More women are competing in Rio 2016 than any previous Olympic Games, bringing the games closer than ever to gender parity. But that doesn’t mean sexist stereotypes against female athletes are going to go away.
Take Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu, known as the "Iron Lady." Hosszu shattered a world record Saturday night in the women’s 400-meter individual medley — but when she did, NBC commentator Dan Hicks said that Hosszu’s husband and coach, Shane Tusup, was "responsible" for Hosszu’s success.
The comment was widely criticized on social media.
Wait what did I just watch? Hosszu smashes WR & NBC cuts to husband coach w/ "and there's the person responsible for her performance"?!??— Cameron Esposito (@cameronesposito) August 7, 2016
"There's the man responsible for turning his wife into an entirely new swimmer..." REALLY, NBC?— Charlotte Wilder (@TheWilderThings) August 7, 2016
Hicks defended his comments in response to the criticism, arguing that it’s "impossible" to tell Hosszu’s story without crediting Tusup.
It’s certainly true that Hosszu and Tusup’s unique partnership has been a key part of Hosszu’s incredible turnaround and success. It’s also an intriguing story from the media’s perspective; it’s rare for a husband to coach a wife, and the two have used unconventional training and competing tactics. Then there’s the background drama of Tusup’s notoriously hot temper, and how some observers worry that he might even be abusive.
All of that is relevant. But there’s a big difference between "helped her succeed" and "was responsible for her success." Whatever Tusup’s training did for her, at the end of the day, Hosszu was the one in the pool doing the work to break the record.
Similarly, a Chicago Tribune story about women’s trap shooting bronze medalist Corey Cogdell went viral Monday because a tweet promoting the story didn’t use Cogdell’s name, and only referred to her as the "Wife of a Bears lineman."
Oh Lord, Chicago Trib. She has a NAME. And she's an Olympian. And it's not "wife of Bears' lineman" https://t.co/11Fvy3lS30— Soledad O'Brien (@soledadobrien) August 7, 2016
The full headline on the article page does read "Corey Cogdell, wife of Bears lineman Mitch Unrein, wins bronze in Rio." It’s also understandable that a Chicago newspaper would want to highlight this particular athlete because of the Chicago connection.
But even if that’s the reason an outlet is writing about a woman athlete, it doesn’t take much to recenter the headline on the actual athlete, either on the article page or in the tweet. The headline could say something like, "Bronze-medal winner at Rio Olympics is married to Bears lineman." Or, "Corey Cogdell, bronze-medal winner in Rio, is married to Bears lineman Mitch Unrein."
Sometimes a woman’s husband isn’t at all relevant to her accomplishments or to her newsworthiness. Sometimes he is — and that’s okay. But what’s not okay is to completely erase the woman at the first chance you have to talk about a man instead.
It’s also not okay to "compliment" a woman athlete by comparing her to a man, as some observers have done to Team USA swimmer Katie Ledecky. But NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines showed how to do gender-aware Olympics commentary right after Ledecky broke her own world record in the 400-meter freestyle:
Very much appreciate the commentary on "People say she swims like a man; she doesn't swim like a man, she swims like Katie Ledecky."— Linda Holmes (@nprmonkeysee) August 8, 2016