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Olympics coverage and commentary managed to offend, annoy, and alienate almost everyone

Rio 2016 didn’t create racism, sexism, and homophobia — it just gave them a two-week platform.

Katinka Hosszu of Hungary reacts after competing in the Women's 200m Backstroke Final on Day 7 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

The games of the XXXI Olympiad are just about over. The two-week event featured amazing athletic feats, spectacular shows of teamwork, touching personal narratives, and inspiring examples of hard work paying off.

But with a diverse slate of 11,000 athletes, wall-to-wall coverage, live commentary, and the often jarring peek into the mind of viewers around the world that social media offers, another Rio 2016 theme surfaced, too: The event was tainted by a seemingly constant stream of examples of the ways in which race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and even body types shape how people are treated, who’s celebrated, and who’s scorned.

Comments and content that reflected subtle slights, double standards, or stereotypes struck nerves from observers on a near-daily basis. They certainly weren’t all mean-spirited or blatantly hateful — but they echoed very real problems with gender, race, class, and sexuality that exist every day outside the Olympic Village.

White men heralded over others who excel

On August 14, the Bryan-College Station Eagle newspaper focused its headline on swimming on Michael Phelps’s tie for a silver medal over Katie Ledecky’s world record–breaking race.

Keep in mind that that, as Vox’s Emily Crockett pointed out, “Not only did Ledecky set a new world record in the women’s 800-meter freestyle, she also became the first Olympian to win gold in the 200-, 400-, and 800-meter freestyle races since Debbie Meyer in 1968.” Readers quickly noticed that her historic achievements appeared to be, inexplicably, minimized while Phelps’s win was highlighted.

“It seemed to be the perfect encapsulation of exactly how the coverage of this year’s games is going when it comes to women — and the way women are treated in society more generally,” Crockett wrote. Suggested explanations about “news judgment” and the ways in which wire pieces are pasted together don’t fix that, she added. After all, “fighting sexism is about recognizing and correcting disparate impacts on women, not just trying to judge whether a particular person or entity has sexist intentions.”

This wasn’t the only time a woman’s achievements were framed by a news outlet as less relevant than Phelps’s. California’s San Jose Mercury News chose the headline “Olympics: Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American,” (no name, just “African-American!”) to describe the evening when both Phelps and Simone Manuel won gold medals, with Manuel’s tie in the women’s 100m freestyle making her the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming gold.

The “news judgment” excuse didn’t hold up here, either. Manuel is a member of Stanford University’s swim team, which links her to the San Jose area and made her victory a legitimate local story.

After readers pointed out that the phrasing completely diminished Manuel’s achievement and disregarded her individual identity aside from her race, the paper issued an apology and made a change. The new version reads “Olympics: Stanford’s Simone Manuel and Michael Phelps make history.”

Criticism highlighted the double standards and stereotypes black women face...

Phelps also provided the point of comparison to the harsh reaction to African-American gymnast Gabby Douglas’s conduct during the medal ceremony for the women’s team all-around. Douglas didn’t place her hand on her heart during the National Anthem.

After being called “unpatriotic” and “un-American,” by Twitter users and columnists alike, who wondered whether her stance was a protest of some sort (a few people jumped immediately to assume Black Lives Matter was her chosen cause, although there was zero indication of this, outside of her skin color), Douglas used social media to issue an apology and reassert her support for the country.

Meanwhile, as the Guardian’s David Schilling noted, Phelps laughed as the National Anthem played during his medal ceremony for the 200-meter butterfly, and the white male swimmer’s patriotism wasn’t scrutinized in anywhere near the same way as Douglas’s was. “It's a clear double standard that folks are criticizing Douglas, a tremendous athlete, for simply standing respectfully, while Phelps' flub is only considered adorable,” Bustle’s Casey Cipriani wrote.

It doesn’t take much imagination to connect that disparity to the ways in which black women are subject to disproportionately harsh criticism in everyday life. Just one example: the 2015 research by the African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School's Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies of the toll harsh disciplinary policies and zero tolerance policies take on school-age black girls:

[Researchers] found that suspension rates for black girls when compared to white girls were even higher than those of black boys versus white boys. While black boys are suspended three times more than white boys — a pretty shocking disparity — black girls are suspended a staggering six times more than white girls.)

So it’s no surprise that Phelps explained why he was laughing during the National Anthem, but didn’t feel he had to say he was sorry.

