SUZANNE HARRINGTON: Olympians are not heroes. They’re just disciplined

NOT to be an Olympics curmudgeon, but can we all, please, stop misusing the words ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’?

Sportspeople are not heroic. They are fit, focused, talented, tenacious, physically super-peak, psychologically ice-cool, but they are not heroes. They have done nothing more heroic than train a lot and guzzle protein bars.

An exception could be made for that teenage Syrian swimmer, who saved a boat-load of fellow refugees from drowning (in the actual sea), by swimming for hours with her sister and pulling the boat full of non-swimmers to safety. Now THAT’S heroic. The ultimate antidote to the toxic machismo of the Lance Armstrongs, the Oscar Pistoriuses.

So, maybe the genuine heroics of Yusra Mardini could influence how the media interfaces with lady athletes? Or perhaps the story of Rafaela Silva could nudge broadcasters towards presenting male and female sportspeople more equally? Silva, from the infamous City of God favela, was expelled from school for fighting boys; she turned her energy to judo and won Brazil’s first gold. Yet even within the sweaty, muscular world of competitive sport, women remain sexualised.

“Give us a twirl and tell us about your outfit,” a male broadcaster told Canadian tennis pro, Eugenie Bouchard, at last year’s Australian Open, moments after Bouchard had trounced her opponent. At another event last September, Serena Williams was asked by reporters why she wasn’t smiling, after winning her match. Imagine Djokovic being asked to pirouette while describing his shorts, or perenially dour Andy Murray being told off for not smiling. A current Olympic medal winner was described in the press as someone’s wife.

The competitors at the Rio Olympics are 45% female — up 1% from the London games of 2012, and 2% from Beijing, four years earlier. Yay! An almost equal representation. However, eight out of ten Olympic commentators are blokes, which means that if you are a female athlete, you are twice as likely to have your appearance commented upon than if you are a chap.

It’s not just broadcasters, either. Remember when the ex-Mayor of London, hosting the 2012 games, described female volleyball players as “half-naked …glistening like wet otters?” Sorry if that has made you feel a bit sick. Not the players, but the thought of Boris Johnson perving over them.

As well as being twirling wet otters, athletes with ovaries are said to be ‘emotional’, while athletes with testicles are said to be strong and courageous. Again, this hero misrepresentation. All Olympic athletes are strong and courageous — they wouldn’t be there otherwise, they’d be back home in their local gym. And all athletes are emotional when they win, or when they lose. Men cry when they get medals, women cry when they get medals. Just please, unless they are on the Refugee Team, don’t call them heroes. And don’t ever ask them for a twirl.


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