In ancient Greece, the Olympics were the time when wars came to a halt for a sacred truce. In modern-day America, we can’t even seem to manage an Olympics truce in the gender wars. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, which ended Sunday, were marked by controversies over sexism — from media coverage said to slight female athletes to debates on intersex athletes in women’s competitions.
Does sexism exist in sports and the sports media? No doubt. But the complaints this time were shocking mostly in their utter triviality or wrongheadedness.
There was, for instance, a big hoopla about a Chicago Tribune tweet that said, “Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins a Bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.” (The actual headline used the athlete’s name, Corey Cogdell, but also referred to her status as the wife of NFL player Mitch Unrein.) Feminist Twitter was furious; “God forbid you use her name for what SHE achieved” was one of the milder comments. Attempts to point out that this was localization, not sexism, failed to pacify, and the headline still ended up in countless digital media stories with headlines like “10 Outrageously Sexist Moments From The Olympic Games And Why They Matter.”
Never mind that without a connection to a prominent local figure, a bronze medal in trap shooting — for a woman or a man — is not exactly headline material.
Then there was the outcry over the fact that an NBC correspondent described the husband and coach of Hungarian swimmer and gold medalist Katinka Hosszu, who set a world record in Rio, as “the man responsible” for the vast improvement in her performance since 2012. Never mind that she publicly credited him with being exactly that.
Nothing is too petty for the sexism watchdogs. Twitter exploded in outrage over a photo of a headline from a small-town Texas paper that featured Michael Phelps’ tie for a silver medal more prominently than swimmer Katie Ledecky’s world record. University of Denver law professor Nancy Leong tweeted the photo with the caption, “This headline is a metaphor for basically the entire world.” People who tried to point out that Phelps was much more famous and that his silver medal was newsworthy because he wasn’t expected to win were predictably accused of “mansplaining.”
Meanwhile, the newspaper’s editor — a woman, Kelly Brown — said the headline was taken out of context because Ledecky’s photo, which dominated the article, was cropped out.
There was also unhappiness about excessive attention paid to a silver medal-winning Chinese diver getting a marriage proposal from her boyfriend at the medal ceremony. I can understand the quibble over a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. tweet that asked, “What’s better than a medal? A proposal!” — though it’s not particularly far-fetched to imagine the same being said about a male athlete whose girlfriend used a medal ceremony to propose. On the other hand, to begrudge the media a romantic human interest story is downright churlish. Making it worse, some argued that the proposal itself was a form of “male control.”
And in the silly category, some complained about coverage that examined the challenges faced by athletes who are also mothers. Newsflash: Having a child has a lot more impact on a woman’s body than a man’s.
Female athletes have made great strides in getting recognition, especially at the Olympics, a rare sports event where equal time is the norm. Yet instead of celebrating women’s accomplishments, feminist pundits and online activists are obsessing over mostly imaginary insults. Call it the oppression Olympics.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.