What's Wrong with Olympics' Coverage of Female Athletes

BlogHer Original Post

Originally published in On The Issues Magazine.

Growing up in the '70s, I loved watching the Olympics. I sat mesmerized through performances from exciting athletes like Nadia Comaneci. I became engrossed in learning about the athlete's back-stories and personal journeys to the Games.

Watching the Olympics is still a highlight for me. But when I stopped playing sports competitively and started thinking critically, I realized there are a lot of issues with the Olympic media when it comes to the appearances and presentation of women athletes, and many untapped and emerging opportunities, as well.

What's Wrong with the Olympics?

Four key problem areas about the spectacle of the Olympics and the presentation of women athletes pop out from the peer-reviewed research.

Credit Image: © Steven Paston/Action Images/ZUMAPRESS.com

First, male athletes receive more media attention than female athletes. More overall coverage is devoted to male athletes both on television and in print publications, such as Sports Illustrated. When media opportunities are limited for women, it's difficult for them to get exposure and advance professionally.

Secondly, the type of attention women receive differs from that given to men. During the 2004 Olympics, male athletes were more likely to be portrayed as "courageous, strong, and independent" compared to female athletes who were likely to be described based upon their "physical attractiveness and sexuality." There's no doubt that stereotypes perpetuate themselves within our culture, and the more stereotyping occurs, the harder it is to overcome.

A third point is that media attention toward women athletes and the quality of it are not getting better with time. One would think that as more women advance in the workplace and become empowered members of society, these trends would get better. But we're not seeing much improvement. Even as recently as the Beijing Olympics in 2008, researchers found that NBC gave more on-air time to male competitions compared to the 2004 Athens games and 2000 Sydney Games despite near parity in participation. The men on telecasts also received more comments about "strength, intelligence and consonance, compared to their female counterparts." For those interested in numbers , only 23 percent of Olympians at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles were women, a figure that jumps to 42 percent for Beijing 2008 and 45 percent for London 2012. In fact, with the addition of women's boxing, the London Games will be the first to feature both sexes competing in every sport on the Olympic program.

The fourth, and perhaps most crucial, point is that money follows the exposure and attention. Forbes published an article in 2010 on the highest paid female athletes. Not surprisingly, tennis players, led by Maria Sharapova, ruled as the top-earning female athletes. Women's tennis is, arguably, the most commercially popular and successful among all women's sports, likely because it is an individual sport that draws a greater percentage of male followers than other women's sports.

But the dollars don't just come on the court -- they come afterward from lucrative endorsement deals and appearance fees. As a female athlete, if you can't provide a large stage for a brand, you need a targeted platform like the Olympics to elevate your visibility. Since the built-in audience is practically guaranteed, when the Olympics come around every two years, brands come out of the woodwork to associate themselves with female athletes.

For example, going into 2012, the P&G hair care brand, Pantene, sponsored -- for the first time in the brand's history -- 11 elite female athletes from around the globe as its newest beauty ambassadors.

While Olympics attention is a good thing and any extra attention that female athletes get from the media and brands is a bonus, I wonder if two weeks every two years will be enough to help females advance. What about the 206 weeks between Games? Perhaps it's time to start thinking about how to change the paradigm.

Putting Women Athletes on Top

While the facts are not-so-inspiring, I also see opportunities. This is where it gets fun, and why I'm so passionately dedicated to increasing visibility for women in sports.

NBC producer Molly Sims said during the recent International Olympics Committee Women & Sport Conference in Los Angeles that during the Olympics, tune-in rates between the male and female audiences in the U.S. are strikingly similar. In fact she noted that 52 percent of NBC's viewership during the Games is female -- more than any other sports programming. This increased female audience provides a special and unique platform for female athletes.

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