time. Let’s not forget that the only reason she didn’t get to perform in the all-around this time is a stupid rule that only allows two gymnasts to represent each country in that competition: in qualifying, Simone Biles finished first, Aly Raisman finished second, and Douglas finished third. All the gymnasts from other countries finished somewhere behind Gabby, yet she still wasn’t able to participate in the all-around. I, for one, am so glad Gabby moved to central Ohio to train for the Olympics (at the gym where my sister and I took gymnastics for a year or two when we were much younger). I hope she got to see the piece our local NBC station did about the younger girls at her gym who all got together to see their hero help her team win a gold medal.

If I’ve learned anything from the 2016 Olympics, it’s how astonishingly far we still have to go for female athletes to be treated the same as male athletes. I was so happy when Biles won the gymnastics all-around and she said, “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, I’m the first Simone Biles.” We need to instill the confidence in our female athletes (of any age) to make public statements like that, and then we need to support them in all the ways we can. I keep wondering whether this year is an anomaly among recent Olympic games, or whether the coverage is just as sexist as always, but now we’re calling out the media’s failings with much, much louder voices. I’m really not sure which scenario applies here. But either way, I will continue to do my part in calling out sexism whenever and wherever I see it. I hope you will too.

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