Before I came across a photograph of Simone Biles – floating upside down above the beam, her legs in the splits position, her eyes trained like a sniper’s on the spot on which she needed to land – I had been semi-detached from the Rio Olympics. Ever since, though, I have been feverishly googling the American gymnast and watching spellbound as she leaps and flips and contorts her body into anatomy-defying shapes.
Part of my fascination is born of nostalgia. Back in 1976 – the first Olympics I can remember – I was similarly transfixed by Nadia Comaneci wrapping herself around the asymmetric bars and by her string of perfect 10s. But Comaneci – and Olga Korbut before her – were frail and waiflike; their vulnerability was part of their appeal. For all her 4ft 8-inch frame, Biles exudes strength. It is the consummate alliance of grace and power that makes her performances so compelling.
There are many strong women at this year’s Olympics: Biles, Katherine Grainger, Katie Ledecky, Majlinda Kelmendi, Katinka Hosszu and Jessica Ennis-Hill. A greater proportion of the participants are women than ever before (45 per cent compared to just 23 per cent at the 1984 Los Angeles games) and they have been consistently toppling records, both their own and other people’s.
Unfortunately, physical prowess – however conspicuous – is not enough to exempt women from sexism and many of those taking part have experienced attempts to belittle them by commentators unable to shake off crude gender stereotypes. NBC’s Jim Watson was one of the worst offenders. As Biles excelled on the bars, he said: “I think she might go higher even than some of the men.” Watson also suggested the US gymnastics team, who were talking to each other on the sidelines, “might as well be at the mall”; as if women who dedicate their lives to elite sport have idle hours to squander shopping for fripperies.
But the compulsion to measure women’s achievements against a male yardstick was pretty much endemic. So many people referred to the “masculinity” of Katie Ledecky’s strokes, or called her the “female Michael Phelps”, NBC commentator Ryan Gaines felt obliged to point out: “She doesn’t swim like a man, she swims like Katie Ledecky.”
In search of clicks, the Chicago Tribune referred to trap shooting bronze medallist Carey Cogdell only as the “wife of a Bears linesman” and when Hosszu smashed the 400-metre individual medley world record, NBC (yes, them again) commentator Dan Hicks credited her coach and husband Shane Tusup as “the man responsible for turning her into a whole different swimmer”.
There was much more of the same: Swedish swimmer Sarah Sjostrom being asked if she would dance the samba on Copacabana beach after she broke her own world record in the 100-metre butterfly, Kosovan gold medallist Kelmendi’s judo bout being described as a “catfight” and speculation over how South Korean volleyball player Kim Yeon-koung would find a boyfriend given her height (she’s 6ft 3ins).
None of this is surprising. Sexism in sport has been causing controversy for years – long before Sky Sports reporters Andy Gray and Richard Keys were sacked for undermining female linesman Sian Massey by suggesting “women don’t know the offside rule”. Swimmer Rebecca Adlington had to put up with Frankie Boyle mocking her appearance, Ennis-Hill with Tyson Fury suggesting she looked “quite fit when she put a dress on”.
Shortly before the Rio Olympics, Cambridge University Press released a report highlighting discrepancies between the way fans and the media talk about men and women in sport. It discovered the words most frequently used when discussing female athletes were “older”, “pregnant”, “married”, “unmarried”, while those most frequently used with men were “fastest”, “strong”, “big” and “great”.
The demeaning of women in sports can erode confidence both individually and across society. While taking part in the reality TV show I’m A Celebrity, Adlington broke down as she described how the constant sniping made her uncomfortable with her own body. And statistics suggest 50 per cent of girls drift away from sport in puberty because physical exertion are anathema to the norms of “femininity” or simply because they have been conditioned to believe they can’t compete with boys.
Some are already challenging this. While Gap took pelters for its “The Little Scholar” and “The Social Butterfly” adverts for boys and girls, the sanitary protection company Always has been tackling stereotypes head-on.
Its original #LikeAGirl campaign took the prejudice of the Olympics coverage – that the “proper” way to swim, fight or run is “like a man” – and turned it on its head, assuring young women they could achieve whatever they set their mind to; and on their own terms too. One of the highlights of my limited Olympic viewing has been Always’ new ad, which features fierce little sports-girls defying social expectations to run, box, play rugby and lift weights.
I know: it’s a marketing ruse. But given, in the past, sanitary protection commercials were predicated on the belief a woman’s greatest worry during her period was having to get into a lift full of men while wearing skin-tight white trousers, it is progress.
Though many of the attitudes on display at the Olympics are retrogressive, the games still fill me with optimism. Those unreconstructed commentators are the last of a dying breed, disoriented and dismayed by the existence of powerful women who feel no need to conform. Women like US swimmer Lilly King who – after winning gold in the 100m breaststroke, and ticking off Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova for dope violations – said: “I am not some sweet little girl.”
In 20 years, what we will remember from Rio 2016 will not be a handful of inane comments, but a succession of seminal moments: Grainger bagging her fifth Olympic medal, Ethiopian Almaz Ayana shaving an astonishing 14 seconds off the previous world record in the 10,000 metres and the incandescent Biles, birling through the stadium like a Catherine Wheel.