When John Inverdale made a bit of a gaffe on TV, people were quick to jump down his throats with cries of “Sexist!” Woah there, pickles, says Jen Offord, sexism in sport has much bigger fish to fry.
Andy Murray hit the headlines this week, not just for taking home his second Olympic gold medal, but for the great feminist principles attributed to him in light of his response to a post-match interview by BBC sports presenter, John Inverdale.
Inverdale congratulated Murray on being, “The first person ever to win two Olympic tennis gold medals”. Murray set him straight. He was, he said, the first person to defend the singles title at the Olympics, but “I think Venus and Serena [Williams] have won about four each.”
The press were quick to jump on this; after all, this is not “gaffe-prone” Inverdale’s first rodeo. Reports of Murray’s “slap-down” began to surface. Twitter was set alight by people who had clearly not watched the footage (as is the way of the internet) of a man quite simply correcting a mistake made by another man, who was broadcasting live and had probably misread his production team’s notes. Still, I suppose that’s a less interesting story than a previous offender “forgetting about women.”
Naturally, references were made to Inverdale’s infamous 2013 quip about how the then newly crowned Wimbledon Champion Marion Bartoli was “never going to be a looker”. A comment of epically stupid proportions and undoubtedly sexist. Then there were his “rose-cunted spectacles”, harder to argue as a statement of deliberately sexist intent, though god knows people tried.
“The Rio games have highlighted many issues that perpetuate a world in which women’s sport makes up just seven per cent of all sports coverage in the UK, and where female athletes are awarded less than one per cent of all sports-related endorsements in the UK.”
Was Murray right to correct Inverdale? Yes, otherwise he’d have been taking credit for an achievement that wasn’t his to claim. Was Inverdale’s oversight unprofessional? Yes, it was factually inaccurate. Is it more unfortunate that his comment failed to acknowledge a woman athlete’s achievements? Very much so.
It’s an omission all the more regrettable given the Williams sisters don’t just face being undermined on the grounds that they’re women, but because they are also black. A point that many of those expressing ire over Inverdale’s perceived sexism haven’t been so willing to make, which is pretty alarming in itself.
The ways in which the Williams sisters’ talent and achievements are undermined reveal a much, much wider picture of the issues female athletes face. For example, the rhetoric around Serena Williams’ physique and appearance that goes so much further than rank sexism (note that Maria Sharapova is still able to earn the same amount as 22-time grand slam winner Williams, despite not having competed since March, having been suspended for failing a drugs test).
But there’s been loads of press about Laura Trott’s success, right? Well, yes. But the blanket coverage of Trott’s tremendous achievement in becoming Great Britain’s most-decorated female Olympian has presented a far greater problem than Inverdale’s gaffe.
The fact Trott and her teammate Jason Kenny are a couple is a fluffy human interest story, sure, but it’s secondary or, arguably, irrelevant to her achievements. Yet it’s still been the primary focus of ALL the coverage.
Sexism in women’s sport is there for all to see, lit up on our screens and written in our press every single day. And of course that slip from a leading commentator provides more food for thought. Assuming you don’t believe Inverdale simply misread some notes, it’s indicative of a more insidious problem: if the big dogs don’t take an interest in, or shine a light on, women’s sporting achievements, who will?
The Rio games have highlighted many issues that affect female athletes and perpetuate a world in which women’s sport makes up just seven per cent of all sports coverage in the UK, and where female athletes are awarded less than one per cent of all sports-related endorsements in the UK. ONE per cent.
If we’re to be concerned about sexism in sport and the way women’s sport is reported in the media – and we should be – let’s focus on the furore around Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui bemoaning getting her period during the Olympics; let’s be alarmed by NBC attributing credit for Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszú’s victory to her husband; let us be frankly disgusted by a national newspaper printing a column referring to the Egyptian women’s beach volleyball team as “burqa-clad hags” (thanks Rod Liddle, your exquisitely vile brand of racism and sexism honestly gave me pause for thought over the value of a free press); let us tear our hair out in frustration over lazy and irrelevant features about the “fittest” nudge-nudge wink-wink athletes at Rio or slut-shaming reports of female Olympians “romping”.
There is so much work to be done levelling the playing field between men and women in sport – and in the media in general. Let’s use this platform to be outraged by things adding to the disparity, rather than to beat a bloke up for a mistake.
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Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen