Gender bias still evident in Olympics coverage, study says

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Based on past broadcasts of the Summer Olympics, female athletes on the U.S. Olympic Team, and their sports, should receive more coverage on than U.S. television than ever before when the 2004 Summer Olympics begin in Athens Aug. 13.

However, commentators will probably still not provide equitable coverage of female and male athletes, focusing more on the females' physical appearances and personal lives than on their athletic ability, according to University of North Texas and Slippery Rock University researchers.

Dr. Karen Weiller, UNT associate professor of kinesiology, health promotion and recreation; Dr. Christy Greenleaf, UNT assistant professor of kinesiology, health promotion and recreation; and Dr. Catriona Higgs, professor of physical education at Slippery Rock University in Slippery Rock, Penn., also say profiles of female athletes that appeal to the emotional nature of a female audience may be present in this year's Summer Olympics coverage as well.

The researchers taped television broadcasts of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. All three Olympics were covered by NBC, which will also broadcast the Athens Olympics.

The researchers focused on sports that had both male and female participants. For the 2000 Summer Olympics, they analyzed coverage of basketball, volleyball, gymnastics, swimming, diving, baseball/softball, track and field, water polo, soccer, rowing and cycling.

Weiller, Greenleaf and Higgs note that approximately 38 percent of all of the participants in the 2000 Summer Olympics were women, an increase of 4 percent from the 1996 Summer Olympics.

While the amount of coverage of women's sports and women athletes increased from 1996 to 2000, gender marking - identifying the gender of the athletes - by television commentators was evident in numerous sports, Weiller says.

"In track and field, audiences were reminded 57 that they were watching the U.S. Women's Track Team. They were reminded only 12 times that they were watching the U.S. Men's Track Team," she says. "Similarly, during the rowing competition, there were 27 instances of gender marking for female athletes during the one hour and 45-minute time frame televised. Little gender marking occurred for male athletes in rowing."

In addition, in the women's rowing competition, the athletes were called "girls" 10 times, while the male athletes were never referred to as "boys."

Commentators also referred to female athletes by their first names only, instead of by their first and last names or just their last names, approximately 60 percent of the time, which Weiller calls "hierarchy of naming."

"The use of hierarchy of naming infantilizes women and presumes a lesser status than male athletes," she says.

Commentators for the swimming and diving competition used women's first names 32 times, while the track and field commentators used the first names 87 times and the gymnastics commentators used the first names 104 times. For the men in each sport, commentators used first names eight times, 11 times and 64 times, respectively.

Weiller says that in both the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics coverage, commentators often described female athletes in sexist terms by focusing on appearance. Phases used included "the glamour girl of swimming," "the babe of summer," "the chief fashion plate of the Olympic games" and "she has the prettiest nails in the competition."      

 Commentators at the 2000 Summer Olympics made fewer remarks about athletes' appearances than commentators of previous years. However, coverage of gymnastics still included the comments "…and you know it's the big event for Svetlana because she's come dressed in her black sequins…," "You can see she's in unbelievable shape; you don't look this way with an ab roller" and "She was voted sexiest woman in Sweden by many newspapers there."

The researchers also analyzed the amount of references to male and female athletes' personal lives. Weiller said the 552 references were about equally divided between males and females, a change from the 1996 Olympics coverage. During that lympics, a profile of track star Jackie Joyner Kersee focused on her marriage and relationship with her coach-husband, while a profile on Michael Johnson focused only on his athletic talent, she says.

Weiller adds, however, that female athletes' personal lives were described in terms of struggle, while discussions of male athletes' personal lives focused on power.

Male and female commentators mentioned a female athlete crying during one of her training sessions, and another female athlete taking a year off to have a child, returning to training, then thinking about quitting.

By contrast, a profile of a male athlete illustrated his dedication to his sport by mentioning how he finished a workout 10 minutes before his college graduation began. Another male athlete was described as "the motor" and "definitely the guy who gives this team power and personality."

Weiller says she was most dismayed to see comparisons of female athletes to male athletes during competition. The researchers noted 31 instances, with 23 of them comparing females to their male counterparts in the same sports. For example, a female rower was described as paddling "with the style of a man,"and a female soccer player was called "the Roberto Carlos of women's soccer in Brazil."

"Comparison of female athletes to males in the same sport suggests a standard differential and standard comparison, most often with the female athletes being identified as the lesser of the two," she says.

Weiller and her colleagues plan to videotape NBC's, MSNBC's and CNBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics in Athens next month. They hope that women's and men's sports will be covered more equally than in past Olympics.

"It is obvious that media coverage of an event like the Olympic Games is critical in setting the tone as to how women are represented in the sports media. But as Olympics coverage shows, men's sports continue to enjoy a level of focus and sophistication that women's sports are missing," Weiller says.

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