Olympic Sexism

While women are more visible at the 2012 Olympics than any past games, there are still cries of "sexism."

While women are more visible at the 2012 Olympics than any past games, there are still cries of “sexism.”

Reuters (“Women athletes aim to keep the spotlight post-Games“):

Hailed as the Women’s Games, the London Olympics have set new records for female participation but athletes fear that once the event comes to an end so will the interest in ladies sport yet again.

London is the first Olympics where women are competing in all 26 sports with female boxers making their debuts and the first Games where every country has female athletes with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei now on board.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge proudly boasted that the progress at London was a major boost for gender equality, with equality and neutrality two of the most important Games values.

But women athletes, while enjoying equal billing at London, have highlighted the struggles they face outside the Olympics in generating interest in their sports from audiences and sponsors and are concerned this will happen against after the Games.

British cyclist Lizzie Armitstead used the platform provided by her silver-medal display in the road race to highlight the “overwhelming sexism” that persists in sport in salary and in media coverage.

“Sexism is a big issue in women sport – salary, media coverage, general things you have to cope with in your career. If you focus too much on that you get disheartened,” she said.

In terms of the “spotlight,” the fact of the matter is that Americans don’t care about most of the Olympic sports, male or female, except during the Olympics. That’s especially true of the Winter Games but, aside from basketball, none of the Summer sports have much of a following here except for two weeks every four years. Once upon a time, boxing, swimming, and gymnastics had some following, owing to such vehicles as ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” Now, though, boxing has become an underground sport on pay-per-view and I don’t even know where one would turn to watch swimming or gymastics–much less skeet, archery, table tennis, badminton (seriously?), or dressage.

Aside from the Olympics and the Tour de France, there’s simply no American interest in bicycle racing. And, frankly, one wonders if there’s any interest left, period, given the corruption in that sport. If Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour wins are wiped out, one suspects Americans will stop caring about the sport, period.

As to gender disparity, there’s no doubt that there’s far, far more interest in men’s sports. That’s apparent in terms of TV ratings, sponsorship dollars, and payouts. Arguably, though, the real sexism is having separate competitions for male and female athletes.

For example, the fact that Ye Shiwen actually swam one leg of a race faster than a male swimmer in winning her gold medal was cited as prima facie evidence that she had cheated. Why, then, is there even a competition to determine who the best female swimmer is? If the Olympics are about the best of the best, why even have a separate competition for those who aren’t the best?

This year, they’ve added women’s boxing. There will be a gold, silver, and bronze medal handed out in various weight classifications. Would any of the gold medal winners have even qualified for the Games if they had to compete on an equal basis with the men?

For most sports, like basketball or boxing, the women’s game is a pretty pale imitation of the men’s. Ditto track and field, where in most cases women’s gold medal times and distances wouldn’t have been competitive on the men’s side fifty years ago. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the women in those sports aren’t able to cash in to the degree their male counterparts do after the Games.

Some sports, with gymastics being the most obvious case, are simply different competitions in the men’s and women’s fields. For physiological reasons, men and women even compete on different apparatus. While some of the same skills are tested, they’re just very different sports.  Further, while both have a following, female gymnastics is far, far more popular than the men’s competition. Indeed, it’s probably the most popular competition for the Summer Games most years. And a Mary Lou Retton or  Shannon Miller or Carly Patterson can really cash in with an outstanding performance in the Olympic spotlight.

Oddly, the other sexism of the Olympics is the degree to which the sexual attractiveness of the female athletes is exploited to draw attention to their sports. It’s less noticeable in the Winter Games, where the weather tends to encourage athletes to cover up, although certainly the Lindsay Vonns of the world nonetheless capitalize on their looks. But in the Summer Games, every effort is made to put the women in skimpy costumes to show off their physiques. Sure, it’s warm outside and they’re engaging in vigorous activity. But the men somehow manage to cover their asses and play volleyball at the highest levels.

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Sports,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    Sexism? Whatever, more like Sex-Sells-ism.

    We all know that Women’s Beach Volleyball would not be an olympic sport, would not be highly promoted, nor would it have high televised ratings, if the women were not in beautiful, in great shape, and not wearing bikinis or tight form fitting uniforms.

    Even the Queen will watch those women.

  2. @al-Ameda:

    Well I think we can be sure that at least Prince Harry is tuning in

  3. I understand that in Beach Volleyball the women had the option of more concealing clothing. This was apparently a change to entice Muslim countries to field a team. I noticed that US women wore long-sleeve tops.

    In cases like that it comes down to balancing constituencies and future commercial contracts.

    I notice some women in some sports wearing makeup, probably for that reason. But who knows, that could be my cultural interpretation.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    Occam’s razor suggests that cycing is boring to watch, regardless of gender.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    Sully posted this the other day.

    http://youtu.be/HcxFL0gIs3k

  6. For example, the fact that Ye Shiwen actually swam one leg of a race faster than a male swimmer in winning her gold medal was cited as prima facie evidence that she had cheated.

    My understanding is that it wasn’t so much that she was so fast in an absolute sense, but that she was so much faster than she usually is, beating her previous best by five seconds, which is a ridiculous level of improvement for olympic swimming.

  7. In terms of the “spotlight,” the fact of the matter is that Americans don’t care about most of the Olympic sports, male or female, except during the Olympics.

    This is something of a chicken-and-the-egg problem. Back when I was in college and we got CBC on the dorm television, I got really into watching curling. Since I left college, I only watch at the olympics, but only because that’s the only time I have an option to watch it.

  8. @PD Shaw:

    I caught the end of the men’s road race. As someone who has ridden road bikes (even done “recreational races”) it was pretty awe inspiring. To have that much power after 150 miles is unbelievable.

    Generally that race has the same quality as women’s ping-pong for me … it’s just incredible to see the best in the world, especially doing things I’ve attempted myself.

    I was thinking over coverage and events last night, after watching some ping-pong. I do want to see the world’s best do various things. With our cable news system and diverse organizing committees I probably miss a lot.

    I think the question might be how many world championships need to be decided by the Olympics(TM), especially now that it is oh so bound to that (TM), and what can be a world championship stand-alone.

    It would be kind of silly if every single sport ended up at the every-4-years Olympics, with block coverage sold al-la #nbcfail

  9. JKB says:

    I was not aware they had cut baseball and softball from the Olympics. Two sports with large followings in the Western Hemisphere and Asia.

    While baseball had the problem of many great players going pro early on, softball is a very big and lucrative women’s sport that is almost entirely amateur. Of course, women’s softball doesnt’ need the Olympics to remain viable. In fact, were they to run a televised tournament opposite the Olympics, I’d expect the US audience for the Olympics to be decimated.

  10. PD Shaw says:

    @john personna: I have no beef with the sport of cycling; a lot of good sports don’t translate well to TV unless your a serious fan. A three and a half hour race isn’t TV friendly.

  11. @PD Shaw:

    Don’t make a TV problem an Olympic problem.

    Blow out NBC and offer individual event streaming to Roku etc and you are done.

  12. Peter says:

    This year, they’ve added women’s boxing. There will be a gold, silver, and bronze medal handed out in various weight classifications. Would any of the gold medal winners have even qualified for the Games if they had to compete on an equal basis with the men?

    Then again, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are the most popular professional boxers in the world, even though as welterweights they would not be competitive against even semi-decent heavyweights.

  13. Blow out Olympics(TM) and put in Olympics.org and you’ve done even better.

    To tie this to the political, it is complete corporatism, right? It is creating a public good and then transferring rights to corporate owners. Individual athletic performance drives a rent extracting framework.

  14. Drew says:

    C’mon, James. Badmiton is just awesome. The athleticism, the strategy, the shear excitement of watching the birdie go over the net. Once football is outlawed I have no doubt the sport will dominate the national imagination……..there’s nothing better than popping open a brew and watching a good Badmiton match.

  15. @Drew:

    Now I want to see the best in the world at badminton, just to know what it looks like. Too bad I can’t click and stream, eh?

    I believe there are some hacker workarounds to get to BBC streaming in the US but I’m too lazy honest to do that.

  16. James Joyner says:

    @Peter: The existence of weight classes is a fair point, although I think it’s more of a piece with my discussion of gymnastics. The reason that lower weight class boxing is often more popular than the heavyweight and super-heavyweight divisions—even though the champions of the latter could whip them in the ring—is that the styles are so much different in different classes.

    @JKB: I can’t tell if you’re joking or not. There’s an audience for softball? My understanding is that they did away with those sports at the Olympics under the rationale that they’re just not played at a very high level in enough countries. Further, because Major League Baseball plays in the summer and isn’t going to take two weeks off every four years to accommodate the Olympics, the best baseball players in the world aren’t available for the Games.

