Sexist advertising of Olympic proportions

// 13 April 2012

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A photograph of Christine Ohuruogu, who won a gold medal for Britain in the women's 400m at the Beijing OlympicsBritain’s hosting the Olympics this year! Had you noticed?

If not, I can only imagine you don’t read newspapers, watch television, go to the cinema, and that you close your eyes every time you pass a billboard. The sponsors of the upcoming Olympics are apparently limitless, and all of our visual media have been flooded by sports-related advertising. This was kicked off a few months ago by The Sun, whose advertisement showed us a range of people from all walks of life running in an Olympics-style race, while Nigel Havers reads their paper on the beach. Of course, I say “people from all walks of life”, because this is what I imagine The Sun think they’re portraying. In fact what’s shown in the advert is that Men have Important Jobs, while Women are Mums, Children or Fun Runners in Hen Night Gear.

This advert was closely followed by others. Stand out ones in my mind are from Visa, BMW and BT Infinity. Seen these adverts? Noticed anything about them? Let me give you a clue. Women don’t do sport.

Watch any Olympics-related advertisement. Women don’t do sport. Although Panasonic just reminded me, women can do gymnastics. We’re quite good at springing about looking pretty, with nary a pubic hair out of place. Just not the other sports – the running and jumping and swimming and cycling and shooting, and all those other terribly exerting sports. We don’t want our women doing those. They might hurt themselves. Or look a bit sweaty.

Considering the last few months of testosterone fuelled sports advertising, I beamed at my TV last night when I finally saw an advert that featured the full variety of women that will be bringing home Britain’s medals. The smile melted from my face as it reached its conclusion, however: this was an Ariel washing powder advert. The only reason sportswomen were on my screen is because their highest priority is doing the laundry. I don’t suppose I could have expected any better from Proctor & Gamble, who Proudly Sponsor Mums.

Well, sponsors of the Olympics, I have some news for you. At the last Olympics in Beijing, Great Britain won 47 medals. 20 of these were won by women. And these medals weren’t just in the ‘girly’ sports that we like to think of as the women’s fodder. Our Olympians won at cycling, swimming sailing and, my personal favourite, Taekwondo. Women won 43% of the British medals, in our best Olympic performance in a century. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering we make up a little over half the population.

Except that there are other factors to take into account. Like how poorly funded many women’s sports are. For example, Britain’s best chance at a British competitor in rhythmic gymnastics has to travel from Northampton to Birmingham to be able to train with the right facilities. Media attention is another big problem, as demonstrated by the Women’s Super League players, who have resorted to wearing their Twitter tags on their sleeves in order to get some publicity. It should probably be mentioned that, based on recent form, the women’s GB football team are far more likely to bag a medal than the men’s.

Even at grass roots level, there are serious problems with women’s sport in Britain. Being the potential athlete I am (or might be, the day they make Roller Derby an Olympic sport) I recently went to my local JD Sports. I wanted to buy some black kit and a new mouth guard. Disappointingly, the women’s section consisted of a corner of pink jogging gear and yoga mats. It was small enough that the sales assistant felt obliged to apologise. I walked out without a black vest or shorts, and without a mouth guard. And I won’t be going back.

Perhaps it’s no wonder then, with a poor availability of kit at the beginners’ level, and a painful lack of funding and media coverage at professional levels, that women’s sport is so overlooked. But this is the Olympics. And some of our best Olympians come from more niche sports, such as judo, shooting and rowing. We should be celebrating this. The sponsors of our Olympic games (because let’s remember, tax payers, just how much of these Games are publicly funded) should be channelling both money and attention where it’s so badly needed.

[The image is a photograph of Christine Ohuruogu, who won a gold medal for Britain in the women’s 400m at the Beijing Olympics. It was taken by Nick J. Webb and is used under a Creative Commons Licence]

Comments From You

SexierThanThou // Posted 13 April 2012 at 8:45 pm

A bit of a glib denunciation of gymnastics there. I’m a little irked by the assumption that gymnastics is in any way easy. Surprising actually, given the point of the article.

