In Iowa: Basking in the reflected glow of the women of Rio
I can’t get over Katie Ledecky.
It has been a week since the Olympics ended and just over two weeks since the 19-year-old swimmer slammed the world record and her competition in the 800 meter freestyle swim into oblivion. And I’m still bowled over when I think of that footage of her, swimming so fast the seven next fastest swimmers in the world didn’t even fit in the same screenshot.
Then there were the dominant American women’s gymnastics team led by the crazy-good Simone Biles and Aly Raisman. And Simone Manuel, the first black woman to take an individual medal in swimming.
Then there were Kristin Armstrong, Michelle Carter, Allyson Felix, Ibithaj Muhammed, the basketball, rowing and water polo teams, and too many others to name here. The American women won 61 medals, including 27 gold. That’s one more gold medal than the entire country of China won, which came in second after the USA in the medal race. The American men didn’t fare too badly either, with 55 medals including 18 golds.
But it was an explosion of dominance by American women, and women of color in particular. Much has been made of the sexist bent of the coverage of these Olympics (that’s a whole other essay). But while such media critique is necessary, I’m not going to let a few idiotic headlines distract me from enjoying the women basking in the spotlight.
And don’t tell me watching that spotlight wasn’t great television. At these Olympics, more than 58 percent of the airtime during NBC’s coverage went to female athletes. Apologists for males sports domination on television and on payrolls like to argue the audiences simply aren’t there for female athletes. That’s clearly false.
For audiences to be developed, networks need to devote airtime, marketing and hype to female athletes. Title IX helped raise a generation of female Olympians — it’s time television networks and sports executives caught up.
Do you know how many commercials for the upcoming football season I watched while streaming the Olympics on NBC’s website? I was there to see Simone Biles tumble and catapult herself to glory, but that didn’t stop the network from piling on the promotion of giant men smashing into each other.
Audiences are developed. They are groomed, with multimillion-dollar ad campaigns and wall-to-wall coverage of fabricated heroes. We watch this stuff because it is put in front of us and we are told, over and over again, that it is awesome.
When the American women were winning the FIFA Women’s World Cup last year, the United States tuned in — more than 20 million viewers watched, comparable to the numbers the 2014 baseball World Series game seven drew. Greatness was hyped and put in front of us, and we watched.
Winning the World Cup is a feat the women have done three times, by the way — their male counterparts have never won, despite having nearly 70 more years to try, as FIFA only introduced a women’s cup in 1999, while the men have been competing since 1930.
Wait, why are we paying the women’s soccer team so much less again?