In times of change, progress is a mixed bag

The world is in the midst of massive change, so it is no surprise that evidence of such would be found at this summer’s Olympic Games. And as usual with growth, progress seems like a one-step-forward-one-step-back tango.

On the one hand you see growing acceptance of female athletes, as Brazil is celebrating its judo star, Rafaela Silva, and its soccer phenom, Marta Vieira da Silva.

There is also more diversity in the Olympics, with athletes of all nationalities in every sport. The most visible examples of this change might be withgymnast Simone Biles and swimmer Simone Manuel, who each grabbed gold in traditionally white sports.

Then you have the bad side.

Global media coverage of female athletes still includes a lot of sexist remarks this year:

But then South Korea got in the game. The English-language Korea Times ran a story speculating on the love life of 6-foot-3 Kim Yeon-goung, headlined: “Boyfriend a tall order for 192cm South Korean volleyball star.”

Kim, 28, led her team to victory in its first match, over rival Japan, and plays professionally in Turkey. The newspaper reporter claimed Kim was “looking for a boyfriend,” but was unlikely to find a South Korean man willing to date such a giant. “Regrettably, it would be better for her to look for a boyfriend somewhere outside the country,” the reporter concluded.

Other cringe-worthy comments have followed. While watching a women’s weightlifting event, a TV announcer from South Korea’s Munhwa Broadcasting remarked, with a tone of awe, “It’s amazing to see women, not men, do this.” An announcer from SBS, another South Korean TV network, remarked that one Vietnamese judoka, at 28, was “old, for a woman.”

The number of comments has ballooned to the point where South Koreans have launched a Google Docs spreadsheet to catalog the latest remarks…….

The drumbeat of awkward and insulting commentary this week prompted journalist Lindy West to pen a column for the Guardian, titled, “How to talk about female Olympians without being a regressive creep – a handy guide.”

Don’t, she advised, “spend more time discussing female athletes’ makeup, hairdos, very small shorts, hijabs, bitchy resting faces, voice pitch, thigh circumference, marital status and age than you spend analyzing the incredible feats of strength and skill they have honed over a lifetime of superhuman discipline and restraint.”

And don’t, she added, refer to women in terms of men they know, are related to, work with or have sex with. “Women are fully-formed, autonomous people who do things,” she said. “We are not pets or gadgets or sex-baubles.”

Do, she advised, write about female athletes “the way you write about male athletes – i.e. without mentioning their gender except maybe in the name of the sport.”

“Can you imagine if we brought up gender every time we wrote about men?” she asked. “‘Perky male point guard Isaiah Thomas, stepping out in a flattering terrycloth headwrap, proves that men really can play ball and look cool-summery-sexy doing it!’ See how unbearable that sounds?”

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I’ve been watching the Olympics pretty much non-stop, and I’ve heard it too.

During yesterday’s track and field coverage, announcers repeatedly called the heptathletes “girls,” and the sprinters “ladies,” while male competitors were always referred to as men.

Today the man narrating men’s gymnastics coverage said one of the top performers had revealed to him his two role models. He said “these two guys” like he was talking about two men, but the second role model was gold medalist Simone Biles. The announcer seemed surprised.

“He said it was because she’s so aggressive,” the emcee said, incredulity in his voice.

With change, it seems many people are grappling with how to view female athletes. For longtime fans, it’s a no-brainer, but for others, they don’t understand that it’s more than possible to be strong, fierce, pretty, aggressive, kind and tough at the same time. They don’t get that as a woman can bring a human being into the world, so can she run a marathon, dunk a basketball, throw someone in judo, or clean and snatch 250 pounds.

Old ideas and stereotypes die hard, unfortunately. But on the bright side, this year people are getting on media for out-of-line comments, and are thus changing the conversation and the coverage.

Two sports where women and men are regarded pretty much equally are track and field and swimming. Wins and world records are wildly celebrated in both sports, regardless of the gender of the athlete. Traditionally male sports and team sports, on the other hand, have a way to go.

If fans keep advocating, making noise about wrongs and educating when possible, someday we will see some love for women’s basketball. Change is here, but we’ve got to keep pushing.

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