Sexism at the Olympics: Guilty as Charged

There has been a lot of hype lately about the sexism in the reporting of the Olympics. Obviously these people have never sat in a room with my mother while watching the Games.

While at her house watching the women’s team all-around gymnastics competition, I couldn’t help but find a certain theme to my mother’s commentary. Allow me to share with you some of her direct quotes: “She has a very Russian face; what a beautiful girl.” “Why does she have to wear all of that glitter around her eyes?” “My God, doesn’t she have the most flawless skin?” “Did you see the bodies on those female swimmers the other night? Their shoulders are just enormous.” Comparatively, she makes Dan Hicks sound like Gloria Steinem. When I brought my mom’s comments to her attention, she argued, “They’re all amazing athletes. I mean, can you critique their athletic prowess at all? It all looks incredible; this is all I have the ability to comment on.” She had a point.

A Spectator Sport

Sure, when a gymnast makes a critical mistake, I can see it. However, when an athlete has completed a superhuman feat on a four-inch beam and a judge has found ways to knock three tenths of a point from her, I’m thinking, “Damn, what did she do wrong? I wonder how she gets her smoky eye makeup to stay put through all of that sweat when my eyeliner smudges after I so much as sneeze.” I can’t help it that my thoughts immediately go to such a superficial place, but do they make me an anti-feminist sexist?

I did a little soul searching and made it a point to be mindful of my thoughts while watching male events. Was I solely focused on their athletic abilities and determined minds? Was I in awe of their training schedule and dedication to their sport? In other words, did I root for them for the very reasons that they are competing in the Games? In a word: no.

I found that I watch the men with the same exact critical eye. I am simultaneously intrigued and disturbed with the length of Michael Phelps’s arms, and I know for a fact that I am not the only one who has serious opinions about Ryan Lochte’s hair (not a fan). Furthermore, do you think I wanted Nathan Adrian to win because I have a deep respect for this training ethic? Hell no! I cheered for him because his goddamn smile makes me weak in the knees. I immediately felt better knowing that I am not sexist. I’m an equal opportunity, superficial, social commentator. 

The Human Touch

NBC’s chief marketing officer John Miller was criticized for commenting that women watch the Olympics because of the reality television aspect of it, and Lord help me, the Olympics have shown me that this woman certainly does. I love the Olympics because it’s all one big human interest story. I route for the athletes whose stories are told, ones who’ve overcome extraordinary obstacles or demonstrate the character of a person I want as a role model for my daughters. Does the fact that I watch the Games just as Miller described mean I am not a feminist? I’d argue it means I am.

Athletes like Kathleen Baker, who has overcome Crohn’s disease, amaze me. I cried along with Simone Manuel as she made history as the first African-American woman to win an individual medal in Olympic swimming. I root for Aly Raisman, not just because she is so skilled on the beam, but because she is the embodiment of sportsmanship, always cheering on her teammates. Not to mention, I could spend everyday of the rest of my life watching her parents watching her perform.

I demand the same from the male athletes. I thought Michael Phelps’s angry pre-swim face was funny, but I prefer Michael hugging his family in the stands. I fell in love with Ryan Held when he cried on the medal platform and I was rooting for Conor Dwyer because his family just seemed so sweet and supportive. You see, whether male or female, I want to connect with the athletes I am cheering for. I demand they are all-around good people. I want my children to see that, regardless of gender, talent or accomplishment, what matters most is what kind of people we are and how we treat those around us.

Like a Mother

The role models aren’t just limited to my children. There has been criticism of how competitor moms are being portrayed by the media, but I can’t help but feel more in awe of these women because they are mothers. One article wrote about the coverage of Olympic medalist Dana Vollmer, arguing that the constant mention of her new motherhood “implies that women who have children are then incapable of all the things they did before giving birth.” Maybe because we kind of are…to an extent.

After my first baby I was basically incapable of bathing on the regular let alone training for the Olympic Games. The fact that this woman was able to keep her body in peak physical shape throughout 9 months of pregnancy, recover from childbirth, postpartum everything, and train hard enough to participate and excel in the Olympic Games sure as hell seems newsworthy to me. No one questioned Michael Phelps’s ability to perform when he had a three-month old because Michael Phelps didn’t carry or deliver his son. (I’m actually super impressed that his wife was able to travel to Brazil with her three-month old, as I’m fairly certain I was still up all night crying with my first baby at that point.)

Bringing up Vollmer’s baby is not sexist, it goes to show the world that she is a freaking superwoman. I could hardly write a coherent sentence or walk a mile after I had a baby, and this woman has the passion, drive, and dedication to be an Olympian? If that doesn’t make you want to start belting out, “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” I don’t know what will.

The Olympics are a time for nations to unite in the spirit of competition and friendship, a time for us to celebrate the human spirit and watch in awe as athletes perform seemingly impossible tasks. In the midst of it all, our commentators are faced with the not-quite as difficult task of instantly finding the right words to say, during some of television’s most dramatic moments. Plus, maybe they’re just trying to give superficial, reality-loving moms like me and my mother exactly what they want. So, let’s just cut them a little slack.

12 thoughts on “Sexism at the Olympics: Guilty as Charged

  1. Onlyworkingmomintulsa

    I have to agree with everything here as I am mentally noting the female gymnasts eye makeup, but also the male swimmers body hair maintenance!!

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  3. A great read and I love how you call yourself an “equal opportunity, superficial, social commentator”. We do all comment and look at it like this because like you mentioned I have no idea how they lose any points at all most of the time!!

    1. mamatriesblog

      Ha! My husband can get a tad Olympic obsessed and it ends up rubbing off on the rest of us. Well, on me. My children acted like we were torturing them if we had on anything but the gymnastics.

  4. hahaha I have to agree. I love the Athlete’s stories as much as their actually stats. I also can’t help noting things like outfits, hair, makeup and facial expressions. It’s all part of the Olympics to me. And no I don’t think that is sexist.

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