Identity

The Olympics’ First-Ever Non-Binary Athletes Have Already Been Misgendered

Broadcasters who regularly share obscure facts and stats about athletes are failing to get their pronouns right.
July 27, 2021, 5:50pm
Alana Smith of Team United States competes during the Women's Street Prelims Heat 3 on day three of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Urban Sports Park on July 26, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
Ezra Shaw | Getty 

Despite the many ethical concerns around this year’s Olympic Games, the event is a major milestone for trans participation in sports. For the first time in the history of the Games, there will be openly trans athletes competing. There are at least four openly trans athletes, from three different countries, in Tokyo. But even though headlines leading up to the Games touted this milestone, many sports journalists didn’t seem prepared to provide accurate coverage. To make things even more complicated, the many different broadcast and streaming feeds have made it harder to determine exactly how the situations arose, and made it more difficult to hold the networks and individuals responsible accountable.

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Two of those trans athletes are non-binary—soccer player Quinn, playing for Team Canada, and skateboarder Alana Smith, representing the United States—and competing in the women’s division. Both athletes use they/them pronouns. (Trans women Laurel Hubbard, a weightlifter from New Zealand, and Chelsea Wolfe, a BMX rider from the U.S. who is an alternate, are the other two trans athletes.) Non-binary visibility on the biggest stage in sports is a huge deal, and going into the Games, many fans wondered how the media would fare in covering the non-binary athletes. Now, just days into the Games, we know: both athletes were misgendered by broadcasters while competing. 

When the Canadian soccer team was playing Japan last week, CBC broadcaster Nigel Reed misgendered Quinn throughout the broadcast. After he was called out by viewers, including fellow media member Meaghen Johnson, Reed issued an apology.

“Want to apologize sincerely to @TheQuinny5 and Canadian fans for my improper use of pronouns this morning,” Reed said on Twitter. “I know better but misspoke in the moment and meant no disrespect. I hope you can forgive my error, from which I will learn.”

Meanwhile, the U.S.’s Alana Smith was misgendered by broadcasters during their appearance in the women’s street skateboarding prelims. Early coverage from outlets in both the United States and the United Kingdom chastised NBC and the BBC for getting Smith’s pronouns wrong, as did users on Twitter who were watching the broadcast. But some were praising the NBC broadcasters for getting Smith’s pronouns right. So, what was actually going on? 

It turns out that it wasn’t actually the NBC broadcast that consistently misgendered Smith. NBC broadcasters Todd Harris, Paul Zitzer, and Tina Dixon actually got Smith’s pronouns mostly correct (with a few slips), and explicitly mentioned Smith’s non-binary identity. That broadcast aired on CNBC from 7:30 PM ET to 10:40 PM ET.

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But those who streamed the women’s street qualifying round on NBCOlympics.com would have heard Smith being misgendered. That stream used an audio feed from Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), a company created by the International Olympic Committee in 2001 to provide coverage for networks to air. This would explain the mixed messages on Twitter from people watching the event.

“NBC Sports is committed to—and understands the importance of—using preferred pronouns for everyone across our platforms,” an NBC spokesperson told VICE. “While our commentators used the correct pronouns in our coverage, we streamed an international feed that was not produced by NBCUniversal which misgendered Olympian Alana Smith. We regret this error and apologize to Alana and our viewers.”

“We are making a concentrated effort to improve and increase the representation of all genders and profiles across the spectrum of Olympic athletes,” OBS said in a statement to VICE. “It is therefore, with great regret, that we apologise on behalf of one of our commentators for misgendering Alana Smith during their performance at Skateboarding, and we send our profound apologies to Alana.”

The OBS broadcasters were British, which led many viewers to assume they were from the BBC. BBC skateboarding commentators Marc Churchill and Ed Leigh did record a broadcast of the preliminary event that featured Smith, but, according to Leigh, that feed never aired anywhere. As we noted, the BBC did not respond to questions about whether the footage aired anywhere by the time this article was published. But a reader reached out after publication with screen recordings of the broadcasters misgendering Smith from the BBC’s Red Button archive, and contemporaneous tweets suggest that the broadcast did in fact air on the livestream. The reader also confirmed they viewed the broadcast on the livestream. 

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Leigh told VICE that there was no information provided to the BBC broadcast team about Smith’s pronoun, and admitted that on his unaired broadcast with Churchill, the two used she/her pronouns for Smith. “The shame is that because we are based in Manchester, we are removed from the athletes, so preparation is totally different,” Leigh said. “We are not given identifying pronouns as a standard. But I still have to take responsibility for not checking their social bio where it is clearly stated.” (The BBC did not return multiple requests for comment.) 

Misgendering an athlete on-air is a big deal. Not only is it inaccurate and false, having the wrong pronouns used consistently can have negative impacts on trans people’s mental health. Especially for non-binary people, whose identities are so often erased or invalidated, having their identity respected can make a big difference. In this case, not just for the athletes on screen, but for viewers—and non-binary viewers, in particular—watching at home. Only about 1 in 4 people in the U.S. have a close friend or family member who is out as trans, so media coverage really shapes how people understand and talk about trans people.

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It’s also not like gender neutral pronouns are new or confusing. The singular “they” was the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s “word of the year” in 2019 and it has been in use for literal centuries. “They/them pronouns are not new and should not require an explanation for audiences,” the Trans Journalist Association writes in their style guide. “The media has been reporting regularly on singular they/them pronouns in relation to trans people for at least a decade, and these pronouns are in the dictionary.”  The number of non-binary people is steadily increasing, as well, with an estimated 1.2 million living in the U.S.