Vicky Brewster // Posted 13 April 2012 at 9:52 pm

Hello, SexierThanThou. Your comment made me chuckle a bit, because Gymnastics is the only Olympic sport I’ve ever actually practiced! Obviously only on an amateur level, but I was pretty nifty on the beam until my body ‘developed’ and my centre of balance relocated to somewhere in the region of one of Jupiter’s smaller moons. It’s a sport I still follow closely, and I am so proud of both our women’s and men’s teams for qualifying for the Olympics, and doing so brilliantly at this year’s World Championships.

I’m sorry my descriptions sounded glib, but it’s the kind of thing I’m used to hearing from others when I start to enthuse about gymnastics. There are an awful lot of people, who have clearly never attempted so much as a bridge, let alone the tumbles the professionals execute so perfectly, who think precisely this about gymnastics. My exact thoughts when writing the above were of an Alan Davies stand up where he suggested the only way to score the sport is by which competitors have a pubic hair sticking out from their leotard. It looks pretty, and the whole point of doing it well is to make it look easy. For those that don’t know the sport, this is all they see. And it’s apparently what the Olympic Sponsors want us to see.

I love gymnastics, and am proud of our team, but it has to be noted that in Olympic competitions they haven’t done fantastically of late. At Beijing Louis Smith won the only gymnastics medal, and it was the first medal ever won by a Brit in the men’s individuals events. We do well quite often in the World Championships, but seem to bottle a bit at the Olympics. And for this reason, it seems really strange that so many of the Olympic sponsors (UPS, Panasonic, BMW) would focus on this as The Women’s Sport, as opposed to the ones in which our women do consistently very well, such as rowing, cycling and sailing.

Rosalind // Posted 14 April 2012 at 4:35 pm

It does annoy me that women’s sport, particularly the football is largely ignored by the media. When the Arsenal Ladies won the quadruple a few seasons back, you didn’t hear the newspapers trumpeting that it was a bigger achievement than Man United’s treble, and the BBC Sports Personality of the Year programme overlooked them for team of the year. How is women’s sport ever going to break into the mainstream, if the media pretend it doesn’t exist?

(Apologies for the rant, but this makes me very cross)

SexierThanThou // Posted 14 April 2012 at 6:05 pm

@VB Well fair enough. Gymnastics is one of my sports (along with XMA and Tennis) so to see it dismissed in an off-hand manner gets to my sensitive side. My bad. I guess we’re agreed, excepting the little nationalist polemic at the end. I generally despise patriotism and I don’t believe in supporting athletes because they happen to live on the same rock as me; I support athletes that entertain me.

@Rosalind Blaming the media, I believe, simplifies the causality. The media largely ignores women’s football because it is not something that the viewers (the customers) want to see on a wide enough scale. The viewers tend to shy away from women’s sport because it may be deemed less entertaining (granted there may well be more malicious reasons, but I can’t verify that). It’s perhaps less entertaining simply because many women’s sports (say football and tennis) lag behind the men’s in terms of technique (even disregarding natural disadvantages in speed, strength and power). Now some might say that the technical weakness stems from some innate superiority in men’s spatial awareness (again, something that I can’t validate or verify), but the more obvious reason is the relatively small talent pool that women’s sport has to work with. There may be a few more women than men in the world, but there is such a sad and huge deficit in the number of active female sports fans and participants.

So who should be responsible for increasing the number of interested sportswomen at the grass roots level? Does the the causality circle back to the media who, given the right coverage, could inspire young girls and future generations? Or would that entail positive discrimination. Also, should the media take this onus on themselves? They are businessmen and businesswomen after all. Their only responsibility is to make make money by giving the customer what he/she wants, and they aren’t under any obligation to be altruistic.

Given the scenario, change seem far-off and unlikely.

Ffion Bell // Posted 16 April 2012 at 6:48 pm

Argh, those ads are awful. Good article – this is so important to keep in mind!

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