What Female Olympians Really Think About the Rio Games' Sexism Problem
American female athletes outperformed men in Rio. It's a simple fact: Women won 61 medals for the U.S., men won 55.
Swimmer Katie Ledecky and gymnast Simone Biles smashed records and won the adoration of their country, becoming huge stars in the process. But despite their dominance, this year's elite athletes still found themselves compared with men, scrutinized for their appearances, or downright disregarded. Fortunately, this time around, social media made it possible to call out these groan-inducing bits of commentary as they happened — and make it clear that minimizing the incredible accomplishments of Ledecky and Biles — who collected five medals a piece — and other female Olympians was not welcome at these Games.
Simone Biles is not the Michael Phelps of gymnastics; she's the first Simone Biles, remember? We'll never forget.
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Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images
“Everyone compares me to different sports and how successful other people are. But I felt that Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps have just done so much more than me that I can't follow them. I need to be my own self and start my own journey, which I have throughout this Olympic process. So I'm my own Simone Biles.” —Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history with four Olympic gold and one bronze medal, Tide athlete Photo Credit: Getty Images
"I don't feel like we should be comparing men's to women's events. I feel like women are amazing the way that they are without having to compare them to their male counterparts... Not only do I want to encourage girls to keep playing, especially at the Olympic level, but also I want girls to be on the same team. I want us to support each other. Always #LikeAGirl is so supportive of girls and women, especially with females taking the lead on the medal count. I think it's amazing and so deserving." —Alex Morgan, 2012 Olympic gold medalist, Always #LikeAGirl athlete Photo Credit: FIFA via Getty Images
"I know the media hypes up a lot of gender discrepancies, but sport empowers me as a woman and I'm stronger because of it. The media can say whatever they'd like about us, but it doesn't deter us pushing our hardest and giving all that we have in the sport that we love." —Stephanie Fee, first-time Olympian in field hockey, USWNT athlete
"I was competing in gymnastics during a time when graceful athletes dominated the sport. I wasn't built like them nor did I compete like them. My success came from my power and strength and commentators were quick to make comparisons. When my looks weren't being criticized, I was being patronized for being 'cute' and 'pint sized.' It’s these kinds of comments that yielded the biggest impact for me. They may seem like compliments, but they're not. They put doubts in your head, they make you question what everyone’s attention is really on. Luckily, I had a support system around me that empowered me to push through. The negative commentary we’ve seen in recent weeks is dangerous because it normalizes it for present and future readers. Research by Dove found that 6 in 10 girls stop doing something they love, including sports, due to anxiety about the way they look. The impact of this will be felt for years to come so there’s no better time to end it than the present." —Shawn Johnson, 2008 Olympic champion and three-time silver medalist, Dove #MyBeautyMySay campaign advocate Photo Credit: Getty Images
“I think the spotlight on female athletes was pretty strong at the Games. Men have the Super Bowl and NBA finals and all that stuff. This is kind of the big thing for women every four years. So I think it's interesting to see the coverage. For the most part, I think it's been really great, but I've definitely seen some comments, like female athletes should wear more makeup, which is just absurd. I think it's really cool that the performances are really starting to speak for themselves and we're going away from 'Oh this was really good for the girls team.' You're losing that qualification now. Katie Ledecky is an amazing athlete. It's not she's an amazing female swimmer. She's one of the best swimmers in the world right now. It doesn't matter what you look like. It's how you perform and what you do with your sport. I think female athletes are starting to get a ton of respect. To have the support of a company like BMW is great. They support me for my performance and not for my looks. It's because of what I can do in the pool and I think that's really special.” —Maya DiRado, four-time 2016 Olympic medalist, including two golds, in swimming, BMW athlete Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images
"I honestly haven't heard either of those comments. I always look at it as if we do things better than some men, then I think that is something to celebrate. If we are jumping higher and swimming faster, than that's great. Physiologically, the female body is just not made to do things the way men do them, and if we do them better, then I guess men better step up their game." – Christa Harmotto Dietzen, 2016 Olympic bronze medalist and captain of the women's Indoor Volleyball Team Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images
"Team USA, in general, is doing really well at this Olympics. We have the first African-American female swimmer who won gold. You have new moms winning gold. It's really empowering. It's all really encouraging as a female. It inspires me and I hope that it also inspires the younger generation as well." —Gwen Jorgensen, 2016 Olympic champion in triathlon, Oakley and Specialized athlete Photo Credit: ITU via Getty Images
"I don't think [sexism in sports] is getting better or worse. It does pop up every now and again just because there are those thoughts out there and it's not even the majority of America. It's a small percentage who are unenlightened and uneducated. It's those random trolls who [express their compliments] in the wrong way. Obviously, they are impressed with the female athletes at the Olympics and that's just how it comes out. I think female athletes who have the platform to correct those people can teach the next generation how to act and react to strong females everywhere." —April Ross, 2016 Olympic bronze medalist and 2012 Olympic silver medalist in beach volleyball, Aussie athlete Photo Credit: Getty Images
"I really believe we are taking steps forward. When steps are made toward equality, incidences of inequity stand out. In this case, it might be the continuous comparison of female athletes to a male legend or counterpart. When females athletes raise the standard of excellence in a sport, they become the next benchmark. We are seeing female records being broken, and this is pushing the equality barrier. In the next Olympics, the newest, fastest swimmer will be the next Katie Ledecky instead of the female Michael Phelps. These comments are implying excellence, and I am so proud of my fellow female Olympians for setting the measure of greatness for the next generation of female athletes. They are defying their gender odds, and there is no better way to show equality." —Lea Davison, two-time Olympian in mountain biking, Specialized athlete Photo Credit: Getty Images