From French commentators calling Japanese gymnasts “little pikachus” to media systematically crediting male coaches for female athletes’ achievements, the coverage of the 2016 Olympics is accumulating mishaps. Not that it’s anything new.

Once every two years, sport journalists are thrust in a spotlight of epic proportions. Every media tries to make the most of it, scrambling to find a commentator who has the faintest idea about the rules of slalom canoeing. Not only are mistakes bound to happen, but they are bound to be heard by a greater audience than ever.

One of the most disturbing effect of all this live, unfiltered, commentary are some shockingly racist comments appearing on national television. France Télévisions’ Thomas Bouhail kept comparing Japanese gymnasts to pokemons and mangas. CBC’s Byron MacDonald had to apologize after saying a Chinese swimmer “died like a pig.”

The lack of technical knowledge is forgivable. As a gymnastics fan, hearing nonsense like “piked salto with straddled legs” about a bar release certainly makes me wince, but I have to appreciate the challenge of commenting on sports – especially ones you only have a passable knowledge of – in real time.

What I take offence to is commentators who palliate their lack of knowledge with relentless remarks about every competitor’s age, appearance or nationality that are redundant, irrelevant and bordering on prejudice.

Take young Chinese gymnast Wan Yang. She was wonderfully consistent in Rio, qualified for two of the four event finals and came sixth all-around. Listening to Radio-Canada’s announcers, though, you would think that the most interesting thing about her is that she is 4’6″.

I swear more than half of their commentary about Chinese women’s gymnastics was an extended exercise in variations of the terms small or tiny. The rest of it was mostly preconceived notions about what China was good or bad at with little regard to what was actually happening at the moment.

I particularly resent one commentator discoursing on the lack of artistic delivery, amplitude and good connections in Chinese floor while Yang delivered a brilliant performance that presented none of these problems. The same commentator, in a remarkable impression of a well-meaning but obnoxious uncle, exclaimed that Yang “looks 12 or 13, ahahahah.”

Radio-Canada is not a lone sinner. It’s amazing how much of the coverage of women’s artistic gymnastics is still a long-exhausted running commentary on how young and tiny gymnasts are.

Not only is it annoying and besides the point, it’s deeply rooted in racial and gender bias.

How often have you heard about the height of male gymnasts, this year (yes, male gymnasts too are notably short)? Which brings us to Olympic coverage’s other most enraging aspect:

Ubiquitous Sexism

The world of sport journalism is very unwelcoming to women, be they athletes or journalists.

Has this issue been explored before?

Multiple times.

Do we need to keep talking about it?

Well, let’s take a look at a couple of things that actually happened in the last two weeks:

dempsey pretty penny

  • Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak breaks an Olympic record and wins four medals: Toronto Sun’s cover gives her the nickname “Pretty Penny.”
  • American Corey Cogdell wins a bronze medal in trapshooting (her second one in three Olympics): Chicago Tribune refers to her as “wife of a Bears’ lineman” in a tweet, omitting her name.
  • Majlinda Kelmendi wins the first Olympic medal for Kosovo, in 52Kg Judo: A BBC commentator calls the final a catfight.
  • Women’s rugby sevens make their debut at the Olympics: France TV’s commentary includes a consultant calling the French players “little darlings” and saying they are cuter and more feminine than the Americans.

I recommend you devote four minutes of your time to have a look at this spot from Vox’s Wide World of Sexism (I promise you it’s worth it).

Why are Olympic commentators so bad at commenting on women’s sports? Probably because they never do it.

A Canadian study published this year highlighted how little attention women’s sports usually get. In 2014, National newspapers only devoted 5,1% of their sports coverage to women’s sports. National sports channels had similar performances.

This is despite the fact that Canadian female athletes have excelled more than ever on the international scene in the past couple of years. As of this morning, women have won 14 of Canada’s 18 medals in Rio. Nonetheless, according to the same study, 99,5% of sponsorship sums are still awarded to male athletes.

