How Sexist Has Coverage Of The Olympics Become?

Rio’s Done But Let’s Reflect On The Coverage

Look on the front page of your local newspaper, or pull up NBC News online. What is one thing you notice? With The 2016 Summer Olympics going on you’ll notice headlines of yesterday’s medal winners. But look closely and you’ll see gender imbalance in coverage of those medal winners.

According to USA Today, the American women have accrued more gold medals than most of the countries competing in Brazil. To be exact, the paper found that if the American women were to be considered their own country, they would rank third in gold medals and fourth in total medals.

The unequal media coverage of sportsmen and women has been detailed and studied on for years.  In a study done by UK’s Cambridge University Press, men were three times more likely than women to be mentioned in media coverage of sports context.

The Olympic coverage has followed through with what studies have already proven.  At the beginning of the games Corey Cogdel-Unrein won a bronze medal in women’s trap shooting for the U.S. Olympic Team. When The Chicago Tribune reported on her achievement they left out one major detail: her name. Instead they reported her as the wife of a Chicago Bears lineman. Ouch.

But don’t worry; it wasn’t just The Chicago Tribune that participated in the sexist coverage of the Olympics and Cogdel-Unrein wasn’t even mad about her new name. She told the New York Times, “It didn’t come off to me as something that was intentional or malicious,” she said. “I just kind of thought, ‘Well, you know, they probably could’ve chosen a better heading to alert people of my victory.’ ”

The Chicago Tribune apologized to her.

People magazine at least got gold medal gymnast, Simone Biles’ name right. But they referred to her as “the Michael Jordan of gymnastics.” Was it necessary to compare her to a male athlete?

That’s no different than the Daily Mail referring to Katie Ledecky as the “female Michael Phelps” after she broke her own world record and took gold in the women’s 400-meter freestyle.  All while many made remarks about her “swimming like a man.” Well you go on Katie Ledecky, swim like a man and be the new Michael Phelps. Heads up, the Daily Mail has since changed that headline, but the phrases are still used in the article.

Ledecky Phelps

It is not just print media that has forgot how to equally cover the men and women competing in the Olympic Games. Commentators have found themselves putting their feet in their mouths more than once.

NBC Sports commentators have for the most part done very well in covering the highlights of strong performances from female athletes. There are just a few that have taken a harsh beating from social media critics for the way have described some of our beloved American female athletes.

The “Final Five” women’s gymnastics team has been one of the most successful gymnastics teams the U.S. has seen after dominating in all events in these summer games. Yet an unidentified commentator noted that the women looked like they “might as well be standing in the middle of a mall” after blowing away the competition in the qualifying round. Just as the remark was made the camera showed the girls laughing and chatting on the sidelines.

Then two men in a Fox News segment were recorded discussing whether or not female Olympians should wear makeup. Not sure that makeup affects their performance, but that discussion was definitely important to highlight their performances, sense the sarcasm there?

According to an analysis released by three scholars working on the book, “Olympic Television: Inside the Biggest Show on Earth,” women athletes received 58.5 percent of prime-time television coverage during the first half of the games compared to 41.5 percent for men. The increased coverage, which is up from 55 percent for women athletes in the London 2012 games, could be a leading reason for the difference in wording for women and men athletes.

Sarah Grieves is a researcher at Cambridge University Press, she and others are researching the way people speak about male and female Olympians, and how those words might influence gender attitudes toward athletes.

According to their study, words such as “fastest, biggest and strongest” were used to describe the male athletes. Women were referred to by their age or as married or unmarried. The Cambridge research team is looking into the coverage of the Rio games now and will soon release an analysis of those as well.

Marie Hardin, a dean of communications at Penn State University and a longtime researcher of the portrayal of women in sports, gave her input of the coverage for the Rio games to the New York Times. She described the coverage as being mixed and noted that it was in NBC’s best interest to highlight the strong performances by female athletes.

The five sports in prime-time that American women dominate — beach volleyball, diving, gymnastics, swimming and track and field have been one of the reasons women’s prime-time percentage has went up. In 2012 women athletes brought home more medals than male athletes. Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel have helped keep the focus on female athletes during the Rio games.

Photo: Nancy Leong, Professor at U Denver Law
Photo: Nancy Leong, Professor at U Denver Law

Still the focus on these women comes in subdue to the men’s achievements in that sport. Katie Ledecky broke her world record and got a gold medal and was not only called the “female Michael Phelps” but was also given a much smaller headline.

The Bryan-College Station Eagle is a local newspaper in Texas that circulates to about 20,000 people. The morning after Ledecky’s thrilling swim they gave the top headline to Michael Phelps silver, then highlighted Ledecky’s success below it.

Hardin’s reasoning for this “mixture” of coverage is simple, the journalist brought out for these games are out of practice. Think about it, every two years a set of Olympic games take place.

That’s every two years that female sports highlight prime-time television. No other female sports usually dominate prime-time and Hardin addresses that as an even bigger sexism issue. These journalists are not use to covering female athletes and are just a tad bit rusty from a two year break.

Allison Leslie is a University of South Florida graduate with a bachelors degree in Mass Communications. She joined Genesis in 2016. With a passion for sports, Allison has interned with 620 WDAE, Pewter Report, Trifecta Team: St. Petersburg Bowl, Bullscast, and many other publications. Being a native to the Bay Area, she has followed and supported Tampa Bay teams her whole life.