Sexism at the Olympics: why you really can’t talk about the athlete without talking about the coach

Olympic Champion swimmer Katinka Hosszú. Photo credit: Doha Stadium Plus Qatar @

This quadrennial athletic competition has seen it’s share of controversy. In particular, it seems NBC Sports can’t stop tripping over it’s dick with all the sexist spin on the news. For his part, Sports Analyst Dan Hicks pointed out the “crucial” role that Olympic Record Breaker Hosszu’s coach played in her victory. He later defended that description of Shane Tusup, while apologizing for offending the audience.

No doubt, lots of champions owe their success to their coaches. Coaches represent an often decades-long brain trust of coaching and performing experience. Athletes have talent – and many possess a keen mind as well – but coaches focus those raw talents a young athlete has into a peak performer. And in the case of Katinka Hosszú and her boyfriend, insiders say that there really is a pretty specific dynamic that matters when telling Katrinka’s story.

But it strikes me that I can’t really give you the names of any coaches in Olympic sport at all. None, that is, except Martha and Bela Karolyi of Olympic Women’s Gymnastics fame. If you asked 100 Americans the names of three other Olympic coaches and the Karolyis, I think we know whom a majority would recognize.

I don’t know who Ryan Lochte’s coach is, nor Michael Phelps’. But I certainly know the athletes’ names for their gold-studded histories. Usain Bolt, I know. His coach, I do not.

What I’m getting at, here, is that sports media seems to possess a deep dependency on coaches when discussing women’s athletics generally. We know, for example, that Martha Karolyi is a “queen maker” in the US Women’s Gymnastics Team. Women do not automatically go to the Olympics or compete for any one metal simply because they can or because they scored the highest in Nationals.

Martha Karolyi, via NBC Sports.
Martha decides who goes and who stays. And in the process, we are treated to literally hours worth of collected video of Martha – sitting in the stands, no less – watching the gymnasts and presumably making her decisions.

If a similar decision making process happens on the US Men’s Gymnastics Team, I don’t know about it. And I have literally no idea whatsoever who the head coach of that team is. In fact, Google searching ‘us men’s olympic gymnastics “head coach”‘ returned the Wikipedia pages of Martha and Bela first, followed by a 2009 article naming Kevin Mazeika as the head coach of the men’s team. The fourth entry is finally a list of head coaches throughout the last decade or so, through which I can scroll to finally find my answer: Mark Williams.

So. Mark Williams.

I’m not sure if this is because the media can’t help of thinking of women athletes as silly girls who can’t be trusted with their own athletic careers, or if this is just an old, bad habit. It’s worth pointing out that “Women’s” gymnastics includes athletes barely over 16 years old. Regardless, perhaps if the media is seeking to avoid this kind of blow-up in the future, it ought better to focus on how it treats coaches in it’s storytelling than to any one blow-up.


Olympic Games: how Omega timers changed swimming

Well, now that the opening ceremonies are mercifully over, it is time to get into the main attraction: the Olympic Games. I look forward to this every couple of years – because of course, I have to watch the Winter Games as well as the Summer. This year, however, I got to thinking about what makes the games tick and how they might have been different in the past.

One competition that is easily recognisable as having been changed drastically by technology is swimming. While the business of swimming is the same as it ever was, the means by which swimmers’ times are kept have changed greatly. When, I wondered, did those sensors at the ends of the pool become part of the game?

My answer came from Carly Geehr, former U.S. Swim Team member and current User Interface designer, on Quora:

In swimming, touchpads were introduced by Omega at the 1967 Pan American Games in Winnipeg. This “wet” run was used as a test of the Swim-O-Matic system before the Mexico City summer games in 1968, where they were used for the first time in Olympic competition. Electronic timing itself was first used in athletics events in the Olympics all the way back in the 1948 London Games, but it wasn’t until the 1968 Olympics (Grenoble/Mexico City) that electronic timing became the primary method of determining finish order – both in and out of the water.

The Omega website goes on to say that the original Omega contact pads went into production in 1962, having made the breakthrough of developing a sensor that would not be affected by splashing waves, but would accurately detect a human hand pressed against it. To this day, Omega is the only brand used for Olympic swim meet timekeeping.

