Why We Need Feminism: Sexism at the Olympics

Why We Need Feminism: Sexism at the Olympics

The Olympics are the crowning achievement of a lifetime of sacrificing for athletic ability. It takes practice, work, dedication, and talent to get there, and even then there are many that never make it. I am proud to see that more women are participating in Rio than in any of the previous Olympics. And, even in the way that we participate, we’ve come so far. Just look at gymnastics. The routines done today are harder than ever, and they are more impressive than the gymnasts of the 40s and 50s likely ever imagined they could be.

So, as women continue to break records and show that we’re not only capable, but deserving of our respective places in history, why are we still being demeaned, judged, and made to look inferior? Some might say that the sexism you have and will see in this Olympic coverage is the product of typing or speaking before thinking, quick-to-post Twitter fingers, or that everything offensive that was said was nothing more than a misunderstanding. If that was the case, wouldn’t there be more gaffes for men, as well? I don’t recall anyone’s wife being told they were responsible for making their husband a strong athlete, but maybe I missed that headline.

That’s the reason that feminism is so important, especially in things like the Olympics. Apparently sexism and lack of common sense go hand in hand. It’s not a mistake when someone writes a headline or offers a commentary asking whether or not women athletes should be wearing more makeup or why their hairstyle isn’t up to the snuff of the Internet judging committee. When journalists are writing vastly different pieces for women athletes as opposed to their male counterparts, you know we’ve got a problem. It’s not just happening in one sport, though some sports do seem to yield more sexist remarks than others, among them swimming and gymnastics.

There’s Something Rotten in The Olympics Pool


And no, I’m not talking about the green water. Let’s talk about Katinka Hosszu. When this amazing, world-recording breaking (400-meter individual medley) swimmer won her race and broke the world record, NBC’s camera-people immediately panned to Katinka’s husband, who is also her coach, Shane Tusup. NBC commentator Dan Hicks then said, “There’s the guy responsible for turning Katinka Hosszu, his wife, into a whole different swimmer.”


Not only should Shane be proud of his achievement in training a world-record breaker, but he married her too! Good job, Shane! Can we get this guy a medal? Oh, wait…shouldn’t we be praising his wife? You know, the won who broke the record?! Sure, it’s a great thing when a coach is able to help an athlete succeed, but I highly doubt that Tusup fashioned his wife into a whole different swimmer. Furthermore, saying something like that completely ignores her achievement and hard work, making it about her husband instead.

If you want to believe it’s not sexist, you should ask yourself if a similar comment would be made about a male swimmer, or any male athlete, for that matter.

And Don’t Forget About Katie

Katie Ledecky 11 seconds

Or take Katie Ledecky, for example. The swimming phenom has been said to swim like a man. While some might take that to be sexist (and in the right context, it certainly would be), Ledecky has actually trained to fashion her strokes after male swimmers, who swim faster than women, in part, thanks to their stroke style. So, calling her out for swimming like a man may not be sexist when referring to her stroke technique, but plenty of sexist things have been uttered where Miss Ledecky is concerned.

When discussing swimming with Ledecky in practice, fellow swimmer, U.S. freestyler Conor Dwyer said, “I saw her break a lot of guys in practice. If we were doing a 3k threshold, she’d just start beating me every single 100, and slowly but surely you get broken – and your morale goes down quickly when you get broken by a female in practice.” Personally, I would think that might happen with anyone you went up against and lost to, but apparently it only happens with women.

And while comparing Ledecky’s swim strokes to her male counterparts isn’t sexist, referring to her as the “Female Michael Phelps” is and that’s exactly what The Daily Mail did. Seeing the error of their ways, they went on to change the article title to read, “Golden touch! Michael Phelps earns his NINETEENTH gold medal, leading Team USA in men’s 4x100m freestyle relay and Katie Ledecky, 19, also takes home top prize.” Mind you the article slug, in terms of the website url is unchanged from the original title which includes “The female Michael Phelps Triple world record holder Katie Ledecky, 19…” It’s amazing how much the titles changed, especially when the first one was almost more flattering to Ledecky despite being sexist. Yet, when TDM was called out and changed the title, making it equally as sexist, if not more, Ledecky’s accomplishments are further minimized by also winning as well, but not as much as Phelps’ historic run.

