A Brief History of Sexism in TV Coverage of the Olympics

Years of research show that prime-time coverage of the Games gives male athletes more screen time and speaking opportunities—especially in the Winter Olympics.
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Rick Bowmer / AP

For some Olympic fans, spotting and calling out sexism in Olympics coverage has become a sport in itself—and the past two weeks of Sochi coverage have certainly kept those vigilant fans busy.

NBC's primetime coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi has drawn criticism for the way commentators and analysts cover female athletes, and plenty of viewers found last night's broadcast of the women's ski halfpipe particularly irksome for the way it repeatedly referred to skiers as "girls" instead of women.

Skiing hasn't been the only event under fire, either. Speed skating, curling, hockey, bobsled, snowboarding—you name it. Last week, in one of the bigger dust-ups, 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 bit of makeup—now that is grace under pressure." The Washington Post rounded up tweets of upset viewers, who felt the remark paid unnecessary attention to athletes’ appearance, while Josh Levin at Slate wrote that onlookers should be "pretty angry" because "everyone knows there’s a double standard with regard to female athletes and how they’re expected to look pretty while performing amazing athletic feats."

But the double standard Levin mentions isn’t a new phenomenon. For years, academics and scholars have analyzed the way Olympic television coverage treats female athletes, from commentary just like Porino’s remarks, to less obvious metrics like visibility and screen time in certain events. Below are some of the most notable findings from several studies.

2002: "A Large Step Backwards"

The Olympics are too massive of an event to show in their entirety during primetime, which means NBC, as the exclusive U.S. broadcaster, has a lot of choices to make when putting together two weeks of programming. And after paying billions for the rights to air the Olympics—Comcast, NBC's parent company, shelled out $4.38 billion for the rights to all the Games between 2014 and 2020—plenty of dollars are riding on making sure those choices attract the largest audience possible.

To determine whether or not the selected coverage downplays the presence and accomplishments of female athletes, researchers look at a number of factors, and one of the most common is raw clock time—the number of minutes in a broadcast devoted to each gender. In a 2003 study from the Journal of Communication, researchers Andrew C. Billings and Susan Tyler Eastman analyzed 52 hours of NBC prime-time coverage from the 2002 Winter Olympics and found that men received almost twice as much coverage as women—a larger gap in gender coverage than the previous five Olympic Games.

Men's events received more than six and a half hours of coverage compared to women's events. The most frequently shown sport for both men and women was figure skating, but men's figure skating received two-thirds of that coverage. Men's luge, for example, received significant coverage while women's luge didn't receive any.

According to the researchers, who also studied ethnic and national biases in the study, these differences were among the most striking:

Perhaps the most telling finding in this study was the large discrepancy in clock time devoted to men and women athletes … this discrepancy in clock time represents a large step backward from the balance achieved in previous Olympic telecasts. If certain groups of athletes are not receiving their fair share of coverage, it makes sense that these athletes will be treated as second-class participants in every other form of analysis … Achieving equity is always a work in progress, and this study revealed as many steps backward as forward within NBC’s recent coverage.

2008: "There Seems to Be Little Incentive for NBC to Change"

Like many Olympics before it, coverage of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing also gave more screen time to male athletes. Even as the total number of female participants in the Games increased to 42 percent of all athletes, broadcast coverage of women declined. According to a 2012 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, while American women's medal wins grew to 48 percent of their country's total medals, women's coverage on NBC fell two points to 46.3 percent of airtime.

Small percentage differences may not seem like much, but women's coverage is also highly concentrated in only a few events. Studies from as far back as the 1980s have found that media coverage of female athletes heavily focuses on "feminine" or "socially acceptable" sports, such as tennis or golf, and the UNC study found similar patterns in the Beijing summer games. Of all the primetime women’s coverage, 60 percent was dedicated to events considered feminine or acceptable by previous research: gymnastics, swimming, and diving. If you include beach volleyball, whose popularity is widely considered to be driven in part by its sex appeal, the number rises to 75 percent. And if you also consider any sport that requires female athletes to compete the equivalent to a bathing suit, that number rises to more than 97 percent.

Elsewhere, the study notes that while American women have been successful medalists in "big three" sports—basketball, soccer, and softball—their coverage of those sports declined steadily after 1999 and disappeared from the schedule entirely in 2008.

Why does this matter? "The paucity of reporting has reinforced the stereotypical dominance of male athletes, making female athletes at best marginal and at worst, nearly invisible," the authors write. They also cite several studies from the United Kingdom that find young girls who become active in sports struggle with pre-conceived ideas and expectations about femininity even as, in countries like the U.S., the number of girls competing in school athletics has grown exponentially since the 1970s.

