Of all the several aspects of everyday life the media presents, such as politics, economics, and entertainment, sports is undeniably one of the most popular. And for the remaining week and a half weeks, global viewership will continue to surge as the mix of sport, nationalism, and spectacle that is known as the Olympics dominates collective consciousness.
This year, roughly 45% of athletes competing in Rio are female—the highest-ever percentage in any Olympic Games. However, the boom in female athletic participation has not been reflected by the media, as the media coverage of male and female athletes is still subject to noticeable imbalances. As such, it is inevitable to question the extent to which the Olympic broadcast resembles the actual athletic event.
There is a difference in the quantity and quality of coverage of women sports in the media because female athletes are often under-reported and misrepresented throughout all mass media. As studies have shown that in the media’s coverage of sports, male athletes were three times more likely to be mentioned in a sporting context than their female counterparts. Women, instead, were routinely described with regards to non-sporting issues, such as their marital status and appearance.
The space dedicated to women’s sports is far less than the space occupied by male sports in the print media, which reinforces the idea that sports pertain to men and marginalize the role of women in sports when in fact now has never been a greater time for women to be involved. Broadcasting channels delayed the streaming of women’s gymnastics because, according to NBC the network’s chief marketing officer, John Miller, the games aren’t apparently popular with female viewers.
Such portrayal of sport continues to reduce progress towards gender – or specifically “sex” – equality because the media’s depictions and frames of female athletes reinforce stereotypical gender roles in society. NBC was accused of sexism during its coverage of women’s gymnastics when a commentator said Team USA members looked like they “might as well be standing in the middle of a mall” when they were filmed on camera for simply having a laugh and conversation among each other after the qualifying round.
Furthermore, the media devotes an extra emphasis on female athletes’ heterosexuality, through their depiction as a role of mother, wife, or girlfriend. When swimmer Katinka Hosszu broke the world record in the 400 meter race, NBC immediately zooms to her husband and coach Shane Tusup with the announcer giving Tusup the credit as “the man responsible for her performance”. Even if Tusup deserves credit for his role in coaching Hosszu, it was Hosszu was still the one in the pool and it was Hosszu who broke the world record.
And, off the field, BBC presenter Helen Skelton’s dress became a subject of an unnecessary debate as to whether her dress length was appropriate for live TV. The incidents all speak for themselves, so to showcase the blatant sexism that’s happening right in front of our eyes, we’ve documented it.
It is 2016. It is time for the media to ditch sexist reporting of the Olympics and actually focus on the talents of the female athletes and presenters at the Rio games, rather than their appearances. Let’s keep the conversation within the context of athletics.