When broadcasters prepare for a game, they learn how to pronounce athletes’ names and familiarize themselves with their play. Just like it's a broadcaster's job to get a player's name and position right, it's also their job to make sure they are using a player's pronouns correctly. It’s common for broadcasters to practice saying unfamiliar names before they go on air, making sure they can say it right. It’s a sign of respect. Similarly, they can practice unfamiliar pronouns before a broadcast, and if they slip up, they can issue a correction in the moment. It's not really that hard.

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“Journalistic due diligence is especially vital at this year's historic Tokyo Games, where out nonbinary and trans athletes are competing for the first time,” ​​Ross Murray, Senior Director of the GLAAD Media Institute, said in a statement to VICE. “Especially at a time when the world is looking to Tokyo, and the LGBTQ community is celebrating the leaps in visibility of out athletes, misgendering an athlete warrants a correction and steps to prevent future mistakes.”

Smith, who didn’t respond to VICE’s request for comment, shared a post from user annikanolen on their Instagram stories calling out the broadcasters for failing to get their pronouns correct. “Your sportscasters should absolutely know the pronouns of the athletes they are commenting on,” annikanolen’s story said. “They do their research for their performance history but don’t know their pronouns???? Ya I don’t think so. Get with it.”

Part of the problem is that it’s still not standard for broadcasters to be given pronoun guides along with the media guides they receive with players’ names, pronunciations, positions, and stats. 

The NBC commentators who got Smith’s pronouns correct likely did so because they were provided that information. NBC has a dedicated research team that gives commentators detailed bios on each athlete prior to the Games. A source inside NBC who declined to be identified out of concern for professional repercussions provided VICE the Alana Smith bio that the commentators were given. It contains a note, in bold font, that says: “Smith identifies as non-binary and uses the pronouns ‘they/them/their,’ not ‘she/her.’” It also gives an example of how to use those pronouns in a sentence. According to the NBC source, commentators were also required to watch a seminar from GLAAD about the importance of getting people’s pronouns right.

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GLAAD also partnered this year with Athlete Ally and Pride House Tokyo to issue a guide for media professionals covering queer and trans athletes at the Olympics. The guide is available online and in the form of postcards with scannable QR codes located at Pride House Tokyo, where members of that team are also distributing it at the Games themselves.

This is starting to become more common. Some WNBA teams, including the New York Liberty, have started providing them, thanks to non-binary player Layshia Clarendon being on the roster. The OL Reign, Quinn’s National Women’s Soccer League team, now provides pronouns for every player and coach on their website.

But neither Quinn nor Smith has been quiet about their identity, which makes the broadcasters’ ignorance even more infuriating. Smith has their pronouns literally written on their skateboard and they were wearing a pronoun pin on their shirt, both of which were in view of the broadcasters while they were competing. June coverage of the announcement of the first-ever skateboarding team to represent the U.S. included references to Smith being non-binary, and their pronouns are in their social media bios. Quinn, similarly, has been quite outspoken about being trans and non-binary since coming out publicly last year. I wrote about Quinn in a Sports Illustrated digital cover story in April of this year. And they’ve been documenting their journey on social media, including on the Canadian National Team.

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“I don’t know how to feel,” Quinn wrote earlier this week on Instagram, in regards to being the first openly trans athlete to compete in an Olympic Games. “I feel proud seeing ‘Quinn’ up on the lineup and on my accreditation. I feel sad knowing there were Olympians before me unable to live their truth because of the world. I feel optimistic for change. Change in legislature. Changes in rules, structures, and mindsets.”

This is not the first time Quinn has had to deal with being misgendered on a broadcast. The 18 reported in April 2021—months after Quinn first came out as non-binary and informed the public that they used they/them pronouns—that analysts were still getting their pronouns wrong. It’s also a problem outside of the Olympics. Rach McBride, a non-binary triathlete, has dealt with being misgendered during races. And when non-binary runner Nikki Hiltz competed in the Olympic trials last month, NBC analyst Kara Goucher apologized after the race for getting Hiltz’s pronouns wrong.

Quinn and Smith both have their gender listed as “female” in their official Olympics.com bios, as well. It’s important to understand that just because someone is competing in the women’s division doesn’t mean they identify as a woman; for non-binary athletes, they have to navigate the extremely gendered world of sports, and compete in the division that feels safest and most right for them. If you scroll down, both athletes’ bios are clear that they use they/them pronouns. This speaks to a need to re-think how databases that log this information work; athletes are divided by gender to make statistics more easily searchable, but that could be done by categorizing the sport and not the person.

The bigger issue is the inherently binary nature of the way sports are currently organized. As long as sports are defined by the categories of “men’s” and “women’s,” athletes whose gender doesn’t fit into one of those two buckets will never quite fit in (and broadcasters will assume everyone competing in a gendered category is comfortable using a gendered pronoun). But changing that would require blowing up the way we think about sports altogether, and even the most optimistic advocates don’t see that happening anytime soon. 

Until then, non-binary athletes will have to hope that the mostly cis media members covering them care enough to do the work to get it right. And based on what we’ve seen in Tokyo, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in order to get there.

Update: In communications with VICE, BBC broadcaster Ed Leigh denied that the broadcast in which he and Marc Churchill misgendered Smith ever aired. After publication, a reader provided VICE with screen recordings of the broadcast on BBC’s Red Button service, and confirmed they witnessed the broadcast on BBC’s Red Button livestream.

Correction: In its statements to VICE, GLAAD misattributed the quote. The statement was from Ross Murray, not Ross Matthews.

Britni de la Cretaz is the author of the forthcoming HAIL MARY: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League. Follow them on Twitter here.