In the article, Ledecky’s section begins with, “Meanwhile Katie Ledecky, who is being touted as the female Phelps, has broken her own world record….” The odd thing, beyond this sad article being written by a woman, is that after this small section on Ledecky, there are 14 additional pictures of Phelps and some other male swimmers before we see even the first photo of Ledecky.


Strangely, or rather un-uniquely, Ledecky is not the first female swimmer to be praised for being Michael Phelps with lady parts. Back in 2012, Fox Sports ran a story about Natalie Coughlin (again, by a woman) that began stating that Coughlin deserves Phelps-like praise (whatever the hell that means) and goes on to state, “This is Phelps, only more inspiring for an entire generation of young female swimmers,” or “If that is not Phelpsian, well, then what is,” and even more ridiculously, “Does she ever think, “Hey, what about me?” when her accomplishments get lost in all things Phelps? Or wonder how her life might be different if she had been medaling in non-Phelps years?”

I would like to offer you some nugget of wisdom or maybe even humor, but my head hurts from banging it on the desk. To even be asked these things is sexist, but the idea that women athletes must be sitting around being jealous that they aren’t men, is well, it’s why articles like this are written in the first place.

Trap Shooting Wife Wins Bronze

The Chicago Tribune reported on the win of trap shooter, Corey Cogdell-Unrein with the Tweet, “Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.” Cogdell-Unrein is indeed married to lineman, Mitch Unrein, but what does that have to do with anything about what she just accomplished? As the three-time Olympian has no real connection to Chicago other than her husband, some point out that this isn’t an issue of sexism, but rather local connections. The Chicago Tribune reiterated the same sentiment after some amusing tweets pointing out their sexism, by stating, “We focused too hard on trying to emphasize the local connection Cogdell-Unrein has to Chicago.”

Volleyball Star Too Tall for a Boyfriend

Kim Yeon-koung

South Korea wanted to make sure America didn’t win the sexist dolt of the year award, so the Korean Times chimed in with this beauty, “Rio 2016: Boyfriend a tall order for 192cm South Korean volleyball star.” Get it, you know…because she’s tall…


The incredibly small article begins with, “A South Korean volleyball superstar who is participating in the Rio Olympics is looking for a boyfriend” before we even learn (if you didn’t already know it) Kim Yeon-koung’s name. To be fair Yeon-koung has been interviewed about her interest in finding a boyfriend in the past. Of course, this article felt the need to point out how tall she wants her man (180 cm, at least), even ending it by stating, “the average height of South Korean men is 174.9 centimeters. Regrettably, it would be better for her to look for a boyfriend somewhere outside the country.” If you want to know how she’s done in Rio, you won’t find it out here, because apparently the only “relevant” information you need to know is that she’s tall and she’s looking for love. Just so you know, Yeon-koung led her team to a win in her match against, Japan. Just thought you should know, in case you were interested in her athletic achievements,  seeing as she is competing in the Olympics and all.

It’s a Hijab not a Burka

Egypt vs Germany Volleyball

BBC Africa felt it more prudent to talk about wardrobe choices than sports when they labeled the Egypt vs. Germany volleyball match as “Bikini vs. Burka,” though for the record the Egyptian competitor this was in reference to, Doaa Elghobashy, was actually wearing a hijab. So, now we get to not only be offense to women, but also to their religious and cultural beliefs.

Not to be topped by ignorance, in Germany during an equestrian match, commentator Carsten Sostmeier began an interview with Julia Krajewski with, “Let’s see what the blondie has to say.”

Don’t worry, it got worse when he posited that she was afraid by calling her a “scaredy-cat” and commenting that the course had her so scared, “there was a brown stripe in her panties.” Man, you never hear anyone say that Phelps’ about to pee in the pool as he worries about his next race.

And then there was Gymnastics

Unfortunately, as you might have expected, there were plenty of sexist remarks when it came to gymnastics. From comments about adoptive parent’s not being parents to ridiculous comments about hair or weight, the gymnastics received some of the worst comments next to swimming.

Ron and Nellie Biles

Al Trautwig tweeted out about Simone Biles’ parents, “They may be mom and dad but they are NOT her parents.” Despite that, they actually are her parents. Ron and Nellie Biles, Simone’s biological grandparents, legally adopted their granddaughters and have raised them for the past 16 years. Twitter was on him quite quickly after that, causing him to delete his Tweet, but as often is the case, it was too late for that. The day after his ridiculous statement, he apologized.

