Media Coverage of Female Olympians

By: Logan R. Harrington

Just imagine. You’re standing there on the Olympic podium surrounded by thousands of fans, awaiting the gold medal to be placed around your neck. All the work, the perseverance, and the discipline you have put in for this one moment has finally paid off. The crowd is screaming, the energy is building, and you have to give yourself a second to take it all in. This is a moment in time you will never get back and is your time to shine. You are ready for the cameras, ready for the interviews, ready for the world to see your victory and the impact you have made on the sport.

But wait, there’s a catch. If you’re a male, go ahead and continue to enjoy this moment. Your name will now be recognized all over the globe and you will be known as strong and valiant for your concentration, commitment, and abilities.
If you’re a woman on the other hand, still enjoy the moment and make it yours, but know the media’s presentation of your accomplishments will be focused more on your sexuality than your performance and skills.

The fact that even though female athletes are still celebrated and praised, their presence in the Olympic media is drastically different than that of a male athletes, based off of various commentators and broadcasters remarks. In six months, the top male and female athletes from around the world will come together at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games to compete at the highest level of competition. Viewers and fans at home will be anxiously waiting for the coverage and reppin’ their country, and whether they realize it or not, many female gender stereotypes will be used during the coverage, diminishing these athletes accomplishments. While women’s equality socially and professionally has changed for the better over the years, the Olympic media coverage of women’s sports show that women are viewed and valued more for their physical appearance than for their strength and what they are accomplishing out on the track, court, or field.

Olympic broadcasters are able to construct new social realities through the use of language and the way by which they present these female athletes changes the way the audience understands and speaks about them. Instead of being known for their successes, they are critically talked about and are recognized for their outward appearance because of the way they are presented in the media.

Gabby Douglas? The U.S. Olympic gymnast who won the women’s individual all-around gold and helped the U.S. team bring home the gold in the 2012 London Olympics?
Wait. Don’t you mean the adorable, five foot two, African-American girl?
Female Olympic athletes are role models for both women and men all over the country, yet their leadership and skill are deemed as weaker than those of men because of the way the media places focus on specific idea of women. Sarah Jackson, from The Huffington Post, stated, “The objectification and sexism faced by women in leadership— like those competing in the Olympics— have serious implications. Focusing on the supposed ‘diva’ behavior, outfits, hair, and parenting of women athletes trivializes their accomplishments and makes them seem less powerful—and ultimately less valuable.” Gabby Douglas has received a lot of appropriate attention and has had the opportunity to reach out to thousands of young girls, but like any female athlete, there have been many cases where she was called out for her wild hair or her child like qualities, instead of the incredible impact she made on the U.S. Olympic gymnastic team. During the 2012 Olympics, an Olympic commentator asked the Russian women’s gymnastics team, “Have you seen any diva moments yet?” This question is humiliating for women and shows the lack of respect the media has for female sports and athletes. The commentators even make statements, calling the female athletes “girls.” Whether intentional or unintentional, this connotation shows how our society roughly views these athletes as small and weak. While some viewers and listeners have ignored what is said, others demand respect by criticizing these commentators on social media. The commentators of the road bicycle racing in 2012, referred to the United States road racers as “girls,” when these athletes were over the age of thirty and some were even competing in their third Olympics. This makes these athletes seem like less than they are. Less of an athlete and much less than a top competitor.

Kerri Walsh Jennings? The U.S. Olympic beach volleyball player who in the 2012 London Olympics won the gold medal with teammate Misty May?
Yes, the one who posed nude for ESPN’s “Body Issue” on two different accounts.
There is no question that there is a double standard when it comes to female athletes. Nolan Feeney, a producer for, reflected on the expectation that women have to “look pretty while performing amazing athletic feats.” Women’s Olympic coverage is driven by sex appeal and focuses on the athlete’s appearances and sexuality rather than their accomplishments. Feeney stated that during the 2014 Winter Olympics, “NBC skiing analyst Steve Porino said, in a segment about how extreme the courses are for skiers, that the female athletes do ‘all of that while in a Lycra suit, maybe a little makeup— now that is grace under pressure.” The coverage is “tilted heavily towards what the researchers termed “socially acceptable” sports for women, and sports with minimal clothing where women can be displayed as physically attractive,” according to Jeff Spross. These sports would include gymnastics, swimming, diving, and beach volleyball. Track and field makes up another small percentage of women’s prime-time coverage. Power based sports or body contact sports are less likely to receive prime-time coverage, if any media coverage at all. For example, Spross stated, “rowing, cycling, and fencing— are not, by traditional standards, ‘socially acceptable’ sports for women, and made up approximately 2 percent of coverage” on NBC. Stereotypes have been made about what sports are appropriate for women to participate and compete in and these are hard to overcome.

NBC’s focus is on a “male-centric coverage.” Jane Schonberger, a writer for On The Issues Magazine, described American’s view of male athletes as “courageous, strong, independent,” whereas women athletes were judged more for their “physical attractiveness.” This means that when it comes time for the programmers to make choices for prime-time coverage, they are more likely to select the male content and competitions. This is “reinforced by the stereotypical dominance of male athletes, making female athletes at best marginal and at worst, nearly invisible,” said Nolan Feeney. Female athletes cannot get the same exposure as men because the media limits their opportunities. Feeney stated, “Men didn’t just get more screen time than women— they also had more opportunities to talk about their events and performances.”
During the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, men received 23 hours of prime-time coverage, while the women received 13 hours. Two years later during the 2012 London Summer Olympics, coverage for both genders was just about equal within the NBC network. The media pays more attention to female athletes during the Olympics than any other time, but as we see from the 2012 Olympic coverage, improvements are being made. Sarah Laskow agreed that there have been improvements in coverage time but explained, “While equal clock time on NBC is a start, it matters, too, what broadcasters and commentators are saying while they’re watching women achieve these feats of athleticism.” Researchers have paid special attention to how the female athletes are presented, not only the amount of air time they receive. “In many cases, they’re still being compared to male athletes in the same sports,” said James Angelini, “When a woman succeeds in competing, you hear them talk about how she was lucky. With men, it’s all about their ability and their commitment. If she falls or misses a shot, that’s when her athletic ability comes into question.”

These stereotypes presented in the media time after time are why our culture has deemed men to be superior to women within the athletic world. Cheryl Cooky, a sociologist conducting a study on “Gender in Televised Sports,” stated, “Female athletes are still portrayed in those conventional, stereotypical ways, and within narrowly constructed ideas about femininity and what’s appropriate for women in our culture.” Women are typically described as what traditional role they play, like wives, girlfriends, or daughters, and less about them as a top competitor and athlete. While mothers are gaining more support in the Olympics, they are still often asked about how having children has affected there training and progress.“I’m tough. I’m a mom. This is what I love,” said Tiffany Williams, a track and field hurdler, “I’m not going to stop here. I’m not going to give up.” There is so much room for improvement on how females are covered. Through the use social media, these Olympic broadcasters are being called out for their unprofessional and stereotypical reporting of the female athletes, as they should be. Their comments and remarks made about the female athletes have been pushed aside for too long.

In six months we will be surrounding the television, watching the prime-time coverage of the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics. While your eyes are glued to the television, watching every move made by the top athletes in the world, pay close attention to what is said behind the scenes, for it makes a great impact not only on the athletes competing on the screen, but also in the way it shapes how our society thinks and reacts to the gendered coverage of women.

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