After two weeks of thrilling performances at the 2016 Rio Olympics by world class athletes, many remain in awe of the momentous end to Michael Phelps’ legendary career, Usain Bolt’s seemingly effortless feats on the track, and Simone Biles’ extensive list of achievements. However, some are unable to relish in the glory of the games. Instead, they are distracted by the controversial comments made by the media during the 16 days of coverage.
From the start of Rio 2016, the media’s coverage of female athletes was criticized following a string of irrelevant comments on their appearance and their marital status. More recently, controversy erupted when Ellen DeGeneres tweeted out a photoshopped image of her riding on the back of Usain Bolt with the caption, “This is how I’m running errands from now on.” The public has been somewhat split on whether said remarks are merely being misconstrued, but many instances between have been called into question as well.
When Corey Cogdell-Unrein of the U.S. Olympic team won a bronze medal in women’s trap shooting, The Chicago Tribune left out a key detail when it shared the news: her name. It described her instead as the wife of a Bears lineman. As expected, the response to The Tribune’s misstep was swift.
“Congrats to that Bears lineman who apparently deserves all the credit here,” an observer wrote on Twitter.
Another offered a counterpoint: “To me, it’s a city paper offering a frame of reference. They’re not writing articles about every medal winner.”
“It didn’t come off to me as something that was intentional or malicious,” Cogdell-Unrein said. “I just kind of thought, ‘Well, you know, they probably could’ve chosen a better heading to alert people of my victory.’”
Sarah Grieves, a researcher on the Cambridge team, said in an interview that the word “man” has generally been used three times as much as the word “woman” in sports-related coverage, despite the fact that women make up 45 percent of athletes competing.
An analysis released Sunday by three scholars who are working on a book entitled Olympic Television: Inside the Biggest Show on Earth, however, revealed that female athletes received 58.5 percent of prime-time media coverage during the first half of the Olympic Games, compared with 41.5 percent for men.
This difference is attributed, in part, to the intense focus on five sports in prime-time where American women dominate: beach volleyball, diving, gymnastics, swimming, and track and field. Efforts by athletes such as Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, and Simone Biles this year have kept the focus on female athleticism.
The female-centered media coverage could partially account for increased scrutiny on the words used to describe female athletes versus their male counterparts.
“We found things like men being described as fastest, strong, biggest,” Ms. Grieves said. “For women, it’s unmarried, married, references to their age. There is an inequality there.”
“It’s really hard to tell whether the language used is sexist or whether it’s isolated examples that people are picking up on,” Ms. Grieves said of the coverage so far. “It feels like there have been a lot.”
Another instance includes the moment when Andy Murray was praised by the BBC presenter John Inverdale for winning gold in tennis. Inverdale mentioned that Murray was the first person ever to win two Olympic tennis gold medals. Murray corrected him by citing the Williams sisters: “I think Venus and Serena have won about four each.”
“It may not be that people are deliberately trying to infantilize women,” Ms. Grieves said of examples like this, but the criticism is “bringing to light people who don’t even realize they’re doing it.”
As far as the Ellen debacle, it seems that the public has jumped the gun on attacking her for the meme. While it is easy to identify how her meme can come off as offensive, Ellen has always been one to promote love and kindness between everyone no matter the differences.
In response to the backlash, Ellen tweeted out the following day announcing, “I am highly aware of the racism that exists in our country. It is the furthest thing from who I am.” While one’s past comments of love and acceptance do not forgive future racist comments, it is fair to say that Ellen’s meme was not released with any racist intent included. Others on social media spoke out in defense of DeGeneres and pointed out that she and Bolt are friends. From his appearances on her show to his retweet of her meme, it is clear that her meme included Bolt because of his notable speed, not the color of his skin.
Most are familiar with the phrase “actions speak louder than words,” but a major part of the social atmosphere has been conditioned to abide by the contrary. Heeding warnings of backlash if one misspeaks, political correctness has become a part of our culture whether we like it or not. In the case of Ellen’s meme, clearly the comedian meant no racial implications and the retaliation she has received is far from necessary. However, the distinction between disregarding political correctness and just being outright offensive is not always so clear.
During this Olympic Games, controversy after controversy has beckoned critical analysis as to whether certain statements are racist, sexist, or explicitly false. Political correctness aside, both racism and sexism are clearly prevalent in sports coverage and steps must be taken toward change in the future. A focus on the immense success of Olympic athletes—regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or any other difference—and the unity that is displayed uniquely during the Olympic Games must come first.