Kelly VanderBeek OLY, Broadcaster, Trainer, Artist
Why Storytelling 'Hooks' Hurt Female Athletes
(Image: Kevin Light)
Covering the Olympics is no longer a single platform experience played out solely on TV. Most of what we do is created uniquely for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, websites and apps.
At the Rio Olympics, I was the interviewer, sound person, camera woman, editor, and curator of my work for those digital platforms. With that came a surprising amount of responsibility.
In a Games where sexism was on the radar, I became acutely aware of the choices I was making; it was most apparent while editing a piece with former Canadian wrestler Tonya Verbeek. This well-spoken, strong woman ended an interview with me by cheering on the wrestlers, shouting, "Let's go girls!" then giggling. At first, it was a part of my piece. Until it became the only clip where Verbeek was speaking, and it was apparent this was not a fair representation of her character.
This three-time Olympic medallist, now mentor, had far more meaning than a cheer and giggle.
It didn't make the cut.
Now, with some time and space to reflect on the games, I'm evaluating where my judgments lie on sexism and where we, the media, go wrong.
What's a Hook?
The CBC Olympic hosts did an excellent job at handling a wealth of information to help steer the audience through the day, following the Canadian angles while also telling the key international stories.
How do they do it? Everyone did their homework, worked as a team, and used so-called "hooks" to help focus the storytelling.
For example, the hook around Ryan Cochrane was that it was likely the final Games for this decorated swimmer and longtime leader of the program.
For Penny Oleksiak, she was seen as the "young Olympic rookie, still in high school, who looks to her older siblings, including brother Jamie (an NHL defenceman), for encouragement and guidance."
Post performance, hooks hurt
These hooks are meant to give audiences reasons to care about the stories we tell. However, they should take a back seat during and after the athletic performance.
This isn't always the case, especially for female athletes.
Here is an example of what I expect was a hook that, post performance, became sexist.
It's comical when applied to a male athlete and gives stark contrast to what is far too normal for women.
No matter the hook that's been allotted to an athlete, the journalist must decide what story to tell. The angle they take can greatly influence an audience.
In my opinion, hooks should never hold central focus after the performance as they undermine the achievement.
Sex sells, but doesn't justify
Athletes use sex appeal to their advantage. (Earth shattering, I know.)
It brings in sponsorship, builds your profile and, when done well, is a celebration of strength.
I'm a feminist who stands behind women stripping down for images that display strength. Nobody ever asked me, but I would have been proud to show off my muscles and a body I'd worked hard to craft. Serena Williams showed her strength in this Vanity Fair photo.
Sometimes the media fails the public when the lines separating sport and promotion become blurred. Yes, many female athletes want attention for their sex appeal, fashion, and hairstyles, but don't kid yourself, so do men.
David Beckham is without a doubt a sex symbol and he worked hard to be one, crafting his image and promoting it. Yet, on the soccer pitch, he was simply an athlete. All of that other noise didn't outshine his athletic performances. He was never asked to twirl, or show off what boxers he's wearing post match.
For female athletes, their feminine side (new mom, wife of an athlete, fashionista, etc.) too often becomes the story during and after competitions. That has to stop.
Media, and society as a whole, may need a reminder:
The only reason we're talking to these women, putting them on TV, and writing about them is because they kick ass at what they do. Period.
Olympics leave me a sense of reflection, renewed purpose and inspiration to carry forward in my daily life. Rio surprised me in more ways than one, but nothing so much as my renewed sense of journalistic responsibility.
The medal haul of Canada's female athletes in Rio put gender in the spotlight. Canadian wrestler Jasmine Mian's stepfather, Brent Elsey, attributed much of the success to mothers.
"The women of the generations that have gone before have created an atmosphere where these women can be as strong as they need to be," Elsey said.
"These women have done it so well, to create an atmosphere for their children, their daughters, to succeed."
I'm now home from Rio with a renewed sense of journalistic responsibility, and an understanding that my work must accurately reflect those who share their stories. It's my hope that by honouring this generation of strong women, I honour those who blazed trails before me.