    In softball, it’s basically a US game. The US team won gold in three of the four Olympiads where it was contested and won silver the remaining time. Four countries—the US, China, Australia, and Japan—account for all twelve medals ever awarded. Three countries—US, Australia, and Japan—account for eleven of twelve.

  17. Bill says:

    @Stormy Dragon: In 1968, Bob Beamon broke the world record for the long jump by over 21 inches. By your logic he must have been using some form of PEDs too.

  18. PD Shaw says:

    @James Joyner: There are a lot of Olympic sports, I don’t know why women’s softball, which is played in at least 100 countries has a narrower interest than rugby or beach volleyball (or beach soccer if it gets in).

  19. sam says:

    “Oddly, the other sexism of the Olympics is the degree to which the sexual attractiveness of the female athletes is exploited to draw attention to their sports.”

    Hell, if it was up to me, they’d all dress like the athletes did in the original games. Would greatly expand the meaning of the word ‘swing’ when golf becomes part of the games in 2016.

  20. de stijl says:

    @john personna:

    I noticed that US women wore long-sleeve tops.

    My guess is that they’re choosing their clothing based on the weather. Night matches in London could be fairly brisk.

  21. @Bill:

    By your logic he must have been using some form of PEDs too.

    And indeed he was: a combination of the high altitude at Mexico City that resulted in most of the sprinting and jumping records falling at the 68 games and a tail wind that made his jump just barely wind legal.

  22. @de stijl:

    Perhaps, but I don’t believe those tops are even allowed in the US.

  23. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    At moments like this, a thought returns to my mind about how there must be an educational deficit occurring among modern-day liberals, specifically in regard to what use to be referred to as “fairytales”, if those first two syllables are not yet totally “verboten”. More to the point, I wonder if any of these oppressed are aware of the tale of “The Princess and the Pea” because it sure seems to me that this never ending kvetching about females wanting more of a share of the sports industry pie would seem to me to be a case in point. Our sports princesses probably will never have enough available mattresses to preclude their distress.

    On the other hand, in the tennis sector of the sports industry, one finds the US Tennis Open played somewhere in Queens (if that term is still okay to keystroke), New York each year. It seems that the solons in charge of the event have decided that women should receive the same prize money as the men and not because they could beat the men one-on-one (cheapshot, huh???) but because they have been so previously oppressed. Now, someone, with even a passing familiarity with the aforementioned ‘tale, might offer that the men play at least three sets and at most five while the women play at least two and at most three (not to mention lower and slower) and yet this fairly objective and quantifiable assessment, provokes no outrage, nor even a media mention as sexism or even the much ridiculed reverse-sexism.

    So, my message to all those sports princesses out there is, believe it or not, you are doing fine financially, and living your childlike dream. At this point, “you’re making enough.” You may not yet have reached the 1% level, but you’re doing much better that so many other percentages. Try thinking about the women would was upset because she had no shoes until she met a man with no feet.

  24. sam says:

    A more serious version of my flip comment above would be: The Greeks fully appreciated that athletic competition is beautiful bodies doing beautiful things (maybe not the pankration, though). And what in the world is wrong with that?

  25. jan says:

    Having only a small grassy area in the backyard where I grew up, there was very little room for sports. So my dad strung a badminton net up (sorry Drew). That along with a pingpong ball table and croquet set comprised the athleticism for the girls in the family. However, when I moved to the beach some of the skills learned in these earlier games (hand/eye coordination and being competitive) did come in handy for beach volleyball, which I love.

  26. george says:

    For example, the fact that Ye Shiwen actually swam one leg of a race faster than a male swimmer in winning her gold medal was cited as prima facie evidence that she had cheated.

    Except that’s just an attempt to get her tested and possibly disqualified giving the medals to their teams. Her overall time for the race was 30 seconds slower than the male swimmer in question, she just paced her race differently, saving herself for a last leg spurt, while he went out fast. If they’d been in the pool together, she’d have been one pool length behind …

    Now I don’t know if she cheated or not, but as she hasn’t tested positive, I’m going with innocent until proven guilty. But even if she had, the argument about swimming one pool length faster meaning she cheated is just silly, given the length of the race, and how far she’d have been behind the male swimmer if they’d been in the water together.

  27. PD Shaw says:

    @sam: Indeed, and I’m surprised nobody has mentioned the very cut men in the aquatic events wearing skimpy outfits as well. Perhaps men’s volleyball should take note.

