World records? Olympic medals? History?
Bah to all of it, apparently.
What’s really important, in this throwback summer of 2016, isn’t the female athlete’s achievements. It’s who her husband is and what he’s accomplished, not who she is and what she’s accomplished.
On Saturday, Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hossz shattered a world record in the 400 individual medley and the NBC commentators couldn’t get enough – of her husband.
Her race was split-screened with Shane Tusup’s reaction, the analysts pointed him out as “the man responsible” for her athletic turnaround. Tusup is her husband and her coach, the male analysts explained, though they somehow failed to mention that some swimmers have observed him being verbally abusive toward her.
It’s fine for an athlete to credit her coach for the progress she’s made in the pool in her post-victory interview. It’s another thing entirely for some pool-side observer to blithely attribute her hard-won success to her husband. She’s the one who swam the race, not him.
In case you’re tempted to call that a fluke, let’s look at how the Chicago Tribune wrote about Corey Cogdell-Unrein, its hometown Olympic star:
“Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics,” the newspaper tweeted Sunday.
Not even her name. Or her event. Or the fact that it was Cogdell-Unrein’s second Olympic medal in trap shooting, in her third Olympic Games. The most newsworthy part: She’s married to NFL lineman Mitch Unrein.
The Trib got called out on the sexism, and not just by angry women’s studies majors.
“In other news, husband of Olympic medalist Corey Cogdell can’t seem to win a Super Bowl,” tweeted Scott Johnson.
“Bill Clinton Back in White House. Brings Wife,” tweeted another outraged man.
To its credit, the Tribune tried to make amends by tweeting the story a second time without a reference to Cogdell-Unrein’s husband. But it remained in the story’s headline and first sentence. And in the fifth paragraph about her win, Tribune sportswriter Tim Bannon also mentioned her husband’s work schedule: “The Bears open their preseason schedule Thursday against the Broncos at Soldier Field.”
Hmm. I wonder if all of the work schedules of all the spouses were mentioned in other Olympic win stories.
In case you want to call this an aberration too, let’s see what happened when history was made a little more than a week ago in Philadelphia.
The day after Hillary Clinton officially become the first major-party female presidential nominee in American history, her husband was on the front page of some of the nation’s most prestigious publications, including The Washington Post’s.
Yes, her husband is fascinating, and he did speak to the Democratic National Convention. But it was not his night.
In 2016, we still have a gender gap that goes way beyond pay. Ambitious, successful women still navigate a world where men dominate and are considered the norm. A man who is successful at work and has a family is never described as “having it all,” but a woman who pursues both is still viewed as unusual.
Olympic men are rarely described as fathers, while female athletes who have children – think gold medal swimmer Dana Vollmer or beach volleyball goddess Kerri Walsh Jennings – are always portrayed through that lens.
This was the conclusion of a Cambridge University Press study this year, where researchers mined sports articles and sorted through millions of words to find patterns in the way men and women are written about as athletes.
“Notable terms that cropped up as common word associations or combinations for women, but not men, in sport include ‘aged,’ ‘older,’ ‘pregnant,’ and ‘married’ or ‘un-married,’ ”according to the Cambridge folks.
“The top word combinations for men in sport, by contrast, are more likely to be adjectives like ‘fastest,’ ‘strong,’ ‘big,’ ‘real,’ and ‘great,’ ” they said.
The analysts found that when athletic performance is described, men are accorded words like “mastermind,” “beat,” “win,” “dominate” and “battle.”
But articles on female athletes are more likely to have words like “compete,” “participate” and “strive.”
So far, the sexism of this year’s Olympic coverage hasn’t even been that subtle.
An NBC commentator, describing the members of the powerhouse U.S. women’s gymnastics team, said, “They might as well be standing around at the mall.”
This Olympics should be the summer of women. More women are participating in the games than ever before – 45 percent of the athletes are female. On the American team, the 292 women make up just over half the team and will likely end up dominating the medal count at the end of these games.
But that doesn’t mean they will be treated equally.
It was just a year ago that American women won the World Cup in soccer and were still compensated far differently – financially and emotionally – than their male counterparts, who were knocked out in round 16 of their World Cup competition. The women, who are paid far less than the men, filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission this spring.
Rio 2016 is already showcasing how far women athletes have come. But it is also reminding how far we have to go to acknowledge what they are achieving all by themselves.
Petula Dvorak is a Washington Post columnist.