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Time to end appearance-driven, sexist sports reporting as seen at Tokyo Olympics

Germany's Kim Bui, center, wears a full-body suit that covers her ankles while she competes in the women's individual all-around gymnastics final at Ariake Gymnastics Centre in July 2021. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

TOKYO -- The 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games were memorable for the messages female athletes sent to eliminate gender discrimination, along with their great performances. However, when it comes to the way the media tells the story, some outlets focus on factors outside competition itself, such as "lookism," or evaluating people based on their appearance.

    For example, at the Tokyo Olympics, there was much discussion about the German female gymnastics team shunning leotards to compete in full-body suits that cover down to their ankles, as a protest against being viewed sexually.

    At a regular news conference during the Games, Naoko Imoto took part as a member of the Gender Equality Promotion Team of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee. She criticized sports reporting, saying, "Even in media reports, female athletes are sometimes referred to as 'too beautiful' and are not seen as pure athletes."

    There have been cases in Japan and abroad where videos and images of female athletes in revealing uniforms have spread through online and social media for sexual purposes.

    It is also a challenge for sports organizations to address these issues. At the European Beach Handball Championships in July, the Norwegian women's team was fined for refusing to wear bikini bottoms and playing in shorts, which are allowed for men.

    Osamu Takamine, a professor of sociology of sports at Meiji University who studies the relationship between sports and gender, said, "In the past, the focus of clothing for female athletes may have been appearance rather than function. The decision should be made according to the wishes of the athletes, with emphasis on function."

    Takamine also pointed out the problem of media reporting on athletes based on gendered views that persist in society. Questions such as, "Do you have children?" and "Who is taking care of your children?" are directed at women, and there is a strong tendency to assume that the power of men, including husbands, is behind their success in competitions.

    In addition, during the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the Japanese media repeatedly covered scenes where female curling athletes consumed sweets during competition, labeling it "mogumogu time," or munch munch time. Takamine said this is an example of how women tend to be portrayed as "cute." For men, on the other hand, their "tough" appearance tends to be emphasized.

    A study published in 2016 by Cambridge University Press in the U.K. analyzed the English used in news and social media about sports. It found that expressions such as "older," "pregnant" and "married" were commonly used for female competitors, while "fastest," "strong" and "real" were used to describe their male counterparts.

    "If we only take a stereotypical view that instills social roles for men and women, it will hinder women's advancement in society. We should try to find expressions that are the same for men and women," Takamine suggested to the media.

    (Japanese original by Ken Aoshima and Hiromi Nagano, Tokyo City News Department)

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