Gender Coverage in the Olympics

By Scott Brayall

Since the close of the Olympic games, I have been searching the web for anything Olympic related.  Suspicion arose because of general conversations in my Olympic Studies class with Dr. Fred Mason.  Curiosity peaked and I decided to look into gender coverage during the Olympics.  The first hit to come up on Google was “A Brief History of Sexism in TV Coverage of the Olympics”.  Safe to say this title is bold enough to catch anyone’s attention.  The recent, most highlighted topic was how NBC’s primetime drew immense criticism for what the commentators were saying.  During the coverage of the women’s ski halfpipe, the commentators repeatedly called women skiers “girls”.  Both men and women alike quickly took to social medias such as twitter to voice their displeasure.  I personally think my favorite tweet was by Dan Ciskey who said “Somebody please teach the folks at @NBCOlympics the difference between girls and women.  A 29 y.o. skier with kids and a bar is not a girl.”.

I found a study conducted by Andrew C. Billings and Susan Tyler Eastman who wrote about gender representation of the 2000 Olympics.  What I found actually shocked me.  This is not the first time Olympic telecasts have referred to women as “girls”. Not only did the telecasts refer to women in a demeaning way, they also commented on their attractiveness more often than they referred to men’s attractiveness.  Having missed this year’s halfpipe, I decided to watch some of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.  What I noticed was when the women landed their maneuvers, the commentator made remarks such as “elegant, beautiful, graceful” whereas when men competed, the comments were “smashed the landing, stomped the landing, got huge air”.  The event was the same yet somehow they almost made it sound as if men were doing it more aggressively.

Because the clock time for televised sports during prime time such as the Olympics can take a couple years to add up (due to all the events going on simultaneously), I decided to look into the coverage of women during prime-time of the 2000 Olympics.  Although this data is 14 years old, it is sad to say that the percentage of coverage hasn’t changed much.  During the 2000 olympics the coverage time was scaled at 53% and 47%, with men’s coverage taking the majority.  The journal article also brings light to the fact that the majority of the women’s broadcast comes from sports seen as more feminine such as diving, gymnastics, swimming and not surprisingly volleyball (for the summer games).  For the winter games they show hockey, figure skating, speed skating, and some snowboard/skiing events.

After boring everyone with the statistics of coverage and demeaning terms used by commentators, you ask yourself, what does any of this matter?  The reason this matters so much is because it reinforces a stereotypical dominance that the male athletes are better than females.  Our current society is now, more than ever, geared towards trying to live healthier.  How are our mothers, our sisters and our daughters supposed to try and be active when all they see in the media is the oppression of women in major sporting events?  This definitely needs to change, because the notion that men don’t like watching women in sport can be argued.  The proof can be found on CTV news where more people took to social media on February 20th about the women’s hockey team claiming Olympic gold than about the men’s hockey victory on Friday.

References: Staff (2014), Women’s hockey gold creates more buzz than men’s semi-final win at Sochi Olympics.

Feeney, Nolan (2014), A Brief History of Sexism in TV Coverage of the Olympics.

Billings, A. C., & Eastman, S. T. (2002). Selective representation of gender, ethnicity, and nationality in American television coverage of the 2000 summer Olympics. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 37(3), 351-370.


6 responses

  1. Great read Scott! Also being enrolled in Gender Sport and Leisure, also Modern Olympic Studies, I too viewed the passed 2014 Sochi games with a critical eye. It all still seems the same as the 2000 Sydney stats. Why is the women’s hockey gold medal final not sunday? The men’s hockey finals has always been played the last day and become the great finale of the winter olympics. The interest is there in women’s sport, but it would be interesting to see tv ratings for the 2 gold medal hockey finals. Ill search about for it, and if I find it, I will bring the results to class.

    Andrew Connors

  2. Well written Scott,

    You raise some good points about the language used accentuating the male aggression, and suggesting that the females are just elegant. Almost suggesting that the females are in some way doing it differently. Similarly to what Andrew said, I believe that if more prime time television scheduling was given to women’s sport it would go some way in extinguishing women’s oppression. Even in our day and age it’s still hard to believe that the split between men and women’s television coverage is so big. A study in 2012 showed that 90% of all televised sport was male orientated. This lack in television coverage goes some way in suggesting that women’s sport is lesser than men’s. At some point this has to change before a decrease in women’s sport occurs.

    Will Jennings

  3. Good post Scott!
    This topic is very interesting to me. Before being in this class, I hadn’t really critically watched sport for cues that women were being oppressed based on broadcasters comments. I also agree that it can be astonishing how differently men are portrayed compared to women.
    In order to make change, I believe we need to educate our broadcasters more on the topic. Similar to myself before this class, many people do not understand the effects their words have in this context. I don’t believe that many broadcasters know the effect they have on women when they call grown women ‘girls’ in the sporting context. My question is, when broadcasting on women who are adults (18 and over), should a policy be in place that disallows broadcasters to use the descriptive word ‘girl’ when talking about the athlete? Would this make a difference? And is it taking the issue too far?


  4. Scott, when I read your blog, it was somewhat like a rolling snowball. The issue grew larger and larger. Were “the good old boys” doing most of the coverage? You found good articles that reinforced sexism in TV coverage of the Olympics. It is amazing how one can read/hear coverage without really hearing. Sorry to say, but I likely would previously have read this and interpreted “girl” as “female”. The commentator’s remarks at first glance at the 2000 Olympics seemed quite flattering. Describing the talented maneuvers of the men as ‘elegant, beautiful, graceful’ would seems at the least, a poor choice. It was only after reading the remarks that describe the men “smashed the landing” that I took note of the difference. Perhaps commentators should describe the action rather than the participant. It was rather alarming to learn that males received more coverage and that coverage of the female events were of more feminine sports. Perhaps we should react to this to bring about change by tuning out the men’s sports. It could make a difference. It has long been said that “a woman must work twice as hard as a man” in the same job/position to be recognized. The pendulum is s-l-o-w-l-y swinging.

    – Ashley O.

  5. Great post, Scott.

    In addition to your observations on not only the language used by commentators (girls vs women, sexual attractiveness [male vs female athletes]), the major shock that I think came up this year was with hockey. Every winter Olympics, Canada builds up this hype for the men’s finals. With commercials, interviews and discussion panels all surrounding how extraordinary our male hockey players are, the media seems to ignore women’s hockey up until the week of the finals; sometimes even less. What was amazing to see this year is how the women LITERALLY stole the show. Despite men still having the final competition for the games on Sunday morning, the women had much more media craze after the everything finished. Hopefully this success shows just how essential it is to pay equal attention and respect to women athletes too.

    – Meagan F.

  6. Great Post Scott
    This a topic that was discussed a lot in class during the duration of he olympics and I made a conscious effort to see how lop sided the coverage is. Personally I always new that males events were favoured but never really knew to what extent it actually was.
    It is unfortunate that our society still sees males as the superior athletes, when these women are putting in just as much effort and training hours as the men and aren’t getting the same recognition as these male athletes.
    Personally during the olympics I just enjoy watching the events and it never really mattered to me what the sex of the athletes were, I just liked watching the athletes compete against one another and to see who the best athletes are. The olympics are very exciting and I think that it wouldn’t change the outcome of the ratings if they were to change the schedule around so the primetime TV times were split between male and female events.

    Thanks Scott

    Mike Miller

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