Sexist coverage at the Rio Olympics no surprise – here’s how we change it

Sexist coverage at the Rio Olympics no surprise – here’s how we change it

There were many reasons to love the 2016 Rio Olympics, but the astonishing amount of sexist coverage has left a bitter taste in the mouths of some.

From Katie Ledecky being ‘praised’ for ‘swim[ming] like a man’ to Katinka Hosszu’s success being credited to her husband (‘there’s the man responsible’) and He Zi’s greatest feat being reported as a marriage proposal rather than a gold medal (‘What’s better than an Olympic medal? A proposal!), this year’s commentary sadly highlighted that sexism in sports coverage is still alive and well.

A new study of Olympic coverage revealed male athletes were reported about a whopping three times more than women, which perhaps comes as little surprise considering Michael Phelp’s tie for second place was considered a bigger news story by one outlet than Ledecky’s world-breaking win by an unfathomable 11 seconds.

The study also highlighted the common adjectives to describe men were ‘fastest’, ‘strong’, ‘big’ and ‘great’ whereas women were most associated with words like ‘aged’, ‘older’, ‘married’ and ‘unmarried’. Men were linked with verbs like ‘beat’, ‘win’, ‘dominate’ and ‘battle’,  women with ‘compete’, ‘participate’ and ‘strive’.

Why this kind of coverage is no surprise

La Trobe lecturer and Sports Journalism Coordinator Dr Merryn Sherwood says this kind of coverage at the Olympics is ‘unfortunately not a surprise’.

‘Sports reporting and sports broadcast can be difficult, it’s high pressure, it’s tight deadlines – so it’s easy to revert to old habits and behaviours. It’s not surprising that these old habits and preferences are traditionally sexist – because sports journalism is historically male-dominated.’

La Trobe Sports Management Program Director Dr Emma Sherry agrees that in live coverage, ‘people can get caught up in it’ and let slip questionable comments.

Dr Sherry, however, says ‘I have less sympathy and acceptance when it’s in print because it’s not just the journalist making the call but also, arguably, a sub-editor and editor. There are layers in place to say “this is not okay”.’

The global backlash

Despite the many sexist clangers, Dr Sherwood points out that what’s interesting and different about this Olympics is the public pushback to all of these incidents, spawning the global hashtag #CovertheAthletes.

‘The tweet on the Ledecky/Phelps headline has gathered 35,000 retweets and counting. There have been numerous articles calling out the sexism inherent in sports commentary, rightly so,’ she says.

‘It indicates that while sports media might be defaulting to traditionally skewed news values, personal preferences and bad habits – news consumers aren’t putting up with it anymore, and social media has provided a platform on which they can do so. Sports consumers are demanding to see women as athletes first, and have their achievements celebrated without comparing them to men. Not long ago sports commentators and sports journalists could say what they like and not necessarily know how it was received – now they know instantly.’

Athletes speaking out

It’s not just the public calling out the questionable reporting, but athletes too. Dr Sherry says she’s been ‘heartened’ by the athletes taking a stand, and describes her two favourite examples from the Olympics.

‘The first is Simone Biles, the American gymnast who has basically broken every record. She’s won four gold and a bronze and is just ridiculous! Someone said “you’re the next Usain Bolt, the next Michael Phelps” and she (at just 19 years of age, mind you) replied: “No, I’m the first Simone Biles”.’

Dr Sherry says the other great example was when Andy Murray won gold. The commentator said “you’re the first to win two golds” and he said: “well actually Venus and Serena have won four”.

‘Murray didn’t have to speak out. It didn’t benefit him but he chose to, which was why it was so great. I think that needs to happen more.’

What else can be done?

Obviously the onus is on the journalists and media-makers to be better. It’s disheartening to acknowledge that the questionable coverage of female athletes seems to be across the board, even at media organisations you’d expect better from. For example, a BBC announcer likened an elite judo Olympic match between two of the world’s top competitors as ‘a catfight’.

Dr Sherwood says, the next interesting step will be how the media deal with this. ‘Do they bring more women in the commentary box? For example, Channel 7 have broadcast premium events with a male anchor and a female in the special comments position, Giann Rooney for swimming and Tamsyn Manou for athletics.  That’s a start.

‘Do sports news media also start to reconsider the bias underneath news values they might have taken for granted?’

Dr Sherwood and Dr Sherry recently conducted extensive research into the coverage of women’s sport in Australia, and they believe values are changing – ‘if only incrementally’.

‘We spoke to journalists and editors in Australian newspapers that covered women’s sport and found that they were starting to challenge traditional news values and stereotypes that did not value women and women’s sport,” Dr Sherwood said.

‘In a field that has historically relegated women, this is an important note. The public pushback we are seeing this Olympics indicates that others in sports media should also start questioning their established norms, and quickly.’

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2 thoughts on “Sexist coverage at the Rio Olympics no surprise – here’s how we change it”

  1. When Katie Ledecky is being praised for ‘swimming like a man’, doesn’t this just infer she’s swimming unbelievably quick, because as records show men swim faster than women?
    How is Katinka Hosszu’s husband being credited with her success? “The man responsible” merely infers he helped/guided her as her coach.
    And I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that He Zi agrees that her marriage and relationship with her partner is, above all, the most important thing in her life ahead of competitive swimming.

    Dr Merryn Sherwood’s comment that ‘Sports reporting and sports broadcast can be difficult, it’s high pressure, it’s tight deadlines’ is important to note. You are delving way too deeply into off the cuff comments, which you have taken offence too, when there is none to be taken.

    1. Hi Hayden,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I think the central argument made by Dr Sherry and Dr Sherwood is that women’s achievements are reported in a different way.

      We often hear about female athletes’ looks and marriage status, their achievements are referenced in light of their male coaches and husbands, and compared to male athletes. We rarely encounter this in coverage of men’s sporting achievements.

      More importantly, we hear about women’s incredible achievements much less often than men’s. This is a real shame because we want to hear about the amazing physical feats of all athletes regardless of their gender!

      Hopefully enough robust discussion can help change the fact that male athletes are reported around three times more than female athletes. By Tokyo 2020, wouldn’t it be great to enjoy equal coverage on all achievements?

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