19th August 2016

Everyday Sexism at the Olympics

While Olympic fever might not have reached the giddy heights of London 2012 in the UK, Team GB’s incredible performance and medal tally has yet again struck a chord. We’ve seen wall-to-wall press coverage over the last few weeks, with almost daily front-page updates about our latest achievements and medal haul.

But behind the good news and headlines, a much less positive narrative has been emerging – that of reported sexism at the Games. From the supposed uproar at presenter Helen Skelton’s wardrobe choices, to the suggestion that Laura Trott, the most successful British female Olympian ever, would be asked by her fiancé Jason Kenny ‘what’s for tea?’ after winning gold,  media coverage has picked up on everyday sexism coming out of Rio 2016.

One of the most overt examples of this that’s currently doing the rounds is from the US: ‘Phelps ties for silver in 100 fly’ takes the headline, while ‘Ledecky sets world record’ is relegated to sub-head. While no-one would question Michael Phelps’ dominance in Olympic history, is ‘man wins silver’ really more newsworthy than ‘woman wins gold and breaks world record’?

This fascinating graphic breaks down the language commentators use when describing male and female athletes at the Olympics. Women at the Olympics are much more likely to be called ‘girls’ or ‘ladies’ than men will be called ‘boys’ or ‘gentlemen’. While use of individual words may not seem to make a huge difference, this engrained use of language to infantilise women is clearly happening on a mass scale, and may be having a negative impact on inspiring the next generation of female Olympians.

The examples are too countless to mention, but I don’t think it’s all bad news for women. Much has been written about Andy Murray’s response to John Inverdale forgetting that women are people when suggesting Murray was the first person to win two golds in Olympic tennis. I loved seeing coverage of male celebrities like George North and Steve Bagshaw proudly supporting their partners Becky James and Helen Glover rather than the other way round. Claire Balding has been fearlessly heading up the BBC’s Olympic coverage and we’ve seen a huge level of positive coverage for a wealth of female role models across the board. I think the volume of outrage about sexist reporting and language will help make things better in the future – we’re not there yet, but by calling out everyday sexism we’re getting there.