...black women who, by the way, are not all the same person

The Philadelphia Daily News used a photo of Biles in a column about Gabby Douglas, after someone on staff confused the two African-American gymnasts. It was almost surely an innocent mistake, and the columnist who wrote the accompanying piece (which was all about how Douglas overcame the vitriol aimed at her), though she wasn’t responsible for the mix-up, said she was “mortified.”

Still, it was a reminder of the dearth of women of color in gymnastics (despite this year’s norm-defying racially diverse Olympic team) and of the confusion that can result in the split second when we tend to read people of other racial different ethnic backgrounds as members of their racial group first, and individuals second.

A commentator went out of his way to show his disregard for the legitimacy of adoption

In the first days of the Olympics, NBC gymnastics commentator Al Trautwig took to Twitter to insist that Simone Biles’s parents — her biological grandparents, who adopted her when she was a young child and whom she calls “Mom” and “Dad,” were “NOT” her parents.

Trautwig later apologized, but not before thoroughly and unnecessarily offending other adoptees who consider their parents, well, their parents.

Cringeworthy racist stereotypes resurfaced when Ellen DeGeneres used Usain Bolt as ... a horse?

This image, shared by comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres after Usain Bolt’s incredible performance in the Men’s 100m race, hit a lot of people wrong, and an oversimplified summary of the resulting debate followed. It basically went like this: “Is Ellen racist? She says she’s not!”

That missed the point. Does DeGeneres have a problem with black people? Highly doubtful. Was her intent to celebrate Bolt’s win and the viral photo that accompanied it and get a few laughs? Almost certainly. Would she have photoshopped herself onto the back of a white athlete as a form of transportation? Quite possibly. Would it have activated the sensitivities that come with a painful history of dehumanization and animal comparisons? Not at all. (Read the Washington Post’s Stacia Brown’s 2015 piece, “The Ugly History of Comparing Black People to Animals, for additional context).

Did it fit into a pattern of imagery that reinforces old stereotypes about black people that are bigger and more complicated than DeGeneres, Bolt, or the Olympics? Yes, it did.

Breathless coverage of proposals sent the message that marriage beats medals

Chinese diver Qin Kai proposes to silver medalist He Zi of China on the podium during the medal ceremony for the women's diving 3m springboard final on day 9 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Clive Rose/Getty Images

As Chinese diver He Zi stood on the podium with her silver member in the 3-meter springboard competition, her boyfriend, also an Olympic diver, got on one knee and pulled out an engagement ring.

She gave a thumbs up, despite appearing shocked and not that happy, prompting some Olympic fans to wonder why Qin Kai hadn’t interrupted his own medal ceremony instead.

That was just the first of a total of five Rio 2016 marriage proposals. While everyone is happy for the couples and their commitment to each other, the flurry of media coverage (CBS ranked the proposals; reporters received pitches pegged to potential wedding plans; Jezebel noted that the BBC called the engagement “an even bigger prize” for He than her medal) has highlighted a depressing widespread cultural belief: that marriage is the highest possible achievement for a woman, Olympian or not.

Fans made it their business to scrutinize the amount of fat on athletes’ bodies

Ethiopian swimmer Robel Kiros Habte, 24, hadn’t even hit the water when Olympic fans started talking about his body, with incredulous comments about how he could possibly be competing at his size.

Mexican gymnast Alexa Moreno — who happens to weigh only 99 pounds — got even worse treatment. WetPaint quoted one representative tweet, which was translated to: “Alexa Moreno has the body of two gymnasts together, a diet before going to the Olympics would have been good.” Others used images of a pig to mock her physique.

Taken together, the reactions are a reminder of the entirely irrational hate people can face because of the size of their bodies — and that the size-based scrutiny non-Olympians deal with isn’t about health at all, as much as fat shamers like to pretend that it is.

Gay athletes were mocked and potentially outed for entertainment

Vox’s German Lopez wrote about a now-removed Daily Beast story in which a writer reported on how athletes were using dating apps to hook up in the Olympic Village. While the piece didn’t name any athletes, it did leave hints as to the athletes’ identities via physical features, potentially outing gay athletes who could be endangered for being outed in their home countries.

Lopez wrote:

This is, quite frankly, dangerous. Many people use dating apps explicitly to hook up without having to reveal their names or faces in the public — something, say, a gay club or bar would expose.

That a straight Daily Beast writer directly violated this basic expectation of anonymity puts these athletes at risk. This may be unimaginable to those who don’t know what homosexuality around the world looks like. But remember, some of these athletes are from countries where homosexuality is still very socially stigmatized, illegal, or even punished by death. If any of these people are exposed, it could ruin their careers or even put them in prison or worse.

