RIO DE JANEIRO — American Olympians were making a case that this was supposed to be the Year of the Woman.

Team USA brought the biggest women’s contingent in Olympic history, a group 292 strong that is piling up gold medals.

Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the only American to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab. And the women’s soccer team arrived at the games in pursuit of gold after a yearlong fight to be paid the same as their male counterparts.

But audiences aren’t feeling a golden glow watching the accomplishments. Instead, they’re feeling defensive and taking to social media to slam what they see as sexist portrayals of some of the world’s greatest athletes.

Some examples so far:

Corey Cogdell-Unrein won a bronze medal in trapshooting – the second bronze of her career – and a tweet from the Chicago Tribune promoted her success in a headline as “Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.” She is married to Chicago Bears defensive end Mitch Unrein.


When Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu set a world record in the 400-meter individual medley, NBC play-by-play announcer Dan Hicks noted her coach/husband Shane Tusup in the crowd and said: “There’s the guy responsible for turning Katinka Hosszu, his wife, into a whole different swimmer.”

As three-time world champion Simone Biles performed on the uneven bars, NBC commentator Jim Watson said: “I think she might even go higher than some of the men.” And as the team chatted during preliminaries, he said they “might as well be standing around at a mall.”

Each comment is seen as a dig, that women aren’t as athletic – or important – as men, but that tone was set before the games even opened. When NBC executive John Miller discussed tape-delayed broadcasts back in July, he argued the core female audience isn’t invested in the results.

“The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans,” Miller said last month. “More women watch the games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.”

NBC executives said on a Thursday conference call that 55 percent of the network’s 18-and-over viewers for Rio Olympics are women. Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports Group, was aware of the criticism concerning sexism in its coverage.

“Of course we’re sensitive if people feel we’re not being proper to certain groups,” Lazarus said. “In most of these cases, they’ve been addressed very quickly by the talent themselves.”

Still, female viewers have been angered at the way women have been portrayed. It’s impossible to know why it’s striking a nerve now, but it could be that disgruntled viewers have been offended before, only now have multiple social platforms to talk about it.

“Social media and the internet have democratized communications globally. Everyone has a voice,” said Dennis Deninger, who teaches sports media courses at Syracuse University.

He believes NBC has selected its top talent for its coverage, but he noted a lack of female broadcasters. “When the message is delivered by a woman, that’s a powerful moment for women’s sports,” Deninger said.

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