Twitter conversations on Indian female athletes in Tokyo

Dr Kulveen Trehan

Faculty at University School of Mass Communication, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Govt. of NCT of Delhi, India. She has presented several papers on media coverage of women in sports, construction of female athletes in digital campaigns and published on Indian sportswomen’s official dress code.  

Section 2: Media Coverage & Representation

The London Olympiad was called the Twitter Olympics (Creedon,2014). Ever since, Twitter has grown as a space to spotlight issues of gender and social identity in the world of sports.  “Sports Twitter” thrives in India, as well, particularly during the Olympics with tweets and hashtags like #Cheer4India and #IndiaAtTokyoOlympics. During the 2020 Tokyo Games, 53 female athletes from India participated in comparison to 68 males, nearly achieving the goal of gender equality. Official handles of the Sports Authority of India, Ministry of Sports and Youth affairs, sports journalists and fans actively used Twitter to discuss women in sports, making it necessary to find patterns in their conversations on female athletes. 

Low levels of sports literacy about female athletes 

Mirabai Chanu who won silver medal on the first day along with PV Sindhu (Bronze) and Lovlina Borgohaine (Bronze) led the twitter charts with maximum engagement.  A closer look, however, reveals that tweets/retweets were largely about the medals, the victories, and the visuals/short videos of the medal winning moments. Twitter users retweeted the victory without much commentary about the player, their style of play, or regional and socio-economic background. Sports Twitter framed these athletes’ with little attention to gender, focusing less on “herspective” and more on sports-led nationalism. In some posts, Chanu Saikom Mirabai was likened to her namesake Meera Bai, a popular Hindu sage who is revered for her devotion to the male god, Lord Krishna, in an illustration of the preferred gender roles in Indian society. Absence of interest and knowledge about female athletes is not unique to India. Lauren Smith has found, that despite differences in format, female athletes are under-represented much like the mainstream media. To address this absence, the blog network and hashtags like #WomeninSport or #Womensupportingwomen mobilize sports fans to watch, comment, and converse on women’s sports in order to promote and empower female athleticism. In the Indian context, the lack of deep conversations on female athletes also stems out of Twitter’s obsession with the men’s cricket team, whereas other sports do not have strong native fandoms. 

Negatively framing the athletes  

Feminine, at times sexualized, images of female athletes like Sania Mirza (tennis), world number one Manu Bhaker (shooting), and Manika Batra (table tennis) have been featured by both media and audiences. Owing to their celebrtization, expectations on social media platforms are amplified. Twitter fans readied themselves for medals. Closer to the Olympics, sports authorities and journalists proactively tweeted about their medal winning potential. In Tokyo, when they lost and bowed out without a medal, Twitter turned hostile. Sports Twitter trolled the women with nasty memes, questioned their competence, and framed them as unworthy of attention and commercial standing (see here, here, here, and below). 

It mirrors the media’s agenda of diminishing a female athlete’s status as a professional player. By contrast, sports writers and reporters on social media were reflective, as they responded by holding conversations on sports performance instead of personalities on platforms like Twitter spaces and clubhouses. Female sports journalists in particular drowned criticism and sexist voices by stating that, “while expressing genuine disappointment is okay the nature of criticism is very harsh.”

Reel over real  

While the spirited performance of the Indian women’s hockey team was appreciated, a tweet by actor Shah Rukh Khan referring to his role as coach of women’s hockey team in his movie Chak De (2007) and the reverent reply by real coach, Sojord Marijne went viral, flooding Twitter with images of actors from the film playing athletes showing a preference for “reel over real,” reinforcing India’s love for sports-based cinema more than real life athletes. 

Resetting the gender agenda     

During the Tokyo Games, sports journalists on social media discarded conventional gender frames and pushed for equal stature for male and female athletes. For example, in an August 4 Clubhouse thread, “Talking Tokyo,” both PR Sreejesh and Savita Punia, goalkeepers of the men’s and women’s field hockey teams, were given equal time. On the last day of the Olympics, when India won Gold in men’s javelin, a special segment acknowledged the performance of golfer Aditi Ashok, who came fourth. Hashtags like #HamariChoriKisiSeKamHaiKya (our daughters are no less than our sons), that questioned the hegemony of men in sports, got support from the influencers. 

In the nutshell, it is evident that Twitter continues to erase women athletes during Olympics. Therefore, sports influencers such as journalists and former female players will have to lead this open forum of self-expression to spotlight women in sports. We saw that former athletes and sports reporters on Twitter were not adversarial; indeed, they countered the excessive criticism produced by a mostly male audience of fans. Reframing women in sports is possible if more women in the audience participate in listening groups and social networks, which happened too rarely during the 2020 Olympic Games.