She's 'old, for a woman': Media around the world condemned for sexist Olympics coverage

A week into the Rio Games, NBC and some other U.S. news outlets have taken a drubbing for a sexist approach to female athletes. But around the world, other media organizations are showing they aren’t about to let the Americans win gold, silver and bronze in the foot-in-mouth competition. 

The U.S., to be sure, was out of the gate first. There was NBC broadcaster Dan Hicks, who after Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu won gold and set a world record in the 400-meter individual medley, immediately started talking about her husband and coach, calling him “the guy responsible.” Next came the Chicago Tribune, which referred to two-time trapshooting medalist Corey Cogdell as “wife of a Bears’ lineman” in a headline, rather than using her name.

But then South Korea got in the game. The English-language Korea Times ran a story speculating on the love life of 6-foot-3 Kim Yeon-goung, headlined: “Boyfriend a tall order for 192cm South Korean volleyball star.”

Kim, 28, led her team to victory in its first match, over rival Japan, and plays professionally in Turkey. The newspaper reporter claimed Kim was “looking for a boyfriend,” but was unlikely to find a South Korean man willing to date such a giant. “Regrettably, it would be better for her to look for a boyfriend somewhere outside the country,” the reporter concluded.

Other cringe-worthy comments have followed. While watching a women’s weightlifting event, a TV announcer from South Korea’s Munhwa Broadcasting remarked, with a tone of awe, “It’s amazing to see women, not men, do this.” An announcer from SBS, another South Korean TV network, remarked that one Vietnamese judoka, at 28, was “old, for a woman.”

The number of comments has ballooned to the point where South Koreans have launched a Google Docs spreadsheet to catalog the latest remarks.

In Germany, meanwhile, an equestrian commentator for ARD TV, Carsten Sostmeier, opened an interview with rider Julia Krajewski with, “Let's see what the blondie has to say.”

He went on to call her a “scaredy-cat" and said she was so afraid of the course that "there was a brown stripe in her panties."  

Dennis Peiler, head of the Germany team, called the commentary “way out of line,” “insulting” and  “unsportsmanlike;” and the Der Tagesspiegel newspaper branded Sostmeier as "the first male chauvinist pig" of the Rio Games.

Sostmeier and his boss at ARD apologized.

BBC Africa, meanwhile, focused extensively on the uniform choices of the Egyptian and German women’s volleyball squads, labeling their match “Bikini vs Burka.” (One of the Egyptian competitors, Doaa Elghobashy, wore a hijab, not a burka.)

That prompted Libyan American writer and artist Hend Amry to remark on Twitter: “Hey I’ve got a crazy idea: how about [calling it] ‘athlete vs. athlete?’”

In Brazil, the Olympics have been a big boost for women in sports overall as the country rallies around soccer player Marta Vieira da Silva and judoka Rafaela Silva. But some viewers were shocked when a SporTV presenter asked Angolan handball star ‎Teresa "Ba" Almeida whether it was true she wanted to lose weight and whether she preferred to get thinner or have a medal.

The Brazilian presenter seemed to be joking, but as Almeida responded in their shared Portuguese, the athlete put her head down and walked off.

On Tuesday in China, which happened to be a traditional Valentine’s-type holiday, sports commentator Han Qiaosheng, long known for his awkward remarks, said he wished that popular swimmer Fu Yanhui could "find her other half in the future."  

A commentator for Canada's CBC, Byron MacDonald, said that 14-year-old Chinese swimmer Ai Yanhan "went out like stink and died like a pig" in the 200-meter women’s freestyle heat.

CBC apologized on Twitter, saying it was “an unfortunate choice of words. We are sorry it happened."

Women first took part in the Olympics in Paris in 1900. Back then, there were just 22 women among 997 athletes and they competed in just five sports: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf. Female participation has increased steadily since then, with women accounting for more than 45% of the participants in Rio. Women made up just 23% of athletes at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and about 13% at the 1964 Games in Tokyo.

The 2012 Games in London were the first in which women competed in every sport as women’s boxing was added. Since 1991, all new sports added to the Olympics must feature women’s events.

Although the International Olympic Committee has put an emphasis on women’s equality, the media seem to have struggled to keep pace with the progress.

The drumbeat of awkward and insulting commentary this week prompted journalist Lindy West to pen a column for the Guardian, titled, “How to talk about female Olympians without being a regressive creep – a handy guide.”

Don’t, she advised, “spend more time discussing female athletes’ makeup, hairdos, very small shorts, hijabs, bitchy resting faces, voice pitch, thigh circumference, marital status and age than you spend analyzing the incredible feats of strength and skill they have honed over a lifetime of superhuman discipline and restraint.”

And don’t, she added, refer to women in terms of men they know, are related to, work with or have sex with. “Women are fully-formed, autonomous people who do things,” she said. “We are not pets or gadgets or sex-baubles.”

Do, she advised, write about female athletes “the way you write about male athletes – i.e. without mentioning their gender except maybe in the name of the sport.”

“Can you imagine if we brought up gender every time we wrote about men?” she asked. “‘Perky male point guard Isaiah Thomas, stepping out in a flattering terrycloth headwrap, proves that men really can play ball and look cool-summery-sexy doing it!’ See how unbearable that sounds?”

A study by Cambridge University Press, released as the Olympics opened, confirmed large discrepancies in how the media and fans alike talk about men and women in sport.

The research, which analyzed multibillion-word databases of written and spoken English language, found that in general, men are referenced twice as often as women, but when the topic is sports, the ratio is about 3 to 1.

“Language around women in sport focuses disproportionately on the appearance, clothes and personal lives of women, highlighting a greater emphasis on aesthetics over athletics,” the researchers found.

“Notable terms that cropped up as common word associations or combinations for women, but not men, in sport include ‘aged,’ ‘older,’ ‘pregnant’ and ‘married’ or ‘un-married,’” the study found, and the top word combinations for male athletes were adjectives such as “fastest,” “strong,” “big,” “real” and “great.”

The authors of the study pointed out that women faced “higher levels of infantilizing or traditionalist language” and are twice as likely to be referred to as “ladies” than men are to be called “gentlemen.”  

“It’s perhaps unsurprising to see that women get far less airtime than men and that their physical appearance and personal lives are frequently mentioned,” Sarah Grieves, a language researcher at Cambridge University Press said in a statement last week. “It will be interesting to see if this trend is also reflected in our upcoming research on language used at the Rio Olympics.”

Stay tuned for those results.

Vincent Bevins in Rio, Nicole Liu and Yingzhi Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau, and special correspondents Steven Borowiec in Seoul and Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin contributed to this report.

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