Ping Pong and Patriarchy: Sexism in the Media Coverage of the Rio 2016 Olympics

Swarms of ecstatic fans cheering, thousands more glued to their television screens anxiously watching the competitors. The energy in the arenas can be felt from miles away as the athletes take their final positions. Since their creation in 776 B.C.E, the Olympics have been the true testament of agility, individual skill, and athletic ability. Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, and most recently, Simone Biles have become household names because of their outstanding performances in the Olympics. Here in Singapore, Joseph Schooling’s gold became the source of national rejoicing and pride.

Although the 2016 Rio Olympics have come to an end, reactions to the numerous sexist comments made throughout the event continue. BBC presenter John Inverdale forgot to acknowledge awards won by Venus and Serena Williams while interviewing Tennis World number 2, Andy Murray. Katie Ledecky, the woman who set the world record for the women’s 800-meter freestyle,  had her victory overshadowed by Michael Phelps’s tie for silver in the 100-meter fly race, in a recent newspaper article. These are just two instances, there were many more.  

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Katie Ledecky at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

It relates to the fundamental issue that male athletics in general are more highly regarded, featured and followed worldwide, than women’s sports. Sports have always been seen as a very masculine territory. According to psychologist  Robert Deaner of Grand Valley State University in Michigan, “One 2014 survey of 37 countries found that in every one, men were likelier to play some kind of sport than women… A 2013 study found that males were twice as likely as females to be involved or interested in sports across 50 different countries or cultures.” Not only are there fewer women participating in sports, but there is also less spectatorship. If the majority of the people watching a sport are male, the media coverage will cater to that demographic. As a result, there are fewer women’s sports leagues and their following is substantially less than men’s leagues. This is a potentially never ending cycle, and the only way combat the issue is for people, especially  in the media, to actively support and encourage female athletes.

In the past few decades, women have finally begun to make it up social and political ladders. Presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, and educational activist, Malala Yousafzai, are shining examples who prove that women are just as capable as their male counterparts in diverse fields. The 2016 Olympic Games were no different. However, why was it that the female athletes participating were not treated with nearly the same amount of dignity and respect?

“Cosmopolitan” magazine wrote,  “Let’s be clear, the female athletes in Rio are there because they are, simply, the best at what they do. That’s all that needs to be celebrated.” “The Guardian” stated that, “We’ve seen participants ridiculed for having the audacity to have the muscles required to be world-class athletes, criticized for wearing too much clothing in a hijab or not enough in a bikini.” 

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2016 Olympic Trials Women Freestyle. Photo Courtesy: Flickr

The scale of media coverage that sparked controversy for traces of sexism was astonishing, especially as reportage could’ve been expected to be carefully edited given the importance of the Olympics. It goes to show that while we may think that gender inequality is no longer an issue on the world stage, talented women, even those who have achieved great feats, still face great prejudice.  Unfortunately, the inaccurate and often sexist representation of women in the media has been prevalent since long before the Rio Olympics. Female sports personalities are constantly shamed for the way they look or dress. While these women have clearly risen above this injustice, a crucial question arises. How does this media portrayal of sportswomen impact the way young girls view participation in sports? Does the fact that some influential sections of society still view sports as “masculine” reduce their drive to succeed?

Fortunately, at the Singapore American School, the situation is diametrically different. In our school, girls are accepted, encouraged, and celebrated for engaging in physical activities and taking part in sports. Any sport available to boys is also offered to girls. There are girls teams for basketball, soccer, softball, and various other sports that tend to be male-dominated elsewhere. Our female sports personalities are judged for their prowess in their sport, certainly not for their physical appearance.

Junior Maggie White, an SAS Varsity Volleyball player, feels that “SAS is definitely a place where students, regardless of their gender, are encouraged to play sports, and that there isn’t much of a difference in the way that the school advertises the games. The SAS community is doing whatever they can to bring support to female athletics.”

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Kilani Daane, SAS Varsity Volleyball player, playing at the 2016 IASAS Volleyball Exchange. Photo Courtesy: Seow Hong

Sasha Quinlan, a current events and media member of The Eye for the last two years, takes a similar view: “I think that when you look at the way SAS advertises their sports games it’s important to understand what goes on behind the scenes. It seems that both genders are equally represented, not just on the Eye, but even treated equally in terms of their recognition at pep rallies, games and equal gym time. So, when it does come time for the school’s media platforms to cover these events, the same thing applies.”

While the Olympics have been known to empower sportspersons, it is, unfortunately, true that the criticism of sexist coverage through this year’s games was justified. It begs the question, do the offending commentators actually think that recognition of talent, grit and determination should be gender specific? Is a new world record any less spectacular for having been created by a woman? If a community like SAS has managed to maintain an objective and unprejudiced approach in the portrayal and celebration of its athletes, why is the same not possible at global platforms that have the power to shape the world’s thinking?

Author: Avanya Rao

Avanya Rao is a Senior who has attended SAS for the past twelve years. This is her second year reporting for The Eye. When not taking videos of her dog, you can find Avanya crying in romantic comedies, spending time with her friends and family, and annoying her pals by losing snapchat streaks. She can be contacted at rao32417@sas.edu.sg.

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