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Spotting Sexism At The Olympics

SUNDAY, JULY 14, 1996

We are fast approaching the Olympic season, when television producers miraculously remember that female athletes exist. If you expect to watch the Olympics with equal parts enthusiasm (fabulous athletes will be gutsy and glorious) and foreboding (moronic announcers will make rude and sexist comments), clip and save this handy score card.

Each time a commentator (or commercial) says something offensive, degrading, insensitive or infuriating, don’t get mad, get effective! Find the particular type of idiocy on the score card and deduct one penalty point for each offense.

Then, after a week (or day or hour, depending on your blood pressure), contact NBC (or the advertisers) and tell them exactly how they’re blowing it (or succeeding). In this way you too can feel empowered and victorious.

What to look for:

1) Vocabulary violations

Watch out for the girls of summer, golden girls, girls next door, and various pixies and vixens and blondes and even birds: Bela Karolyi has said of Dominique Moceanu, “She’s a little bird on a wire, all the time fluttering, chirping and playing to the crowd.”

NBC’s Olympic press representative Rose Pietrzak promises that analysts “are obviously very cognizant of the female athlete. They know that Dominique Moceanu is a girl, and that diver Mary Ellen Clark and swimmer Janet Evans are women. They’re not going to lump everyone into this ‘girls’ category.”

Keep an eye out anyway. Deduct points for “ladies” and for confused comparisons such as this one, by Frank Deford in Newsweek’s June 10 cover story: “They aren’t bad at it, the ladies. They can throw like a boy.”

2) Femininity faults

Sixty years ago, the media ridiculed Olympic track and field star Babe Didrikson as “boyish,” “mannish,” a “girl-boy child,” who could not “compete with other girls in the very ancient and honored sport of mantrapping.”

Nowadays things are different, right? Fang fingernails have become a track and field fashion statement. (Flo-Jo passed her nail file baton to Gail Devers.) Women’s magazines promise: “Strong is sexy!” Athletes have become beautiful, flirtatious, elegant, angelic, darling - and, of course, the ever-popular “vulnerable.”

Some think this is good news: proof that femininity and sports are compatible. But aren’t men still judging women on how they look? Aren’t the strongest women in the world being downgraded to pretty playthings for male enjoyment?

3) Mommy missteps

In 1948, Fanny Blankers-Koen won an unprecedented four Olympic gold medals. The London Daily Graphic heralded the Dutch runner this way: “Fastest Woman in the World is an Expert Cook.” How quaint! But did you see the halftime interview at the 1996 Final Four championship game? Tennessee basketball coach Pat Head Summitt’s husband, R.B., said Pat loves to putter in the kitchen. Watch out for references to housework, child care, marriage, honeymoons and mothering.

“Journalists are always looking for a new angle,” notes Mary Jo Kane, director of the Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “Why not try portraying women as athletes? That would be a switch!”

4) Bare bloopers

In a Sears commercial, basketball players apply lipstick, paint their toenails and dance in their underwear. Some of these athletes also undressed for Newsweek: Lisa Leslie runs in a bikini; teammate Sheryl Swoopes wears some sort of tight white bra and shorts. Whatever happened to action shots? Whatever happened to clothes?

In a recent publication designed to help people assess sexism in the media, the Women’s Sports Foundation recommends we ask ourselves: Does the woman look like an athlete? Is she dressed like an athlete? Does she have all of her appropriate clothes on? Are any significant body parts missing? Is her pose realistic?

5) Offenses of omission

NBC has no plans to cover softball, a new Olympic sport that American women are expected to win. “We’ll do highlights,” says Pietrzak. “Nothing is set in stone.” They will cover bikini - I mean beach - volleyball.

And look for this omission during the Opening Ceremonies: Do announcers explain why dozens of teams are all male? Or why Iran is finally sending its first woman - a shooter? In many Muslim countries, women are forbidden to appear in public dressed in sports attire. The International Olympic Committee, which banned South Africa for apartheid, has taken no action against Iran, Kuwait, Pakistan or other countries for discrimination against women.

Another likely omission: When announcers tell us that about 3,700 women will compete this year - more than ever! - will they explain that every time new events are added for women, new events are added for men as well? Hence women still comprise only 34 percent of all Olympians.

6) Technical fouls

Just 20 percent (13 of 64) of NBC’s broadcaster positions are filled by women.

7) Optional routines

Since sexism is slippery and ever-evolving, I can’t predict all of the ways the Olympic coverage might annoy you. So this is the creative part of this contest: Note whatever else bugs you here.

NBC welcomes input, Pietrzak says. “Four years ago, a huge deal was made about the fact that our analysts would call female basketball players by their first names and male players by their last names. That’s not going to happen again.” NBC has purchased the rights to the next five Olympics. If they don’t get it right this year, they might, with your help, in the future. NBC Sports can be reached by phone (212/664-2333) or write Viewer Services, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112, or email: nbcsportsmsn.com.

Don’t get angry. Get effective. Think of it as part of the game.


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