As we jump into the Tokyo Olympics, I am excited to watch a number of sports that I have no interest in most of the time but will pretend to be an expert in for the next month. Looking at you synchronized diving and gymnastics! Also, why is dressage an Olympic sport?

Anyway, we’re all excited about competition, and with so much controversy around everything from pandemic protocols to international political relations, everyone associated with these events must direct a critical eye toward public relation risks and management. One area where that is especially true is the treatment of female athletes. There are several controversies that have arisen and caused public outcry over the past year, including already in these Olympic games, and how the public, news media and athletic organizers respond can mean the difference between a big PR win and a spiraling PR nightmare.

For example, let’s look at the criticism around sexualization of women in sport. Just this week, the German women’s gymnastics team was widely celebrated for foregoing the unitard bikini, and instead wearing a full one-piece gymnastics suit. From a recent CNN article: the outfits are a statement against “sexualization in gymnastics,” the German Gymnastics Federation said in April, adding: “The aim is to present themselves aesthetically — without feeling uncomfortable.”

Overall, the decision was celebrated, and the team received positive coverage in media and from the public. This is almost a direct contrast to the Norwegian women’s beach handball team news story that came out around the same time. Opting to wear shorts instead of bikini bottoms in the European championship, the Norwegian team was fined for their athletic wear, and it soon became an international media story. The European Handball Federation that fined the team quickly tried to explain away their decision by a “rules are rules” motto, with the potential for uniform standard changes down the road. Then the singer Pink offered to pay their fines, adding another day of media attention and spotlight to the PR blunder for the EHF organization.

With an ever-greater eye on sexism in sports, decisions and explanations can have devastating consequences from a PR perspective. It’s something that communications professionals deal with and assess every day, and you have to figure out the balance between defending the actions of yourself or organization and admitting to a mistake and communicating how you will remedy it.

For example, anyone remember this year’s NCAA basketball tournament where the women’s workout spaces were far inferior to the men’s? A female player put out a Tik Tok video of the men’s weight room vs. the women’s weight room and the differences were comical. The power of social media and calling out unequal treatment can also make a big splash quickly, and her video gained tens of millions of views and inspired stories and segments from local news to national outlets like ESPN and the Today Show. 

Almost worse than the unequal treatment between the men and women’s teams was the NCAA’s initial response, saying: “We acknowledge that some of the amenities teams would typically have access to have not been as available inside the controlled environment. In part, this is due to the limited space and the original plan was to expand the workout area once additional space was available later in the tournament.” Huh? Well, after the backlash and negative coverage, the NCAA followed up that statement with how they fell short and would remedy it quickly.

So, while I am judging world-renown athletes competing in numerous events while eating potato chips on the couch over the next few weeks, I will also be judging the public relations triumphs and blunders tied to the games. I am hopeful we have the right conversations and changes that advance women in sports. Organizers and PR professionals should be more aware than ever that the public is watching, and they have little tolerance for blunders, sexism and outdated thinking.