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.


John McCain the Misogynist?

I am not a feminist, particularly.  I don’t mean to say that I don’t support women’s rights, but simply that in a long list of Progressive ideals and issues with which I sympathize, women’s issues don’t tend to get center stage.  And the word “misogynist” is a strong one that I don’t often use.

But I don’t think you need to be particularly sensitive to women’s issues to have begun to have some serious reservations about the tenor of John McCain’s apparent public relationship with women.  From his long-ago episode calling his wife a cunt in front of reporters to his remarkably unfunny rape joke to his current slip-up, offering his wife to compete in a biker stripper contest, a pattern of fairly aggressive attitude towards women seems inescapably present.

Yes, it is perfectly possible to explain away any one of these slip-ups, if you prefer to call them that.  Not everybody is the best joke teller, so perhaps McCain missed some crucial detail that would have made the rape joke, like, waaay funnier.  And everybody has a bad day or goes off half-cocked occasionally, so maybe calling his wife a cunt was one of those uncontained moments that we all regret, just a particularly bad one.  As Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann generously hypothesized on Countdown the other day, perhaps the fact that McCain clearly doesn’t read or practice his speeches before he goes on stage got the better of him at the rally.

There are a variety of ways to explain one off-the-cuff moment that will satisfy a majority of people.  Explaining all three in a way that makes sense and doesn’t involve a deep-seated resentment of women is a somewhat more difficult task.  Perhaps the problem is not so much disdain for women as it is disdain for Cindy McCain, but even if it is, spending so much of your life with someone you hate is weird in and of itself.  Also, each of these “bloopers” is in a different context, entirely: one is a joke told in private, one is an outburst of anger and the most recent, a campaign stop laugh line.  To me, that eliminates the “spoken in anger” and the “spoken in jest” arguments.  If you say it in anger and in jest, if you say it in private and in public, you’re not just speaking rhetorically or extemporaneously.  You are speaking truth as you see it.

As for the suggestion that his campaign advisers might have slipped this one in without him knowing, this argument – albeit rhetorical generosity – deserves special attention.  John McCain is a man who has spent his entire life, from birth, in the company of soldiers.  I don’t think I’m disparaging soldiers in any way they might find offensive if I say that such a man does not need to be instructed in the nuances of biker rallies.  I’d say it’s a fair bet that he understands what a “beauty contest” in Sturgis might entail.

As secondary evidence, imagine for a moment that John McCain really didn’t get what the Mrs. Buffalo Chip contest involved: where would the joke be?  It seems clear in the video that the line – whomever it was written by – was intended to be humorous.  The only way that works is if you are left with the image of the next First Lady dancing naked with a pickle down her throat.  Moreover, the joke wouldn’t work if Cindy McCain was actually up for such a thing, since being so inclined would automatically disqualify her as a First Lady in the minds of many people.  So, this isn’t so much an assertion of Cindy McCain’s readiness to flaunt her sexy as it is a public de-pantsing, right out of a high school locker room.

Finally, if McCain’s handlers actually did write the script for him, that’s probably worse than if he wrote it himself.  Because that means that not only is John McCain ready, willing and able to humiliate his wife in public, but that his willingness to do so is enough of a known quotient that other people are willing to jot such a joke down for their boss without fear of reprisal.

No, there simply is no other explanation but that John McCain himself or the McCain campaign intentionally used Cindy McCain as sexy red meat to ingratiate John Sydney with the Sturgis crowd.  I’m sure it’s not the kind of memory Cindy McCain wants to discuss with Prime Minister Merkel over truffle-stuffed scallops, duck confit and Rothschild Estate wine in the event that she becomes First Lady.

The politics of personality are not helpful at all to us as a nation.  When candidates for the presidency chose to delve into the gutter and discuss the personality traits of their opponents rather than dealing with issues, we lose out.  But when a mean streak towards woman this wide comes out in public, I think it rises above simply personality to a legitimate campaign issue.  If it’s fair to expect to know a candidate’s professed religion – if it’s fair that “Values Voters” can pick a president based on where he is on Sunday morning – it’s at least as fair to ask of a candidate who does not support a woman’s right to choose where he comes up with his ideas.

I’m not suggesting that all people who oppose abortion do so out of misogynic resentment of women.  What I am saying is that abortion is the current hot-button issue for which John McCain can check the box as being on the Conservative side of the issue his whole career.  Many people have legitimate moral problems with abortion that bring them to the anti-abortion side of the isle, and those people are to be respected even if I personally disagree with them.  But it’s worth asking if that’s really where John McCain is coming from and what, if he was elected president, his decisions concerning women’s issues would be based on.


Schuster’s the Problem, eh?

David Schuster is obviously an asswipe.  Why he would say anything as stupid as the Chelsea comment would be beyond me if I hadn’t watched the guy.  Even if he’s most of the time on the liberal side of the media and even if he’s willing to call Bush a liar from time to time, that is only further evidence that he’s a loudmouth.  I have seen the man consistently talk over his guests and ask them the same question thirteen times because all he wants them to do is confirm what his opinion is.  There are no interviews in his studio, only David Schuster and those he expects to prop up his world view.  It’s very, very O’Rielly of him.  That being the case, the Chelsea comment is really only the logical expression of who the man is: an asswipe.

But linking though this great piece at TPM Cafe, we find that not only is Schuster not the only one to be found acting mysogenistically, but that there is in fact what seems to be a frat-house zeal about teasing women from time to time.  Even good journalists with ethics enough to say no to the Paris Hilton story du jour are not immune, especially if they’ve made the unfortunate decision to pair up with Joe Scarbourough.  Here’s to hoping that, when next the Mika Brzezinski contract negotiations come up, she gets herself her own show:


I mean really.  Watch that video.  Joe sniffs the Paris Hilton story paper?  It doesn’t take a masters degree in sensitivity training to figure out how that might be taken “the wrong way.”  But that’s apparently acceptable, but the “pimping” comment is not?