Let's hear it for the girls/ladies/women. What do you say, Jimmy?
ON WEDNESDAY afternoon, as Katie Taylor was (literally at one point) dancing her way to the Olympic final, RTÉ’s Jimmy Magee threw out a devastating combination of nomenclatures. The pressure was on the shoulders of “this young girl from Bray, young lady from Bray, young woman from Bray”. Then he rounded off with what seemed like a casual jab at the language police. “That should cover it all.” Ding, ding.
In subsequent rounds, Magee referred to Taylor almost solely as a lady or a girl. “Woman” hardly featured.
Were these the linguistic relics of a man who has been commentating on the Olympics since television was invented?
No. Firstly, Magee was engaged in a constant interrogation with himself. In describing Taylor, he would occasionally pause before adding a noun. She was “a hard-hitting . . . lady”. It sounded as if, alongside his files of minor hurling club championship winners 1954-1963, in his brain was a warning light that went off every time he had to mention gender. As a result, every statement came out as a question: “The hard-hitting . . . lady, perhaps? Is that okay?” His girl/lady/woman line was an open declaration of that uncertainty, a surrender to the bafflement and a display of empowerment. It was also quite funny.
Secondly, the reason Magee’s rifling through the gender thesaurus shouldn’t be written off as the ramblings of a veteran is that pretty much everyone else in sports commentary appears to have settled on “girls” as the standard term for female athletes.
It appears that where Magee is behind the curve isn’t in his language, but his uncertainty about it. Watch the BBC and you will see no bashfulness in repeated references to the “British girls”. Male and female pundits alike use the word.
Here’s gold medal winner Victoria Pendleton: “I said about a year ago that I thought this would be an Olympics for the British girls . . .” She rounded that off with a cheery “here come the girls”.
It appears common in the US too, as relayed by a Huffington Post columnist recently: “During the women’s road race on Sunday, commentators continually referred to the competitors as ‘girls’, despite the fact that the top finishers for the US were Shelley Olds (32), Evelyn Stevens (28), a former Lehman Brothers associate, and Kristin Armstrong (39), competing in her third Olympics. That adult women, at the top of their craft, with full lives and countless accomplishments continue to be referred to as ‘girls’ in sports coverage is minimising, to say the least.”
Surveys of Olympic coverage, a rare occasion in which women’s sports feature prominently on prime-time TV, have thrown up other interesting quirks. Examining coverage at the 2004 games, one identified what it called a “hierarchy of naming” in which commentators referred to female athletes only by their first names about 60 per cent of the time, instead of by their last or full names. Men were far less likely to be identified by their first names only, and unlikely to be called “boys”.
“The use of hierarchy of naming infantilises women and presumes a lesser status than male athletes,” the authors conclude.
This corresponded with a survey of tennis coverage in the 1990s that also identified the naming issue: Martina and Steffi were stars alongside Sampras and Agassi.
It is also a rite of passage for women’s sport that they must first be compared to the men. In Olympic Media: Inside the Biggest Show on Television, basketball commentator Ann Meyers Drysdale describes a veteran male co-commentator’s reaction to the female players during the 1980s. He “was saying things like, ‘Oh, these girls can really play! Look at that!’ It was all so new.”
That observation echoes all the way up to this week, which rang with a multitude of comments along the lines of “These girls can actually punch! Like a man!”
A final observation: while the BBC’s broadcasting team strikes an impressive gender balance, not so RTÉ, where sports coverage remains heavily weighted towards men, with the added general requirement being for one world-weary elder lemon to be present at all times.
RTÉ in these Olympics is remarkably male. Tracy Piggott pops up as a presenter, and Clare McNamara as a reporter, but sprinter Ailish McSweeney is such a rarity as a pundit that each time she arrives they probably have to seek out the key to the women’s bathroom. (“We kind of use it as a cupboard, to be honest. Tom McGurk and George Hook keep their antlers there over the summer . . .”)
Which all ties in neatly with Katie Taylor’s choice of entrance music: Rihanna’s nomenclature-confident The Only Girl in the World. Or The Only Girl/Lady/Woman in the World, as Jimmy Magee would likely sing at the office karaoke party.