Sidney Walter | Contributor
In the wake of the sexual abuse scandal surrounding Larry Nassar and the US gymnastics team, it is clear that too many of our current institutions neglect the responsibility of protecting and supporting young women. This year’s Olympic Games in Pyeongchang were no exception. Whether it be the abhorrent abuse of vulnerable athletes in training or smaller, perhaps even unconscious acts of gender bias, women’s accomplishments in sports are constrained by sexism from coaches, announcers, judges and even the Games itself.
First, the structuring of events is often limiting to female athletes. Short track speed skating, regular track speed skating, luge, and biathlon all have shorter distances for women’s races. Some events like Nordic Combined do not even include divisions for women. Ski Jump is a prime example of gender inequality because it holds more rounds for men. Male skiers have three chances to put down a medal-winning run while female skiers may have to leave disappointed after only a single chance to compete. Skiing and snowboarding events are also scored differently for men and women. In women’s events, the scaling is skewed so that more difficult tricks like triple flips are not worth the risk. The way final scores are calculated, it is easier for female athletes to make the podium by perfecting the easier tricks instead of pushing boundaries and trying more extreme combinations. Not only does this make these events slightly less thrilling to watch, it also frustrates the athletes who are encouraged by coaches and judges to plateau in their training.
The rhetoric used by announcers this year also belittled many female athletes. As Olympic coverage commenced, sports commenters regularly referred to female competitors as “girls,” while male competitors were called “men.” Many complaints over Twitter during the first week of competition prompted BBC to apologize and state that they had no intention of undermining the athletes, but patronizing language continued long after this correction in many different forms. When snowboarder Chloe Kim, the youngest female Olympic snowboarder to win gold, received her medal, the announcer mentioned that she would have the best bling to wear to her prom later this year. She was also called a “little hot piece of ass” by a San Francisco sports radio host. Even worse, some members of the press corps felt it appropriate to highlight the wardrobe malfunctions of female figure skaters in place of their actual routines.
However, the Olympics has also been a platform for more than microaggressions. Coaches, judges, and announcers still use outwardly offensive and demeaning views about women’s athletic abilities. At the 2014 games in Sochi, a Russian ski jumping coach said that women were not suited for the sport because they “have another purpose—to have children, to do housework, to create hearth and home.” In 2005, the president of the International Ski Federation Gian-Franco Kasper said ski jumping “seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” These sexist viewpoints seem to remain protected in the sports world despite societal progress and medical fact.
Facing these obstacles once more in 2018, athletes still used the Olympics as a stage to shatter expectations. American ski jumper, Ashley Cadwell, refused to be held back by weighted scoring and pushed her coaches to let her attempt a quadruple-twisting triple flip. “I’ve definitely gotten pretty upset with my coaches,” she says. “But I had to. I had to push 10 times as hard [as the guys] in order to do triples … I got up on the hill every day and had to beg for it. I don’t have to beg anymore, because I’ve proved myself. But it took a long time.” Her motivation to keep pushing herself initially came from an attempt to keep up with her male counterparts, but now she’s fighting to deconstruct the expectation that men should be the standard. “I want it to be to boys and girls, men and women everywhere. Quit talking about gender. Be your best. It doesn’t matter what’s between your legs,” she says. “I always wanted to be like the boys for a long time, and now I like it when my coaches treat me like me.”
The 2018 Olympic Games represents slow progress. Newer events for women like hockey and and ski jump were very successful. 43 percent of this year’s competing athletes were female, which is more than previous games (but still shy of the International Olympic Committee’s goal of 50 percent). And, for the first time ever, there were gender equality support centers and sexual assault counseling centers that provided therapy, medical treatment, and legal guidance in multiple languages for anyone who may have needed it. And yet, small improvements and reactive solutions do not address the underlying problems. We need to reevaluate why female athletes are seen as objects, to be lusted over and undermined, before they’re seen as athletes.