Over the past week, there has been a lot of noise in the news about women in the Olympics – but, sadly, much of this has nothing to do with their sporting successes.
Attention grabbing headlines have devoted more words to the amount of skin showed by the female athletes on the volleyball courts and the female presenters in the commentating box than on the impressive feats of these world-class athletes.
And where do I begin on this article discussing the relative fashion merits of different leotards. In it, you’ll find the author criticising a top-ranking Uzbek gymnast for wearing colours that “failed to complement her skin tone”.
At Hook Research, we spend a lot of time Talking Human and thinking about the language being used across the media – and these articles provide a startling insight into why this type of study is so important. Undeniably, the coverage we’re seeing at the Olympics reveals just how prevalent sexism in sports commentary has become.
Just how prevalent is sexism in sports commentary?
A worrying piece of research by Cambridge University Press, released just before the Rio 2016 games, has studied “millions of words” to better understand the vocabulary used by sports commentators within an Olympic setting. Unsurprisingly, the study found that when discussing successes at the Olympic games, the exploits of the men are mentioned twice as often as those of female athletes.
Within these contexts, men are more regularly associated with more success-driven words – beat, win, dominate – whereas a language of participation – compete, participate, strive – is used most frequently when discussing female athletes. Interestingly, the study further notes how gender markings were much more prevalent in women’s sports – e.g. “ladies” golf – than in men’s, which was often considered to be the default. Whereas pundits discuss sportsmen’s successes, presenters seem to care more about appearance, clothing, and personal lives when it comes to the athletes’ female equivalents.
Everyday sexism at the Olympics
I don’t think this news will be a complete revelation for anyone – for example, comedian Megan Ford’s “Olympics Sexism Bingo Card” has been trending on Twitter for the past few days now – but it should definitely serve as a wake-up call. Sexism in sports commentary needs to be tackled head on: the Olympics are supposed to inspire all athletes, girls and boys alike. But if the Olympic language of success is heavily gender biased, what exactly are we saying to our next generation of female athletes?