  28. James Joyner says:

    @george: I think we’ve come to the point in certain sports where unusual performances are automatically and reasonably questioned. She’s 16 years old and not only shattered her personal best but the world record by absurd margins. And the Chinese team has a long history of institutionalized cheating.

  29. Carson says:

    There is one more sport that I would like to see added: billiards

  30. Tsar Nicholas says:

    There always will be cries of sexism from various quarters. Just as there always will be cries of racism, ageism, homophobia, etc., etc. Misery loves company and victimology can and often does beget $$$ for those who practice it.

  31. PJ says:

    @James Joyner:

    However a slew of former Olympic champions spoke out in support of Ye on Wednesday, insisting large improvements in times were feasible.

    “We have to remember that young swimmers can take chunks of time off that other people can’t,” Australian swimming legend Ian Thorpe told the BBC.

    Former British swimmer Adrian Moorhouse, a gold medallist in the 100m breaststroke in the 1988 Seoul Games, issued a strong defence of Ye, saying it was possible China had unearthed their own Michael Phelps.

    “I think it’s sour grapes,” Moorhouse said when asked about Leonard’s comments. “I think it’s quite insulting actually.

    “I understand it’s about China’s system. But we saw the Chinese swimmers in the 1990s. They were the size of houses. They looked like they had huge muscle growth. This girl is quite small … she’s just in good shape.

    Moorhouse also said given China’s vast population of 1.3 billion and the country’s state-backed elite sports programmes, it was possible the country’s swimming system had simply unearthed a phenomenon.

    “There are a lot of people in China. The base of their pyramid is so wide — if they train thousands and thousands and thousands of kids they might have just found their Michael Phelps,” Moorhouse said.

    “They might have found this really talented kid who can work really hard, whose got the perfect shape and can cope with all the pressure that’s thrown at her,” he added.

    Britain’s 1980 Moscow Olympics breaststroke gold medallist Duncan Goodhew condemned criticism of Ye’s performances as “destructive and irresponsible”.

    “There are always incredible improvements in any large sporting event such as the Olympic Games and of course, in terms of that, innocent until proven guilty,” Goodhew told ITV.

    “I think it is very destructive and very irresponsible of anybody to accuse people until they are proven guilty.”

  32. george says:

    @James Joyner:

    Perhaps, but the only yardstick we currently use is passing the tests. Which certainly aren’t infallible (Marion Jones for instance slid under them quite nicely, though she eventually admitted to cheating), but if you’re not going to use them, what are you going to use? Its the same problem as in law (with the usual IANAL qualifier) – being found not guilty might not mean you’re innocent, you might just have beat the system. But replacing that with the court of public opinion (or expert opinion) is even worse.

    There’s no way to prove someone isn’t using some sort of PED, so its a great example of an accusation which can never be disproven. Which leads some cynics to claim that everyone at the Olympics is using some sort of PED anyway, meaning its a level playing field in any case – ie there’s no proof that Ye isn’t using, but then again, there’s also no proof that anyone in the pool with her wasn’t using as well.

  33. OzarkHillbilly says:

    James, Drew, say what you want about badminton, but I wonder how you would react to a shuttle cock coming at your head at 200 mph? I know what I would do: Duck… then run.

  34. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I dunno–I consider both ping pong and badminton to be derivations of tennis and no more worthy of being an Olympic event than putt-putt or foosball. That doesn’t mean that world class practitioners of those games aren’t spectacularly good at them.

  35. Brett says:

    If they’re going to include derivations of other sports, why can’t we include MMO fighting as an Olympic Event? You could even have cross-coverage, with some athletes in other Olympic Martial Arts competitions crossing over.

    Of course, what I’d really would love to have would be Olympic Team Paintball.

  36. PJ says:

    And on the subject of Olympic sexism.

    Olympic skeet was introduced in 1968 and until 1992 both sexes were allowed to participate, but in 1996 it was limited to men only. That, for the first time, a woman won the event in 1992 was purely coincidental.

  37. PJ says:

    @James Joyner:

    I dunno–I consider both ping pong and badminton to be derivations of tennis and no more worthy of being an Olympic event than putt-putt or foosball. That doesn’t mean that world class practitioners of those games aren’t spectacularly good at them.

    Badminton isn’t a derivation of tennis.
    Reading Wikipedia you would have learned the following:
    The game that tennis is derived from dates back to France and the 12th century.
    The game that badminton is derived from dates back to Greece and the 1st century.

  38. James Joyner says:

    @PJ: Okay….but badminton is still just tennis with an inferior “ball,” no?

