Examining sexism in swimming

“Do you think they always announce results and have the boys swim second because that’s what people really care more about?”

At the Centennial Conference swimming championship meet this weekend, as we waited for the top finishers to be announced and recognized — women first, men second — a friend on my team, Liz Staton ʼ19, turned to me and asked me this question. I was taken slightly aback. Though I hadn’t previously actualized this thought, my friend was absolutely right. People are just more excited to watch men swim. This pattern is not at all isolated to swimming. The disparities in money and fans between the NBA and the WNBA and between the men and women’s U.S. national soccer teams are enormous. It comes as no surprise that the world of swimming has a bigger attraction to the more impressive splashes made by male swimmers.

The Summer Olympics are virtually the only time that competitive swimming is at all present in pop culture. And so, the last time that we really cared about swimming as a society was summer 2016, at the London Olympics. During these games, the distribution of coverage by NBC and also the enthusiasm displayed by fans between male and female swimmers was almost equally balanced. This was due, in part, to women exceeding expectations, the most salient example being Katie Ledecky.

Female swimmers from all leagues reveled in the glory that was Stanford swimmer Katie Ledecky’s spectacular performance at the London Games. She was talked about in a way that Natalie Coughlin, Missy Franklin, and other elite female Olympic swimmers never were. Taken at face value, this could signify a shift in the attitude towards women’s swimming as much more than an addendum to a male sport. However, I argue that it is actually indicative of the same disparate treatment of the sexes in competitive swimming.
One of the main points of discussion surrounding the dialogue about Katie Ledecky is how she compared to men in her sport. Ledecky’s best 400 freestyle time, set in 2016, is faster than the men’s Olympic trials cut. Though not an Olympic event for women, her 1,500 is also 20 seconds under the men’s trials time. She has been referred to countless times as a “female Michael Phelps.” Arguably the most outstanding woman in the game, and we refer to her with the name of a male swimmer. What’s worse is that, even though at this point in her Olympic career she doesn’t rake in the sheer volume of gold medals that Phelps does, Ledecky dominates in her events in a way that Phelps never did. Still, we act as if she is simply the female counterpart to him, instead of recognizing her individuality and distinction as her own athlete entirely.

In so many leagues, including at the Olympic games, the male and female swimmers compete together in the same sessions of the same meets. They swim the same events and are subject to the same rules and regulations. The gap in attention paid to men versus women in the sport cannot be attributed to the money and fame of the men’s versus women’s leagues as it can in soccer or basketball. The favoritism shown to male swimmers is indicative almost entirely of nothing more than the sexism that blatantly exists in competitive sports today.

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