Female Athletes Changing the Game

genw-81916bIf there are medals awarded for Olympics watching this year,  I think I have a shot at the gold. With all the naysayer talk about Rio, once again, when the best athletes in the world come together to pursue their Olympic dreams, it is the most compelling of stories viewed on any screen. It truly is the place where the stories of our lives are played out, and me and millions of others around the world are drawn to the drama. This year featured the most female Olympians ever—with 42% of ALL participants being women—with 52% of Team USA being women competing in Rio. The accomplishments were record breaking, inspiring and heart rending. Why doesn’t Kleenex sponsor?  Some of the all too many to recount highlights included the anointed one, the greatest gymnast of all time, Simone Biles and her all-star teammates. The swimmers amazed as Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic gold. Her grace in victory remains so touching and so telling of the power of sports to inspire and connect  Of course there is Katie Ledecky who won 4 gold, swept the 3 longest freestyle races and set a new world record by 11 seconds. At age 19 she is going home to get her driver’s license. I hope she can stay under the speed limit.

I loved the veteran athletes like cyclist Kristin Armstrong, who won her third Olympic gold medal the day before her 43rd birthday, which gave new meaning to the phrase “women of a certain age.”  And how about the 41-year-old gymnast from Uzbekistan, Oksana Chusovitna, competing in  her 7th Olympics. Michelle Carter won the USA’s first gold medal in shot put and spoke out about being a “woman of size” as she  encouraged young girls to be true to themselves. Addressing the issue of femininity and athleticism, she said “YOU CAN BE BOTH.”  I say AMEN!

Yet, with all these accomplishments and these moments of brilliant athleticism, we still had cause to pause when certain phrases passed the announcers’ lips. Commentators praised coach/husband of Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszú for being “responsible” for her win, the Chicago Tribune sent a tweet referencing U.S. trap shooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein’s famous husband instead of her and the BBC called the women’s judo competition a “catfight.” Even for the U.S. Women’s Basketball team, which, by the way, hasn’t lost an Olympic game since 1992, are still overshadowed in coverage by the U.S. Men’s team and as are constantly badgered by questions of whether their high performance is a detriment to the game. Has anyone asked the men’s team that? I love Coach Geno when he says’ “We will never apologize for being that good!”

That said,  I say HOORAY… the best part of all of this is that we are talking about it. People are calling these conversations out and with that we have hope for continued progress. These types of comments used to pass as business as usual, the usual just won’t pass for good business anymore. Did I say Hooray? We  know that we are in process of redefining the rules of the game and the platform of sports once again is a conversation starter and a global agent for social change.

I loved this article from The Guardian that gives an even deeper overview of some of the media comments and mentions—and it also shares a “handy guide” for how to write/talk about female athletes in a way that respects their talent as well as their gender.  For example, don’t refer to women in terms of the men they know or are related to, don’t spend time discussing their makeup or dress and don’t always find it necessary to mention their gender—unless, of course, it is in the name of the sport (i.e. women’s gymnastics).  In essence, begin covering female athletes the way we currently cover male athletes with a focus on their “incredible feats of strength and skill they have honed over a lifetime of superhuman discipline and restraint.”

The media needs to continue its diligence in the way it portrays female athletes. We all know  the opportunity is an even larger one as we all try to figure out and optimize how to play the game of life together, with respect and equity.





by Donna Orender