Olympic broadcasters try to curb sexual images of female athletes

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Madelein Meppelink, left, of the Netherlands, takes a shot as Liliana Fernandez Steiner, second from left, of Spain, defends during a women’s beach volleyball match at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, July 25, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

TOKYO (AP) — At an Olympics aiming to set the highest level of television standards, the head of broadcasting at the Tokyo Games is trying to banish overly sexualized images of female athletes.

“Sport appeal, not sex appeal” is one mantra Olympic officials push in an effort to reach gender equity on the field of play and on screen.

“You will not see in our coverage some things that we have been seeing in the past, with details and close-up on parts of the body,” Olympic Broadcasting Services chief executive Yiannis Exarchos said Monday.

That can be difficult with state-of-the-art technology filming sports — such as beach volleyball, gymnastics, swimming and track — where female athletes’ uniforms can be scant and skimpy.

Gymnasts from Germany sent a message against uniforms they believe exploit their sexuality by competing in Tokyo wearing unitards that covered their legs to the ankle.

A stronger protest was made this month away from the Olympics. At a European beach handball event, Norway’s women refused to play in bikini bottoms and instead wanted to wear skin-tight shorts. They were fined for breaking clothing rules.

The International Olympic Committee does not govern those kinds of rules for individual sports, but it does run OBS and controls the broadcast output from Tokyo shown to the world.

“What we can do is to make sure that our coverage does not highlight or feature in any particular way what people are wearing,” Exarchos said.

To achieve this, the IOC updated “Portrayal Guidelines” to steer all Olympic sports and their rights holders toward “gender-equal and fair” broadcasts of their events. Advice includes “do not focus unnecessarily on looks, clothing or intimate body parts” and reframing or deleting a “wardrobe malfunction … to respect the integrity of the athlete.”

The Olympic goals go beyond ending sexualized images, Exarchos said.

More women’s and mixed gender events are on the Olympic program and are scheduled more prominently. Women’s finals are held after men’s finals in volleyball and team handball.

“We in media have not yet done all that we can do,” said Exarchos, while claiming progress over the past 15 years. “This is something that we need to be frank and open (about) among ourselves.”

It’s a theme for the Tokyo Olympics, whose adviser on gender equality was critical of Japanese media while sharing the stage Monday with the head of Olympic broadcasting.

“It’s really biased when it comes to gender,” said Naoko Imoto, who swam for Japan at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and now works for UNICEF, the United Nations children’s rights agency.

“Many of the channels look at female athletes (as) girls or wives or mothers and not really as pure athletes,” she said. “Most of it also really gives attention to the looks saying … they are beautiful or sexy.”

The Tokyo Olympics have been positioned as a chance to drive change in Japanese society and embrace diversity. Imoto said she hoped Japanese media and sports officials would talk after the Games “about the standards of portrayal.”

“They are powerful and they are also beautiful, but they are not just women,” Imoto said, “they are athletes.”

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