Daily Beast editors apologized, but not before readers got a reminder of how being LGBTQ can be a source of fascination and mockery that, when combined with thoughtlessness, can also be dangerous.

“Bikini vs. Burka” headlines showed almost anything elicits more interest than women’s athleticism

We get it. Some women Olympians wore much less clothing than others. Some Muslim women Olympians wore modest attire that aligned with their religious beliefs. It created an interesting visual contrast when the heavily clothed and not-so-clothed competed with each other, but it wasn’t worthy of headlines.

Writing for Vox, Shireen Ahmet pointed out that BBC Africa’s “Rio 2016: Bikini vs Burka” headline on this topic was inaccurate, anyway: Volleyball player Doaa Elghobashy was, in fact, not wearing a burqa but a hijab. Plus, it entirely missed the point of why the athletes were at the game, Ahmed wrote:

To constantly emphasize what she’s wearing and not her athletic skill is tiresome. This is especially important to note since sports media seldom pays attention to women athletes in general and specifically leaves out other challenges of Muslim women in sports, including rules against hijab in sport or recreation or stadiums that ban women.

It would seem that mainstream media will only speak of Muslim women athletes if it can serve up stereotypical tropes. But Muslim women have competed at the Olympic Games for decades. Why is it only notable when they wear a hijab, or if they’re not dressed just like everyone else?

A Hungarian swimmer’s success was attributed to her husband

Hungarian swimmer Katinka “Iron Lady” Hosszú broke the world record in the 400-meter individual medley early during the games. But her husband, who coaches her, got the credit as “the man responsible for turning his wife into an entirely new swimmer,” prompting the Twittersphere to erupt at the apparent sexism behind the idea that a man on the sidelines, not the woman in the pool, was responsible for her victory.

Again, it’s not so much that this statement itself was devastating. It just distracted from the moment by reminding everyone that the win occurred in a world where it’s easy to conclude that men often get credit that belongs to women — and not just in the pool.

What explains this?

Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff places blames for slights like the one about Simone Biles’s parents and the odd focus on women athletes’ husbands on NBC’s “outdated way of thinking about the games” as entertainment, with preselected narratives:

Without any competition, the network continues to fall back on the same tired storylines about men who are gritty competitors and women who manage to fill some traditionally feminine role in addition to being athletes (when it’s not suggesting their husbands are responsible for their success, that is).

NBC continues to value American success stories over almost anything else (to the degree that not a second of the men’s gymnastics team finals aired in primetime, since the US didn’t medal). Frequently, the only non-Americans we see compete in events like gymnastics are those who have direct bearing on NBC’s US-centric narrative.

And the network continues, above all else, to suggest that the Olympic stories that matter most are the ones that offer up a wholesome, usually white face of Middle America — even when reality gets in the way.

When it comes to sexist statements and narratives in particular, there’s also the fact that Americans are unpracticed when it comes to seeing female athletes on the same stage and in the same spotlight as their male counterparts. Vox’s Michelle Garcia points out:

Women are barely ever shown competing in sports on primetime television. Aside from the Women’s World Cup (and when those matches are broadcast, due to the host country’s time zone difference), the rare WNBA game, high-profile tennis, and a few March Madness matchups, the Olympics pack in the most female athleticism on our television screens, during highly coveted primetime spots. And they only come every two years between Winter and Summer Games.

Add to this the fact that the on-air commentary is often delivered as the events are underway. Headlines are written under tight deadlines as events are won and medals awarded, making it even less likely that journalists will take the opportunity to be especially thoughtful, or take time to question the biases that may be informing the way they frame a story, or ask their colleagues who represent various marginalized identity groups to review their work to control for potential blind spots.

Social media, of course, gives an honest look at what people who have no obligation to create the appearance of objectivity or fairness think. It’s a decent yardstick for a cultural consensus unfiltered by reporters. While a newspaper might take care not to treat Gabby Douglas more harshly than Michael Phelps, the average person with a Twitter account lets us know, for better or worse, whose behavior bothers them and whose doesn’t.

David Leonard, a professor in the department of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University, told Vox he agreed that sexist microaggressions, racial stereotypes, and more were on full display during Rio 2016. “The amount of coverage afforded to the Olympics, the number of people watching, and the power of social media has contributed to the visibility of these entrenched ideologies, stereotypes, and narratives,” he said. In other words, the event didn’t cause any of these problems: it just gave them an enormous two-week platform.

Sexist coverage steals the show at 2016 Olympics