Female athletes who actually make it to the news don’t have it that much easier. Another recent study by Cambridge University Press analyzed 20 years and seven billion words of media coverage of male and female athletes.  They found striking differences in the vocabulary used to describe them.

Male athletes were found to be often described with words like strong, fastest or great. Words often associated with their female counterparts included married, unmarried and pregnant.

Women in sports were likely to be referred to as ladies or girls, whereas the terms boys and gentlemen were rarely used.

The researchers also observed a particularity in the usage of the word women. We talk about Women’s football, women’s golf, women’s cycling. But we never see men’s football or men’s golf, do we? Usain Bolt won the 100 meter dash. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won the women’s 100 meter dash.

BBC’s John Inverdale gave a prime example of the mentality this is linked to when he asked Andy Murray how it felt to be the first person ever to win two Olympic golds in tennis. Because Serena and Venus Williams won about four each… in Women’s tennis.

Women are a huge part of sports. They should be a huge part of the coverage of sports too.

*Featured image from the Nirvana News Youtube Channel

The Montreal Alouettes have gotten accustomed to making headlines with major signings, like last year’s arrival of Chad Johnson and Duron Carter. This year the Als are making headlines for another reason: they’ve signed the first openly gay professional football player, Michael Sam.

The CFL has become a breeding ground for some of the best, most intuitive defensive players, à la Cameron Wake. Up here defenses have to step it up in to cover the large backfield, and for defensive ends this usually means the increased difficulty of coverage develops them into solid NFL players.

So it is no surprise that after exhausting all options, Michael Sam is giving the Canadian game a shot. If Sam plays well here, he could have a real chance at getting back into the NFL. That would make him the first openly gay athlete playing in one of the big four (MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA).

Of course this will really depend on whether are not Sam plays with heart in the CFL. It is expected that he will.

Memories of Jackie Robinson

The Alouettes’ signing of Michael Sam continues the story of Montreal being a gateway to acceptance in pro sports. Our great city, it seems, has always been at the forefront of breaking barriers.

jackie-robinson-montreal
Jackie Robinson of the Montreal Royals

Everyone knows the story of Jackie Robinson, who played for the Montreal Royals in 1947,  and who would become the first African American to play in the baseball in the National League. Both Jack Todd of the Montreal Gazette and Michael Farber of TSN brought up the city’s history when talking about Sam this week.

Is Michael Sam the new Jackie Robinson?  Well, yes and no.

While Michael Sam has faced adversity due to his sexual orientation just as Jackie did due to race, a few of the commenters on Michael Farber’s post called it an unfair comparison, arguing Jackie Robinson had a much better skill set. While that may be true—symbolically it’s similar because it is the first gesture, the first opening of real acceptance.

Montreal Helps Break Barriers that Need to be Broken

To realize its importance all you have to do is think of the about all the men and woman that play sport and have to keep their identities secret. They might have the talent to play hockey, soccer or football but are too afraid to pursue their career because of how their orientation may be viewed by fans and teammates.

Shouldn’t sport represent the public. A portion of our population is gay, yet how is it we know of no current professional athletes playing team sports who are? Obviously it is not really possible to continue this culture of secrecy in sport, because now we know so much about the personal lives for sports celebrities in the internet age.

We don’t ask heterosexual players keep their lives secret, why do we do so for athletes who are members of the LGBT community?

Hiring and playing the first openly gay professional football player not only adds to Montreal’s reputation as a gay-friendly city, it also shows the kind of reception we give to  high calibre athletes regardless of colour, creed or sexual orientation.

As for Michael, he chose the right place to play. He just wants to keep this signing in perspective: “I’m just trying to help the team win some games so we can bring the Grey Cup back home,” said Sam speaking at an Alouettes press conference on Tuesday.

For now, while he might be breaking barriers, Michael Sam just wants to be seen as a regular football player. Just as Jackie Robinson wanted to be seen as a regular baseball player, and did so in Montreal, so many years ago.