But don't blame NBC, the researchers say. Blame society:

It is important to remember that a network’s primary concern is to deliver audiences to advertisers, and consequently it is likely to maximize audience sizes by putting the most popular sports events during prime time. It is not the contention of the authors that NBC is intentionally marginalizing any athletes. Instead, the network appears to be responding to the general public’s interest level in various sports, which was, in turn, influenced by social attitudes about femininity … A decision to spend more airtime on socially ‘‘unacceptable’’ sports may go a long way to making it ‘‘acceptable.’’ Based on the network’s ratings and profit success from the Beijing Games, however, there seems to be little incentive for NBC to change its approach when covering the 2012 Olympics in London.

The researchers noted some signs of progress, however: Contrary to their hypothesis, in power sports that especially relied on strength and bulk, which were not extensively covered, women's events received most of the coverage.

1996-2006: "All Three Winter Olympics Favored Men … By Significant Margins"

The discrepancies the UNC researchers noted would naturally seem to lend themselves to the summer Olympics, which has a greater range of events, completely different outfits, more exposed skin, and more instances where the athletic prowess and ideas about femininity come into contact. "It is interesting to note that all of the sports in which women received the majority of the coverage involved the wearing of swimsuits or leotards," Billings, who co-authored the study about the 2002 Olympics, wrote in a different study about all the Olympic Games between 1996 and 2006 that was published in a 2008 volume of Television & New Media.

But after analyzing a decade of games—three summer ones, three winter ones—Billings found that the differences in broadcast coverage of men and women were more stark in the Winter Olympics. The gap between men’s and women’s clock time totals was five times higher in the Winter Olympics than in the Summer Olympics.

The study notes that, in the Summer Olympics, eight men’s sports received at least an hour of coverage while six women’s sports received in the same. But in the Winter Olympics, 11 different men's events received more than one hour of coverage, while only five women's events received that. A greater range of women's winter events were shown than in previous broadcasts, but this was at the expense of events that were already covered, giving each sport less screen time overall. "All three Winter Olympics strongly favored men athletes and events by significant margins," Billings writes.

The fact that this kind of coverage stagnated is especially significant considering the scope of the study: The 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the first games it analyzed, were widely considered to be “the games of the women,” after American women claimed most of the U.S. medals in the previous 1994 Winter Olympics at Lillehammer. NBC played up the theme in its broadcast, and the gender gap in broadcast coverage at Atlanta was one of the smallest ever—clock time was split 53-47, favoring men—but Billings’s analysis concludes that year's heightened focus on women did not lead to any improvement in subsequent games.

2000 Summer Olympics: "Women Athletes Were Viewed as Having Less Athletic Skill"

How broadcasters talk about Olympic athletes, in addition to how often they show them, is another popular way of assessing TV’s coverage of athletes by gender. In a 2002 study for the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, Billings and Eastman looked at media coverage of the 2000 Summer Olympics and found that comments about female athletes were characterized by significant yet unsurprising stereotypical language:

With regard to gender, women athletes were viewed as having less athletic skill and less commitment to their sports than were men athletes. However, men athletes were evaluated by commentators as failing because of lack of concentration. This finding about women athletes is entirely consistent with the results of prior American Olympic analyses.

The study, which also analyzed ethnic and national identities, looked at how often athletes of each gender were shown speaking or taking part in interviews, revealing an even wider gap than the discrepancy in clock time: Of the 909 visual speakers analyzed, male speakers made up 58 percent. Men didn't just get more screen time than women—they also had more opportunities to talk about their events and performances.

In 2000, broadcast coverage actually achieved gender balance when it came to the top 10 most-mentioned athletes, but some broadcast personalities were better than others at achieving balanced coverage. The study’s analysis of athlete mentions by gender found that, like in years before, NBC hosts successfully mentioned both equally, while others, such as on-site reporters, analysts, and experts, weren’t as successful. Considering researchers have in the past found evidence that NBC personnel pushed for equal gender coverage in 1996, the results are both understandable—the remote, more produced host segments could devote more attention to women—and in some ways disappointing: NBC hadn’t quite committed to its goal.

So how will Sochi stack up? It's hard to say now—with multiple rounds of coding and hours and hours of footage to analyze, these kinds of studies are typically published a few years after the games in question are concluded. In 2014, some of the biggest stories at the Sochi Olympics have been about women: Ashley Wagner's controversial presence on the U.S. Olympic figure-skating team; South Korean skating champ Kim Yu-na’s quest for a second gold medal; Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams’s transformation from sprinters to bobsledders. But as this research and fired-up Twitter fans show, sometimes it’s the little details that add up to a disappointing big picture.

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Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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