Take, for example, two clear cases of unequal treatment based on gender. The Japanese women’s soccer team and the Australian women’s soccer and basketball teams were relegated to economy while their male counterparts flew business class. This is despite the fact that the women’s teams are ranked higher and have played better in the past. The Japanese women’s soccer team won the World Cup last summer, and is favored to win a gold medal this year. Similarly, the Australian women’s basketball and soccer teams have much higher international rankings than the men’s teams. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the women’s basketball team “won silver medals at the last three Olympics, and won bronze in 1996. The Boomers [the men's team] have never won an Olympics medal.”
The former captain of the women’s basketball team weighed in, saying she knows it’s about gender: “It’s been a bit of a sore spot, especially since the women are much more successful. I’m yet to find a nice answer for it other than they’re male and we’re female. You’d hate that that’s the reason, but I’m sure it is.”
Some instances of sexism in the Olympics are more subtle but equally egregious. For example, the media coverage of female athletes frequently focuses on their bodies as sex objects rather than as athletic tools, an angle rarely used to describe the men.
Scotland’s Daily Record covered the U.S. women soccer team’s arrival at Glasgow and completely failed to remark on their athleticism or the fact that they are professional and globally ranked athletes. Instead, SDR focused on their sex appeal:
All of a sudden, the Olympics have got sexy. Really sexy.
The pin-up babes of the US Olympic football team arrived for their first training session in Glasgow yesterday.
And although the rain was pouring down, you would hardly have noticed as stars such as glamour-girl keeper Hope Solo, 32, and strike stunner Alex Morgan, 23, hit the pitch.
The Seattle Sounders team-mates – who caused a sensation recently with a photoshoot wearing only sprayed-on paint “bikinis” – were put through their paces at Strathclyde University’s training ground in Stepps, near Glasgow, amid a huge security operation.
Another example of the sexualization of female athletes is ESPN’s Body Issue, which displays nude photographs of Olympic athletes. While the idea seems good — shooting the athletes nude could very effectively highlight the strength of their incredible bodies — the photographs overwhelmingly depict men in active poses, whereas over half of the women are depicted in passive, pin-up type poses. Unfortunately, the Body Issue fails to move beyond the default depiction of women as passive objects — because the women are standing still, the fact that they are naked is more important than the fact that they are athletes.
It’s hard not to notice the remarkable women competing in this year’s Olympics — even though the games haven’t started, female athletes have been breaking records left and right. Besides Afghanistan, every country participating in the event is sending at least one woman to compete, and, overall, more women are competing than ever before. Nur Suryani Mohamed, who is eight months pregnant, will be representing Malaysia in the 10-meter air rifle. The United States’ team is fielding more women than men, including 17 year-old Claressa “T-Rex” Shields, who is the youngest female boxer competing in the first ever Olympic women’s boxing event. And of course there’s Sarah Robles, who gained national attention — and eventually at least one sponsorship — after she spoke about how hard it is for female athletes “built like men.”
But, it is equally important to understand that sexism is still a serious problem for the games, and that women and men are not yet on an equal playing field at the Olympics. Female athletes are often treated as secondary and subordinate to their male counterparts, and the sexism that plagues women outside the games persists within them.
Even though these women have been smashing stereotypes and making history, they continue to be treated as less than the male athletes, and are frequently characterized with tired cultural sex imagery.