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The Olympics stubbornly clings to outdated terminology for women athletes

Hello, ladies!

TOPSHOT - USA's Jessica Diggins (L) and USA's Kikkan Randall celebrate winning gold in the women's cross country team sprint free final at the Alpensia cross country ski centre during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 21, 2018 in Pyeongchang.  / AFP PHOTO / Odd ANDERSEN        (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - USA's Jessica Diggins (L) and USA's Kikkan Randall celebrate winning gold in the women's cross country team sprint free final at the Alpensia cross country ski centre during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 21, 2018 in Pyeongchang. / AFP PHOTO / Odd ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

On Wednesday evening in Pyeongchang, Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall made history when they won the first women’s cross-country gold medal for Team USA in Olympic history in the Team Sprint relay. It was a finish for the ages. After Diggins sprinted past the Swedish skier in the final meters of the relay, and crossed the finish line in first, she collapsed in disbelief as Randall ran over and jumped on top of her in the snow to celebrate their monumental feat. It will no doubt be one of the most indelible images from the games.

No Olympic sports are easy, but cross-country skiing is without a doubt one of the most taxing competitions. It’s not uncommon to see athletes collapse and barf after they cross the finish line. It’s a sport for the most fit, determined, and bull-headed warriors. Which is why, as Diggins and Randall celebrated with their teammates and competitors, it was jarring to see the NBC chyron pop up on screen declaring them the winners of the “Ladies’ Team Sprint (Free).”

Ladies are supposed to be “courteous, decorous, or genteel,” by definition. But there was nothing nice, refined, or demure about Diggins and Randall in that moment. Everything about their performance was ruthless, by design. That was why it was awesome.

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If you have been watching the Olympics closely this year, it’s likely you’ve noticed the word “ladies” pop up frequently. It’s not because announcers have yet to delete the word from their colloquial vernacular (though, feel free gentlemen); it’s actually the official terminology used for many Olympic events.

This is where things begin to get confusing — not all events are for “ladies.” Some are officially for “women.” If you’re keeping track at home, “ladies” compete in Alpine Skiing, cross-country skiing, figure skating, freestyle skiing, short track and long track speedskating, ski jumping, and snowboarding, while “women” participate in biathlon, bobsled, curling, ice hockey, luge, and skeleton.

In other words, events under the umbrella of the International Ski Federation (FIS) and the International Skating Union (ISU) use “ladies,” while the rest stick with the much more modern — and much less loaded — “women.”

Which left us with more questions than answers. So ThinkProgress reached out to the International Olympic Committee to see if they had a preference. The IOC responded via e-mail that it “does not have an official editorial stance on ladies vs. women when referring to both athletes and events.” Rather, it leaves it up to the International Sports Federations to decide on the “official denomination” of their events.

Since the IOC didn’t provide much clarity, we reached out to the FIS and ISU to see why they use “ladies” — and why it doesn’t use “gentlemen” if it is insisting on formality. The FIS, which oversees Alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, freestyle skiing, ski jumping, and snowboarding, essentially blamed the Brits. “The FIS style guide is based on British English and ladies’ is the commonly accepted terminology in British English, while women is the common terminology in American English,” FIS spokeswoman — spokeslady? — Jenny Wiedeke told ThinkProgress in an email. “Men is commonly accepted abbreviation for the term ‘gentlemen’ and has become the accepted term for male competitions.”

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Meanwhile, the ISU, which oversees figure skating, short track speedskating, and long track speedskating, essentially blamed the 1800s. “The ISU was founded in 1892 and since then the term ‘ladies’ was included in the ISU Constitution and Regulations,” the ISU Media Team said. “Since then the term has not been changed and in order for it to change, a proposal has to be made to the ISU Congress (consisting of all ISU Members) who would have to vote in favor of the change.”

That’s all understandable, but it also seems unnecessarily stubborn — language evolves over time. Merriam Webster aside, “ladies” is a more sexist, restrictive word than “women.” And both the FIS and ISU have incredibly sexist histories that you would think they’d be eager to distance themselves from. Back in the 1890s, when the ISU was founded, it only held world championships for men in both figure skating and speed skating. It didn’t hold a figure skating championship for women until 1896, and it didn’t have a speed skating championship for women until 1936. Meanwhile, as recently as 2005, the FIS president said that women should not ski jump because it “seems to not be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”

As women push for true equality in the Olympics, it’s time for the language to be updated accordingly. Jennifer Kirk, a former elite U.S. figure skater who retired in 2005, agrees.

“I think the term is pretty antiquated,” Kirk told ThinkProgress. “I don’t consider myself or my peers — we weren’t really ladies in the sense of being very gentle and proper. I mean, [we are] tough and athletic just like all other women in women’s sports.

“I think its time to change it.”

The good news is that this is not a hard change to make. The U.S. Olympic Committee already uses the category of “women” for all of its sports, and a perusal of the NBC and Associated Press websites shows that they have mostly adopted this editorial decision as well. It’s just a much more appropriate, and much less condescending, term to use. (Not to mention, it’s much easier not to waver between the two.)

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Most inequalities are tough to fix. This one isn’t. Now, as for getting announcers to stop referring to athletes as “ladies” as they prognosticate on an epic gold-medal hockey game? Yeah, that will take a bit more work.