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Sporting Women: The champions they should be

This summer’s Olympic and Paralympic games and displayed countless female sporting champions. Sadly,  these achievements are often undermined. 

A great way to taste the flavour of today’s patriarchy in mass media is to check out any headline, article or commentary on women in sport. In the summer, for example, the Daily Mail labelled outstanding tennis player Anna Kournikova as merely “Enrique Iglesias’ girlfriend”. Nicola Adams, British black queer boxer and gold medalist, has been relatively ignored by major news factions despite her record-breaking achievements in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. When it comes to the treatment of trans, intersex, and disabled female athletes, the media are often even more fierce.

As someone who has swum competitively for over 15 years, the media’s take on women in sport doesn’t necessarily surprise me. My own personal experience was with an all-male coaching staff who used patriarchal language (“don’t be a pussy”) – my success and ambitions were often undermined and my achievements overshadowed by male teammates and coaches.

This feeling, I know, has been felt and swallowed by so many of the women in professional sport. Of course it must be said that each female athlete’s experience is different, depending on their sport, culture, coaches, identity or milieu.

What strikes me as particularly sad about the media’s belittling of women in sport is that it reiterates the same old dance of popular media: the objectification of women’s bodies and physical appearance. This contributes to an ongoing erasure of positive representations of women succeeding, striving and displaying their ambition. This ongoing ignorance continues to undermine the complexity of sport, an experience that breathes a myriad of emotions and a continuous challenge to strive for improvement.

The fact that media has chosen to focus on women’s bodies, their physical appearances or their relation to men is truly disappointing. Why? Because as well as continuing to perpetuate patriarchal gender roles, this trend strips a zesty opportunity for young people – specifically young women and girls – to look up to female athletes as idols.

Similar to other realms of social, political and cultural life, women in sport are often mocked and belittled when they are reaching beyond the normative expectations that patriarchal values set for them. When women are focused, accomplished and confident, the media’s draconian grip likes to remind them that they are really just a face, a mother, a wife or a pair of thighs.

This is emphasised with women in sport, namely because of how disciplined and goal-oriented female athletes are. Mass media seems to be particularly spooked by this kind of fire and female determination. If we take a look at this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio, the most recently reported sporting event, we can see this derogatory treatment in full swing.

Take Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu for example, who won a gold medal in swimming in the 400m Individual Medley. After her fierce win, the announcer almost immediately credited her husband for “turning her into a whole different swimmer”. Or take a startling statement tweeted by The Chicago Tribune in regards to Corey Cogdell-Unrein’s bronze medal in trap shoot, describing her as the bronze medalist married to a Chicago Bears’ football player. The husbands of these women did not win medals or have anything to do with their actual performance at the Olympics, yet the achievement is partly attributed to them.

As if this old, fossilised rhetoric of tying a woman’s worth to a man wasn’t enough, a 2016 Cambridge study showed some (un)surprising stats on language in sports media towards women. This study compiled over 160 million words of media coverage in sport and it showed that male athletes were discussed two to three times more than their female counterparts. Not only that but the study also brought to light how words such as “old”, “aged” and “married” were disproportionately used to describe female athletes compared to men. These belittling and heteronormative assumptions are easily paralleled with narratives of women in professional capacities everywhere.

For me, one of the biggest tragedies of media’s negative representation of women in sport is that it bars young girls and women from looking up to female athletes as healthy role models. Over the years I have reveled in the posters hung over my bed depicting spectacular female athletes, such as tennis star Serena Williams and Australian swimming champion Leisel Jones. I can attest for how beneficial and life-giving it was to look up to these women who had discipline and determination, as well as muscles, wide shoulders, and thighs that could crush skulls if necessary. Not only did these women smash the body-shaming rhetoric that criticises female bodies for being too muscular or too powerful, but they enjoyed incredible success in their field. Instead of championing these women and their admirable lifestyle, the media so often warns young women that sport will make your body ugly.

And all this is usually geared towards cis, able-bodied female athletes. If we take into account Paralympic athletesthat is Olympic athletes who have visible or invisible disabilities—then we see how further erasure of achievement from the media. Not only is sport coverage of the Paralympics much less frequent in general, but female Paralympians are given similar treatment to non-disabled athletes in the general erasure of their accomplishments and a focus on their appearance or marital status.

As for non-gender-conforming athletes, there is a pattern of transphobia in the media. Take the case of Caster Semenya, the intersex South African runner and 800m gold medalist at the 2016 Olympics. Semenya was allowed by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) to compete against women even after much controversy following a blood test that showed she had three times more testosterone than the female athletes she ran against. That being said, the South African runner took appropriate measures to adhere to IOC policy, which mostly implied taking testosterone suppressants. Since, Semenya has been highly criticised in the media with violent and transphobic slurs which launch attacks on both her failure of not being “woman enough” or being “too manly”.

Her performance was thoroughly attacked by claims she has cheated her way to the top. A particularly shocking example is that of an Australian newspaper who published an article on Semenya that featured disgusting descriptors such as “hermaphrodite with no womb or ovaries”. Even her competitors, including British runner Lyndsey Sharp, have criticised her and undermined her success as a female athlete. All this is despite the fact that the IOC and the Olympic Games’ Court of Arbitration have ruled her participation in female events valid.

All this taken into account shows the depth and dearth of this issue, ranging from cis, white athletes to Paralympians to black queer women. Patriarchy in the media seems to find joy and fulfillment repeating problematic tropes about women’s normative roles as complicit; as sisters, wives, mothers—never a woman in and of herself.

As an athlete and someone who has knowingly cultivated my individuality through sport, I would like to see more nuanced, accurate and frequent reporting on women’s fierce and unapologetic efforts. I want more bicep; more deadpan faced women on magazine covers; more brute strength, in whatever way that looks like. Really, I just want more of everything: female athletes must become more visible, and their achievements must be celebrated as much of those of their male counterparts.

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