NBC is broadcasting 6,500 hours—about 270 days—of Olympics coverage over the 16 days of the games. As such, the laws of patriarchal probability dictate that a fair amount of sexist garbage will spill forth during that time. The laws of internet outrage likewise dictate that a fair amount of what seems like sexist garbage at first glance will actually be the innocuous product of sloppy announcers, time or space constraints, twitchy Twitter trigger fingers, and bad context. Here, a look at the first maybe-sexist maelstroms of the first weekend of Rio 2016.
Swimmer’s husband and coach is “responsible” for wife’s world record
When Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu set a new world record in the 400-meter individual medley on Saturday, NBC’s camera panned to Hosszu’s American husband and coach, Shane Tusup. “There’s the guy responsible for turning Katinka Hosszu, his wife, into a whole different swimmer,” NBC’s Dan Hicks remarked.
Critics immediately rebuked Hicks for praising a man for his wife’s astounding accomplishment. Coaches are certainly integral parts of any athlete’s success, but the claim that one magicked his wife into a “whole different swimmer” struck many as an overstatement of Tusup’s contribution to Hosszu’s hard-won record.
Is it sexist? A little. As my colleague June Thomas wrote on Sunday night, “[W]hile Hicks’ phrasing was awkward, it’s not necessarily sexist to observe that Hosszu’s times and tactics have made a huge improvement since Tusup became her coach in 2013.” Still, it’s hard to imagine any commentator giving the same broad credit to the coaches of Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, who are widely hailed as superhero human specimens that shatter records by their own sheer talent and willpower.
Chicago Tribune identifies female trap shooter as “wife”
“Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics,” read the Chicago Tribune’s Twitter tease for a story about Corey Cogdell-Unrein, a U.S. trap shooter who’s married to Chicago Bears player Mitch Unrein.
Some thought this was a sexist framing, since it focused on Cogdell-Unrein’s marital connection rather than her own identity or history.
Is it sexist? No. This is a Chicago editor trying to make an international story (the Olympics) local, weighing the information that would get readers interested (a connection to a local football team) with the fact that no one really cares about trap shooting or knows who Cogdell-Unrein is. She’s from Alaska and currently lives in Colorado; her only Chicago connection is her husband. Apparently her husband isn’t even enough of a recognizable figure to warrant a name in the tweet. The article itself is a tiny item, not a profile or in-depth account of Cogdell-Unrein’s Olympic performance. There’s no need to clutter a tweet with information that wouldn’t give readers any more information than they need to understand the story and want to read more.
Update, Aug. 8, 2:02 p.m.: The Tribune responded to criticism on Monday with a tweet that said the paper “focused too hard on trying to emphasize the local connection” in its initial tweet about Cogdell-Unrein.
Women like the Olympics because they’re like a reality show, don’t care about scores
People have been complaining about NBC’s commercial-filled, delayed broadcasts from Rio, a biannual gripe so reliable it should have its own medaled competition. In a July press conference, NBC marketing executive John Miller said it didn’t much matter whether banner events such as gymnastics and swimming were taped and aired later, during prime time, because women made up the bulk of Olympics viewership:
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. And to tell the truth, it has been the complaint of a few sports writers. It has not been the complaint of the vast viewing public.
On Twitter, women protested the delayed events and Miller’s blunt remarks about them.
Is it sexist? Yes-ish. Miller’s statement is true to an extent. Sports writers tallying medal wins and building a broad narrative of the games are likely more concerned with timely broadcasts than the casual Olympics viewers who just want to cook dinner and see Simone Biles do her thing. And generally, women are more likely to watch reality shows than sports. This is how marketing chiefs think: in terms of demographics, surveys, and pitches to advertisers.
But implying that women only watch sports if they’re cut up like a Bravo series is not only sexist—it’s wrong. Also, if men only cared about scores and competition, not gameplay and backstories, why are there a thousand sports channels and magazines for every game and league? Everyone likes to follow the characters and watch the events play out—otherwise, ESPN would just run a stream of scores and stats instead of days upon days of SportsCenter.
Katie Ledecky “swims like a man”
As Katie Ledecky beat her own world record in the 400-meter freestyle on Sunday night, viewers heard NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines say that “a lot of people think she swims like a man.”
“A lot of people,” in this case, are Ledecky’s fellow swimmers. “Her stroke is like a man’s stroke,” 2012 Olympian Connor Jaeger told the Washington Post earlier this summer. “I mean that in a positive way. She swims like a man.” Perennial Olympic bro Ryan Lochte told Sports Illustrated of Ledecky, “She swims like a guy. Her stroke, her mentality: She’s so strong in the water. I’ve never seen a female swimmer like that. She gets faster every time she gets in, and her times are becoming good for a guy. She’s beating me now, and I’m, like, ‘What is going on?’ ”
Technically, coaches and athletes have said, Ledecky does swim like her male counterparts. Her coach, Yuri Suguiyama, has encouraged her to add what swimmers call a “hitch” or “gallop” to her stroke, a leg-propelled technique usually used by men like Phelps.
Is it sexist? Strictly speaking, no. Gaines was actually making fun of people who say Ledecky swims like a man. Here’s his full quote: “I love to watch her swim. She has a loping-type stroke. A lot of people think she swims like a man. She swims like Katie Ledecky, for crying out loud.” Gaines was commenting on the fact that characterizing Ledecky’s performance as “like a man” is poor, underselling shorthand for a true fact: that she uses a style almost exclusively employed by male swimmers.
That’s not sexist. What does carry inflections of sexism are the comments of the men Ledecky beats. “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,” Olympic freestyler Conor Dwyer told Sports Illustrated. “I saw a couple of guys get yanked out of workout because they got beat by her.”
Yes, male swimmers are usually faster and have stronger bodies than female swimmers, so it’s not silly for a man to feel worse about his performance when a woman beats him. But the undertones of emasculation in these remarks and Lochte’s mention of Ledecky’s “mentality”—as if a competitive nature and drive to win are the domain of male athletes only—reflect unfavorable views of successful female athletes. Commentators would be wise to describe the fastest male freestylers as swimming “like Katie Ledecky” for the rest of the games.