The Olympics’s women coverage

It should be about female athletes' achievements, but it's often more focused on their chromosomes

In her column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.

Gender issues were threaded throughout the coverage of the Olympic games this week, beginning with the opening ceremonies, which showcased that, for the first time, all of the 204 delegations included a female athlete. London 2012 has been dubbed “The Year of the Woman,” noted Time magazine, which did a thoughtful roundup of many gender milestones, from the Malaysian markswoman who will give birth in September and is perhaps the most heavily pregnant woman to grace an Olympics to the fact that the American team has more women than men, which has never happened before this year.

The press, of course, always looks for human interest stories surrounding the Games, but usually they are about deep personal tragedy or extraordinary triumph. This focus instead on the state of women in sport around the globe has the possibility to be insightful, as it was in several trend stories like the Time one above, but it can also slide into something almost prurient, focusing on women’s bodies instead of their achievements.

The Associated Press, in a shining example of insightfulness, centered on 17-year-old boxing powerhouse Claressa “T-Rex” Shields in its story about the rise of women in this year’s Olympics. With the debut of women’s boxing this year, every sport now has both men and women athletes. The AP gave context, explaining why the omnipresence of women was a story, saying that the “surge in women” in the Olympics only started in the 1990s. The story then added:

“How far have women come in the Olympics?” asked Karla Wolters, a retired professor and longtime coach of women’s softball at Hope College in Michigan. “Put it this way: If Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, knew that there were more (American) women than men in this year’s London Olympics, I’m sure he would be rolling over in his grave. He was totally against having women in the Olympics.”

It’s not only boxers getting attention. The Olympics is bringing new eyes to women’s soccer as well. The AP, which has brought thoughtful analysis of gendered aspects of the games, noted in another story that women were banned from playing soccer in England for 50 years because it was too unfeminine of a sport—the stigma stuck, and a new women’s soccer league there drew meager crowds just last year. But at the Olympics, the women seemed to have found their audience and “the English—along with the Scottish and Welsh—are getting a full-fledged, in-your-face dose of the women’s game, and the matches are drawing unprecedented crowds.”

Yet not every story touching on gender is about girl power.

The first women athletes to attend the games from Saudi Arabia were controversial to conservative Islamists in their home country, said Reuters, using Twitter posts as its only sources on the subject. The story seemed to go out of its way to pull out some of the most offensive tweets, like one referring to the women as “whores” and another describing their participation as “a great sin,” though it also used the opportunity to note that King Abdullah has been slowly giving women more rights in that country.

AP, however, again provided the most context, warning that the two Saudi athletes may not represent a breakthrough so much as a PR stunt. Human rights activists had been pressuring the International Olympics Committee to ban countries that didn’t allow women to participate. So at the last minute, two athletes were found. One, a distance runner, was actually raised in California. The other was trained in judo by her father, since Saudi women aren’t allowed to join sports clubs. (That woman, Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani, had threatened to not participate at all if the IOC didn’t allow her to wear a headscarf, and the organization consented this week.)

Some of the most appalling coverage of women and the Olympics has arisen around the subject of gender testing (only women are gender tested, of course, not men). Most media can’t seem to bring up South African runner Caster Semenya’s name without mentioning that she was gender tested three years ago and found to be female. The Vancouver Sun even said the test “still clouds her achievement.”

This is unfair, because gender testing is not like drug testing; the majority of people subjected to it grew up thinking they were female. Who, after all, keeps a DNA testing kit at home showing that they actually have a hidden Y chromosome?

The Atlantic Wire, in a story that at first seems more tabloid than it is, suggested that Semenya is now undergoing hormone treatment in order to bring down her testosterone levels, and that the treatment seems to have made her slower and more feminine looking. At first, the story seems to be invasive, with a photo comparison that points red arrows at possible new curves. But then it makes the subtle point that the gender testing rules may be a way of policing femininity, and patently unjust. Unlike the Miss America competition, athletes shouldn’t have to look a certain way in order to compete. They should be able to focus on training and skill-building, not whether their bodies would look great in an evening gown.

Semenya is “far from the first competitor to face this kind of scrutiny,” said the Daily Beast. Many female athletes have been accused of being secret men, from Martina Navratilova to Serena Williams. The most insightful article on gender testing came from The Los Angeles Times, which traces the history. “Once it’s agreed that men and women should compete separately, how should officials divide them up?” the story asks. “It’s not a rhetorical question. Though most people fall neatly into ‘male’ and ‘female’ categories, some do not. The fact that there are people with physical or genetic traits of both sexes prompted the IOC to rethink its gender test.” The test, which now measures levels of testosterone in a woman’s blood, is still controversial—it’s not clear that elevated levels of testosterone give all women an advantage. But the point of testing is supposedly to even the playing field, and this test is the best way officials know of to do that.

For women, though, gender testing is an additional hurdle they have to clear and men do not. Women may be are everywhere in the coverage of these Olympic Games, but they will be real winners only when the subject of their gender is less of a story than their achievements in the competitions.

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Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years. Tags: , , ,