  39. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    I consider both ping pong and badminton to be derivations of tennis and no more worthy of being an Olympic event than putt-putt or foosball.

    James, I consider freestyle, backstroke, butterfly, and dog paddle to all be derivations of “getting to a place I can stand without drowning by God” so why the 23 (?) different events for that? Also, as PJ said@PJ: …..

  40. OzarkHillbilly says:

    And seriously, What is it with the Butterfly Stroke? What sadist invented THAT? I once dog-paddled for a mile in a cave…. No problemo.

  41. @OzarkHillbilly:

    When I was really into swimming in Jr. High and High School, the Butterfly just absolutely killed me not matter how much I did it. It’s absolutely hell on the shoulders

  42. @Doug Mataconis:

    Yeah, so it’s a stroke that harder to do and results in your moving slower than you would doing the front crawl. It’s basically a competition to determine the best bad swimmer. ;P

  43. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Doug, a buddy of mine swam the butterfly all thru HS (it was his event) and he had the shoulders of Thor. (I was seriously jealous). In later years (after I started hanging drywall as a union carpenter) I had the the shoulders, biceps, triceps, forearms, and pectorals of Thor (OK ok, a much smaller Thor, but I was hanging 4,000 sq ft/day) and he could not keep up with me.

    Now, I am just another broken down old man trying to earn his union wages, knowing that I can not keep up.

  44. PJ says:

    @James Joyner:

    Okay….but badminton is still just tennis with an inferior “ball,” no?

    No, badminton is quite different from tennis.

    Do you also consider football, soccer, basketball, handball, etc as the same game with balls, goals, etc that are more or less inferior? I mean, they are all about transporting an object to end of the playing area to score while trying to stop the opposing team to do the same.
    Maybe there should just be one game, with the most superior ball, goals, playing area, etc?

  45. de stijl says:

    @PJ:

    Maybe there should just be one game, with the most superior ball, goals, playing area, etc?

    Rollerball!

  46. !-) Beach Volleyball is a pretty popular sport in Brazil. Some volleyball players went to play Beach Volleyball, by the way.

    2-) No, that´s not sexism. I love athletic and tough women, and most men do. They could be dressed with burkas or naked: strong and tough women are sexy.

  47. Carson says:

    Why is karate or some form of martial arts in the Olympics? I would love to see the Korean teams in action.

  48. michael reynolds says:

    Didn’t have time to read the post or comments, just want to say a real quick thanks for the shot of the Olympic Ass Event. These people put a lot of work into their asses and it’s only fitting that we recognize their contribution.

  49. DRS says:

    Cribbed from the Wikipedia entry for Ancient Olympic Games:

    Over the years, more events were added [to foot racing]: boxing (pygme/pygmachia), wrestling (pale), and pankration. Pankration is one of the roots of modern day Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), as the use of mixing Boxing and Wrestling at this time is evidence of this. Boxing was an umbrella term for a variety of striking arts used by the British (examples: Thai boxing, Chinese boxing, French boxing, Burmese boxing). Archeology has shown little or no similarities between Ancient Greco-roman “pale” and any modern form of grappling including modern Greco-roman wrestling.[35] Other events include chariot racing, and several other running events (the diaulos, hippios, dolichos, and hoplitodromos), as well as a pentathlon, consisting of wrestling, stadion, long jump, javelin throw, and discus throw (the latter three were not separate events).

    When I’m Emperor of the World and can design my own Olympics, I’m going to have nothing but the ancient sports – who has seen a good chariot race lately?

    And they’ll all compete naked – no more head-to-foot sponsor nonsense. Heh, heh, heh.

  50. @DRS:

    The original olympic games were all sports that soldiers were expected to be good at. For this reason, some people argue the closest thing to the original olympics is the modern pentathalon (pistol shooting, fencing, swimming, running, riding) which when the modern games began was all things a calvary officer was expected to be good at.

  51. Davebo says:

    @PD Shaw:

    A three and a half hour race isn’t TV friendly.

    Perhaps if they occasionally crashed into the wall and burst into flames.

  52. Nat says:
  53. george says:

    I notice in passing that a 15 year old American girl, Katie Ledecky, has just won the Olympic 800 meter swim, with a percentage improvement in time over the last year better than Ye’s.

    I’m still waiting for the American coach John Leonard to call her out for suspicion of doping. I suspect I’ll have a long wait. Like I said, the outrcy about Ye was all about politics and little to do with anything else.