Rio 2016 and the language of Sexism in Sport

Agência Brasil Fotografias, Canadá vence o Brasil no futebol feminino, na Rio 2016, Flickr

Recent backlash in the media has centred on prevailing sexism in the coverage of female athletes. Australian athlete Michelle Jenneke hurdled her way into heavily sexualised commentaries regarding her breasts, and similarly the US gymnast Gabby Douglas’s hair became the focal point of her performances. And evidently all that could be assumed from Canadian Eugenie Bouchard’s defeat was not enough commitment to tennis in her all-time-consuming pursuit of beauty and fashion. Apparently all that concerns the press is that women are feminised and conform to heavily sexist stereotypes whilst winning medals.

Outspoken sexism only serves to expose the wider network of media generated sexism towards female athletes

Whilst fans stormed the barricades in light of 2016’s shockingly sexist commentaries, the fact remains that such comments were made and endorsed by commentators and their respective media organisations. Following the storm of controversy that Dan Hicks’ NBC commentary brought, he only mildly amended his comments that the Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu owed her success to her partner “the man responsible” for her breaking the World record in the 400m individual medley.

Such ignorance in Hicks’ words suggested compliance with the notion that behind every strong woman is a man, a sickeningly traditionalist attitude synonymous with ‘a woman’s place is in the home’.

However, this outspoken sexism only serves to expose the wider network of media generated sexism towards female athletes, and chiefly the language that is used in media coverage. That being, the differences between how men and women are observed and reported about in sports. A study convened at Cambridge University exposed exactly this through its analysis of the Sports Corpus, an extensive database containing words from a number of media outlets. A collection of words which largely pass unnoticed but are published tenfold.

The findings of the Cambridge study were shocking, not least because men were mentioned a staggering three times more, but also because of the vocabulary attached to athletes. It highlighted how there is still a propensity to consider male sports as the ‘original’ and the female counterparts as ‘additional’. For this reason we have the category of ‘women’s sports’, such as a female footballer as opposed to a footballer who would be by default male, or the Women’s British Open as opposed to simply the British Open, exclusively for men.

men were mentioned a staggering three times more [than female athletes]

In addition, it proved that the superficial commentary of women in sports far outstrips the usual conventions of commentaries of male athletes. Women are approached through the lens of social sexist norms, creating a heavily gendered language use in sports. Women are sexualised, disregarded and judged by their appearance, mannerisms and private life much more frequently and intrusively than their male colleagues.

Whilst these issues will most likely not be solved before the next Olympic Games in 2022, the casual sexism during the Olympics in Rio has brought to international attention the sexism still rife in sports. Until all athletes are regarded equal, sexism in sport has no hope at being eliminated.


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