RIO DE JANEIRO — Swimmer Katie Ledecky is eyeing the eight-minute barrier in the 800-meter swim, yet some commentators are still talking about women as if electricity hasn’t been invented. Gold medalist Simone Biles performs like heaven-sent thunder in gymnastics, but an American network has come perilously close to “how to catch a husband” segments. The gap between what women are doing in the Summer Olympics and how they’re talked about has never been more glaring, or so I’ve noticed between flipping through fabrics catalogues.
Tempting as it is to suggest that the next time a guy with a microphone refers to a female athlete’s marital status he should be kicked in the knee with a steel-capped boot, the generous thing to do is to point out that no one is trying to be willfully sexist. Something far more pervasive is going on. Just before the Rio de Janeiro Games, a study out of Cambridge University analyzed more than 160 million words about female athletes from newspapers, tweets and blogs and found that men were three times more likely to be mentioned in their athletic context, while women were disproportionately talked about in terms of their marriages, age or appearance.
What’s happening is an unconscious mind-set, a kind of stasis that has failed to follow the steep arc of women’s athletic performance. Women here this week have performed with such unapologetic athleticism — as they have increasingly so with each Summer Games — that it’s long past time to tear down these verbal parameters that limit their accomplishments, however unintentionally.
NBC is the network of Mary Carillo, so it obviously has some respect for female intelligence and athletic accomplishment. Yet when a magnificently flexing U.S. women’s gymnastics team led by Biles won the team all-around gold medal by the biggest margin in more than a half century, an NBC voiceover described their casual dominance as if they were “in the middle of a mall.” Really?
Dan Hicks is nobody’s sexist. He’s an erudite Olympic announcer who is married to sportscaster Hannah Storm and has three daughters. So you know it was purely thoughtless when he credited Katinka Housszu’s husband-coach Shane Tusup as “the man responsible” for her world record-shattering swim in the 400-meter individual medley — even though Tusup didn’t churn one bit of water.
“It is impossible to tell Katinka’s story accurately without giving appropriate credit to Shane, and that’s what I was trying to do,” Hicks said later.
But look: No one has gone out of the way to suggest that Martha Karolyi is purely “responsible” for Biles. Though if anyone in Rio is entitled to undue or exaggerated credit, it is probably the 73-year-old Karolyi, who has coached U.S. women to a staggering 89 medals and a six-year undefeated streak.
Other outlets have been caught in similarly mindless moments. When Corey Cogdell won a bronze medal in trap shooting the other day, the Chicago Tribune decided the real heart of her story was that she was the “wife of Bears lineman Mitch Unrein” — even though Unrein is an undistinguished reserve who was undrafted out of college and is on his fourth team in six years. Cogdell, on the other hand, is a two-time medalist and three-time Olympian.
If there are any truly unregenerate sexists at the Rio Games, they work for the U.S. Soccer Federation, which this week tweeted a “good luck” message to the defending Olympic gold medalist women — using a picture of Clint Dempsey in the foreground, relegating Christen Press to the background. They had to be kidding, right? No. The men’s team failed to qualify for Rio.
The main reason this diminutizing matters is that it translates into other disparities, such as pay. The U.S. soccer women have far superior results and are so popular that they drew 3.6 million viewers for a draw against Colombia, but they contend they are paid a good 25 percent less than their male counterparts. As Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote in a letter to U.S. Soccer, “Apparent pay disparities such as those between the men’s and women’s soccer teams send the wrong message to young women — and men — and have no place in the 21st century economy.”
Language means money — and money is a measure of respect. Back when Sports Illustrated referred to women as “the sex that burns the toast,” Billie Jean King was a Wimbledon champion and the only breadwinner in her household, yet she still needed her husband to get a credit card. There has been seismic progress toward equal status and pay since then: Serena and Venus Williams can afford to buy a stake in the Miami Dolphins, and Ledecky and Biles will reap millions from their gold meals. But the bottom line is the female economic success in sports is still dependent entirely on popularity — which is very much dictated by the sports media and how it discusses their sports.
Political correctness is not the goal here. That only kills discussion. The goal is to discuss these champions in a smarter and more interesting way that elevates everyone.
Take Biles, whose brand of feminism is a kind of ownership. She is in full control of herself and her femininity, which she emphasizes or deemphasizes at will. Her staunchly muscular gymnastics feats are accompanied by false eyelashes and glitter that she puts on or takes off with assured playfulness, as she wishes. She tweeted before the individual all-around final Thursday, “What to do with my makeup today? Hmmm?” There was a looseness to that, a wryness.
It was the sound of someone who knew she had to please — yet was nobody’s pleaser. It was the sound of utter, stand-alone confidence.