The road to accurate timing, Carly notes, is paved with close calls that demanded better timekeeping. The 1960 Olympics in Rome featured a 100m freestyle that was mired in controversy as she notes and as is also noted in one competitor’s Wikipedia entry. When Lance Larson came from behind to take what to most eyes appeared to be the win, but that win was denied by the line judges of the time, even the timekeepers showed him with the faster time. Omega notes that in modern times, electronic cameras have confirmed their keeper’s accuracy, electronic starting guns that replaced the old firecrackers and start blocks that can detect false starts have made accuracy within fractions of a second the standard for Olympic racing.

So keep in mind as you watch this year’s games in London: you are most emphatically not watching your daddy’s Games.


The tone of coverage in the London Olympics may go any way the wind blows

The Oxford English Dictionary identifies 171 thousand words in the current-usage English language. Which to pick from when reporting a story?

The choice is not a small one. For example, was there a “controversy” or a “dust-up” surrounding that call in the volleyball match? Maybe a “fire storm?” Those three choices – all describing the same event – can have profound impact on how the audience views the games. And research out of Penn State suggests, based on analysis of the Beijing Games, that the weather has a big effect on what choices American journalists make.

The study matched the positive and negative tone of coverage to weather conditions and air quality. And the results were consistent:

By using computer-aided content analysis, this study examined how Beijing’s weather, which was measured by the Air Pollution Index (API), temperature, and cloudiness (sunny or cloudy), might influence the coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics by 4 U.S. newspapers. The results demonstrated that the API and temperature were significantly related to the negativity of the news reports that were filed from Beijing. Specifically, as Beijing’s temperature rose or air pollution level increased, U.S. journalists used more negative words in reporting on the Olympics. The temperature was also correlated with the negativity of China-related reports. The findings provided evidence that journalists’ news decision making might be influenced by a greater variety of factors than we previously thought.

Basically, when US reporters’ hair got frizzy, they started talking shit about China. Which, let’s face it, is understandable in a country where they had to shut down all manufacturing in an entire city just so Olympic athletes didn’t die.


Rock On, Raj Man!

And as if to prove the point made in my last post. . .

I’m very stoked to see one of my favourite current U.S. gymnasts from the Olympic trials – edged out of the team until today – is going to Beijing to compete for the U.S.: Raj Bhavsar. The unfortunate injury of Paul Hamm, last Olympics’ U.S. superstar, created one empty space to be filled, and Raj just got the nod to fill it.

So, pack up your Hepa filter, grab a wet towel to cover your face and head on out to Beijing, Raj man!  The wife and I are pulling for ya.


Beijing Olympics: Things are Getting Nutty

Some events really paint a picture of the world we live in.  One such event may regrettably be the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.  As the games get closer, all the problems come home to roost and things are getting plenty nutty over there.  The Chinese seem barely capable of keeping things together.

First of all, the story I’ve been tracking in the News blog for some time now, the smog.  It seems that many countries including the U.S. are opting to train and keep their athletes miles away from Beijing, where they can be safe.  I saw a report last night where a marathon cyclist described experiencing athsma-like symptoms while training in-country.  The Chinese have taken the unusual and totalitarian step of shutting down highway traffic, industrial production and all things smog related while the games commence, but it is of little use.

At the same time, a group of Internet freedom activists have developed a suite of tools that Chinese crackers can use to bypass The Great Firewall of China, the name given to the highly-restricted control of the Internet that China employs on its people.  And in seemingly unrelated news, . .

The ethnic Uighars, an often seperatist group of predominantly Muslim people living within the Chinese borders, yesterday began attacks they vow to continue and escalate during the games.  In response, the Chinese police quarantined the province and cut off Internet connections.  They’re also in the habit of beating up journalists who stray too far into restricted territories, it seems.  Other groups have claimed to have successfully planted and detonated some small explosive devices in Yunan province.

And when’s the last time you recall surface-to-air missles deployed to an Olympic Games?  I’m sure its happened before, but I’ve never heard about it.


Feel the Burn. . .

You can survive for one hour. One hour only, but that aught to be enough. We’ve got scientists crunching the numbers.

“Oh, smashing news,” you say. “Hang on. Survive where? The moon?” No, Beijing, the world’s most polluted city, which is hosting the Olympic Games. Now, get out there and compete:

Athletes safe in Beijing air for up to an hour: IOC | Reuters

International Olympic Committee scientists have proved that Beijing’s air will present no health risk to athletes competing for up to an hour at the 2008 Games, IOC chief inspector Hein Verbruggen said on Wednesday.