“I regret that I wasn’t more clear in my wording on the air,” he said in an emailed statement. “I compounded the error on Twitter, which I quickly corrected. To set the record straight, Ron and Nellie are Simone’s parents.”

Simone Biles beam

After Biles finished her incredible standing ovation worthy balance beam routine, NBC showed her standing off to the side with all of her teammates, where they all waited for the announcement of her score. This would have been fine and dandy, except for the part where a commenter chimed in with, “They might as well be standing in the middle of a mall.” When people called him out, he was quick to set us all straight with, “Don’t boys hang out in malls too? I did.” Those comments make as much sense as if we started calling this NBC commentator a life ruining road-whore because they resemble a bunch of Mean Girls.

Simone Biles Uneven Bars

Biles’ uneven bars routine also caused another NBC commentator to stick his foot in his mouth when he said, “I think she might even go higher than some of the men.” Though I am sure he wanted us all to realize how high she was flying, so he used the strength and flight ability of men for a reference point.


There were also equally disturbing comments about Gabby Douglas who was quipped at for everything from her hair to the fact that she didn’t hold her hand on her heart during the anthem.

Mexican gymnast Alexa Moreno was fat shamed (she weighs 99 pounds) when people saw her competing. The comments on social media are unlike anything you could imagine ranging from “The Mexican gymnast, Alexa Moreno, in her second jump. The pig was already eliminated” to someone claiming that Moreno has the body of two gymnasts and she should have dieted before the Games.

Commercials don’t Matter because Women Don’t Watch Sports Anyhow

In July, in anticipation for the Rio Olympics, marketing exec John Miller pointed out that when events are taped and shown later, it’s not a big deal because women are the primary Olympics viewers, saying:

“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. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one.”


Are you fucking kidding me?  Apparently, us women aren’t sports-fans, because we prefer to nurture people and bake cookies, and don’t care about the results (even of fellow women). We just want to see the drama to pretend it’s like an episode of Real Housewives meets a modern day Downton Abbey, but you know, in a pool. Whether women watch more Olympics content or not (which is true) is irrelevant when you look at the statements about women. Even if he is correct from a marketing standpoint, the way he said it was not only sexist, it was just plain ludicrous. Many women love sports, and plenty don’t like reality shows. But, hey, let’s pretend having a vagina means we are all the same, because we know that works when you have a penis, right?

I Got 36 Problems and a Penis Ain’t One

Olympic Penis

Speaking of penises, I am aware that sexism is definitely a two-way street, and as a feminist, I’m all about equality. For this reason, I think that it’s problematic that Cosmopolitan thinks that men should be treated like meat, and that women are so shallow and sad that we sit around watching the Olympics just to rate the dick sizes.

Sexism Bingo

I am not sure how fun this would actually be, because you’ll win fast, and we’ll all lose in the process. It’s unfortunate that this sarcastic graphic is actually all too telling about commentators across the world. It’s not just one area, it’s all of them, and no matter how good we become at competing, it only seems to get worse.

If you think I’m blowing smoke, the researchers at Cambridge Press might make you think a little differently. After sifting through thousands of articles and numerous media sources, researchers at Cambridge Press looked at how the media and how fans talked about both men and women in sports. The results, while not shocking, are somewhat disheartening.

For instance, the words ‘men’ or ‘man’ is referenced twice as much as ‘woman’ or ‘women’. In other sports sub-sections, men are mentioned as much as three times more than women. When women are mentioned, often it is to mark our sports as ‘other’. For example, women’s golf vs. golf (which is obviously the male version) or women’s soccer or women’s football vs soccer or football. The biggest disappointment comes in the words that we use to describe our female and male athletes.


Men in sports are referred to as ‘fastest’, ‘strong’, ‘big’, ‘real’, and ‘great’. In contrast, women are ‘aged’, ‘older’, ‘pregnant’, ‘married’, or ‘un-married’. In performance, men are described with such verbs as ‘mastermind’, ‘beat’, ‘win’, ‘dominate’, and ‘battle’. On the flipside, women get ‘compete’, ‘participate’ and ‘strive’.

And of course, women are more often called ‘girls’ or ‘ladies’ while men just get to be men.

Ashtyn Law is a freelance writer living in Ohio. Focusing on film, she spends much of her days watching and analyzing film and television and also writing screenplays.

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