RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — American Olympians were making a case that this was supposed to be the Year of the Woman.
Team USA brought the biggest women’s contingent in Olympic history, a group 292 strong that is piling up a heap of gold in events including women’s gymnastics, swimming and cycling — with more likely to come.
Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the only American to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab. And the women’s soccer team arrived at the games in pursuit of gold after a yearlong fight to be paid the same as their male counterparts.
But audiences aren’t feeling a golden glow watching the accomplishments. Instead, they’re feeling defensive and taking to social media to slam what they perceive as sexist portrayals of some of the world’s greatest athletes.
Some examples so far:
• When gay beach volleyball player Larissa Franca embraced her spouse after a match, NBC Sports broadcaster Chris Marlowe referred to her as her “husband,” not wife.
• Corey Cogdell-Unrein won a bronze medal in trapshooting — the second bronze of her career — and a tweet from the Chicago Tribune promoted her success in a headline as “Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.” She is married to Chicago Bears defensive end Mitch Unrein.
• When Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszú set a world record in winning the gold medal in the 400-meter individual medley, NBC play-by-play announcer Dan Hicks noted her coach/husband Shane Tusup in the crowd and said: “There’s the guy responsible for turning Katinka Hosszú, his wife, into a whole different swimmer.”
• The editor of an Italian newspaper was fired over the headline “The Chubby Trio Just Misses Out On An Olympic Miracle” after the country’s women’s archery team finished fourth.
• As three-time world champion Simone Biles performed on the uneven bars, NBC commentator Jim Watson said: “I think she might even go higher than some of the men.” And as the team chatted during preliminaries, he said they “might as well be standing around at a mall.”
Each comment is pounced upon as a dig against women, that they aren’t as athletic — important? — as men, but that tone was set long before the games even opened. When NBC executive John Miller discussed tape-delayed broadcasts for the U.S. audience back in July, he argued that the core female audience isn’t invested in the results.
“The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans,” Miller said last month. “More women watch the games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.”
NBC executives said on a Thursday conference call that 55 percent of its 18-and-over viewers for the Rio Olympics are women. Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports Group, was aware of the criticism concerning sexism in its coverage and said gymnastics announcer Al Trautwig had addressed comments he made regarding Biles’ adoption.
“Of course we’re sensitive if people feel we’re not being proper to certain groups,” Lazarus said. “In most of these cases, they’ve been addressed very quickly by the talent themselves. In one particular case, we addressed with the talent that we felt the comments that (Trautwig) put on Twitter and not on the air were insensitive and he addressed that. We of course want to make sure that we’re being inclusive and open to all groups.”
Still, female viewers have been angered at the way women have been portrayed and have been relentless in pouncing on every perceived slight. It’s impossible to know why its striking such a nerve now, but it could be that disgruntled viewers have been offended before, only now have multiple social platforms to talk about it.
“Social media and the internet have democratized communications globally. Everyone has a voice, no one needs a publisher,” said Dennis Deninger, author of “Sports on Television: The How and Why Behind What You See.”
Deninger, who teaches sports media courses at Syracuse University, believes NBC has put tremendous effort into its telecasts and selected its top talent for its coverage. But he noted a lack of female broadcasters at the venues, with the majority assigned to analysis or sideline roes.
Andrea Joyce is the only female play-by-play announcer for NBC Sports, which has her assigned to rhythmic gymnastics. The network lists more than a dozen female analysts on its roster, most on less visible sports such as handball, shooting, water polo and field hockey.
“Even for all the women’s events, the first analysis voice you hear is a male. When the message is delivered by a woman, that’s a powerful moment for women’s sports,” Deninger said.
He also noted that many of the hot button topics could have been avoided through simple journalistic rules.
“Some of the comments that have hit some nerves, all you need to do is go back to the basics and attribute,” he said. “If Dan Hicks had quoted Hosszú and said she credited her husband for her success, then you are being a reporter.”
The U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team is used to it. While the men are celebrated for blowing out opponents, big victories by the women usually lead to questions about whether or not the big margins are bad for the game.
“We’re never going to apologize for being that good,” said Geno Auriemma, coach of the women’s team.
“These are Olympians. They’re supposed to play at a high level. They’re professionals, they’re supposed to put on a show. They’re supposed to entertain you.”
Diana Taurasi, who broke the U.S. Olympic record Wednesday with six 3-pointers, wondered why the men’s team is never questioned about the negatives of being so dominant.
“I don’t know how to answer it anymore,” she said. “It’s a bit disrespectful, I would say. It’s the world we live in.”