Rebranding Female Athletes

Now international athletes are also global brands, Flavia Williams says it’s time to rethink the way the media – and the rest of us – think about gender in sport.

The Rio Olympics have not failed to provide expectant viewers with the predictable stream of sexist commentary.  Female athletics is riddled with a rhetoric that is nowhere to be seen in male athletics. We’ve heard that women’s judo is a “catfight”, a five-time Olympic medallist is the “female Michael Phelps”, and that a women’s gymnastics team “might as well be standing around at a mall”.  So we’re being told …

Sporting characters and spectators alike are putting up a wall of opposition to the bombardment of sexist comments. Andy Murray had to remind John Inverdale that female athletes exist (notably the surely unforgettable Venus and Serena Williams) after the BBC broadcaster wrongly credited him with becoming the first tennis Olympian to win two gold medals. Murray received huge online support with JK Rowling writing “As if we needed more reasons to worship @andy_murray: he just reminded John Inverdale that women are people, too.” However, we shouldn’t be in a position where we worship someone who counters sexist remarks, we should be in a position where those remarks are not made in the first place.

The reality is that the image of the sporty woman is continuously being displaced by language that wittingly or unwittingly misreads her success. A study of media coverage shows that athletic men are frequently described as ‘strong’, ‘big’ and ‘real’ whilst  women are ‘aged’, ‘pregnant’, ‘married’ or ‘un-married’. Such language translates the female athlete into something other than an athlete and blots out the fact that Katinka Hosszu broke a world record, not her husband.

We need to reconnect the rhetoric and reality of female athletics, a feat too large for a few high-profile individuals to pull off. Brand campaigns such as Procter & Gamble’s #LikeAGirl, Adidas’s ‘I’m Here To Create’ and Sports England’s ‘This Girl Can’ are all paving the way towards recognising women for the athletes they are. They normalise the relationship between women and sports and celebrate the successful sportswomen.

Every move against sexism is a move in the right direction, but the hashtag #CoverTheAthlete may have uncovered the simplest route. The hashtag was born before the Games when commentator Ian Cohen told the Canadian tennis player Eugenie Bouchard to “give us a twirl and tell us about your outfit.” Since this unacceptable, but sadly not unusual, comment the initiative has picked up pace in outing the media’s focus on female athletes’ personal lives, looks and links with men rather than their, well, athleticism.

The #CoverTheAthlete campaign video foregrounds the disparity in the language the media uses towards male and female athletes. Top male athletes are asked “Removing your body hair gives you an edge in the pool, how about your love life?” and praised for having “the kind of body the national judges love.” The conceptual simplicity of directing the same language at a different gender has the desired jarring effect. It is a potent reminder that sometimes the best counter rhetoric uses the original rhetoric to reject it. Use their own words against them and all that.

So, bring the sexist comments out of context and their absurdity is exposed. But what about the fact that the comments are themselves out of context in the first place? Debating long and hard about athletes wearing make-up or not (yes that actually happened), about a style of leotard not doing a gymnast any favours (yes that too), or celebrating a marriage proposal over a medal (you guessed it) is absurd. It is absurd to have a primary focus on anything but the athleticism of female athletes at athletics events in athletics commentary … yes that was a mouthful but #CoverTheAthlete have demonstrated that stating the obvious works.