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Olympics Briefing: Mind the Gap

by Meg Heery

July 31, 2012
There was lots of talk about "coverage" over the weekend and into Monday's Olympic happenings. In the U.S., coverage of the day’s busy swimming schedule revolved around  the same gender mismatch. All the buzz was about whether Ryan Lochte would redeem himself after letting down the men’s team in Sunday’s 4x100 free, while predictably, the real swimming action was happening in “other” races:  Missy Franklin won a gold in the 100m back (see below),   Rebecca Soni took silver in the 100m breast), and there were strong swims by American Breeja Larson and Aussie Leisel Jones (.01 second separated them in 4th and 5th places in the 100m breast).

At the other end of the aquatics center, American synchronized diving silver medalists Kelsi Bryant and Abby Johnston nailed dive after dive, while British darling Tom Daley, an 18-year-old diving phenom who has been competing since age nine and also happens to possess the adorable good looks that cameras and fans swoon over, fell short of his country’s hopes for a medal with his partner Peter Waterfield in the synchro category.

I noticed non-coverage of women athletes. I noticed pessimistic coverage of women athletes, like the San Jose Mercury News story hinting at the end of the career of 12-time Olympic medalist freestyler Natalie Coughlin (seen above). (Can you tell I’m a swimming fan?)
In women’s soccer, tabloids were still covering the invented brouhaha between U.S. goaltender Hope Solo and U.S. women’s soccer trailblazer turned TV commentator Brandi Chastain (it involved Solo’s opinion of Chastain’s comments in a string of Twitter posts, news of which has been so prolific and emblematic of the typical “she said what?” sideshow that I will not perpetuate the drama any further here) and fretting over Abby Wambach’s black eye, received during the team’s particularly aggressive Olympic game against Colombia last week, even among the few outlets trying to redirect the conversation toward midfielder Megan Rapinoe’s impressive skill on the soccer pitch.

As Gawker's headline sums up,  every single person in America is, like me, still annoyed at NBC’s Olympics coverage.  My mother still thinks the women’s beach volleyball players should cover up.  

When it comes to coverage of women in sports, the questions of quantity and quality are intricately intertwined. The media’s built-in tendency to distill complex ideas into bite-size stereotypes just make the knots that much trickier to tease apart. But recent research makes the gaps in media coverage all too obvious.

According to new studies of NBC’s prime-time Olympics coverage, women representing the U.S. got 46.3 percent of the air time during the 2008 summer Games, even though women accounted for 48 percent of the athletes and 48 percent of the medals. And nearly 75 percent of that coverage was of the body-baring, non-contact swimsuit sports: gymnastics, swimming, diving and beach volleyball.

European research paints an even grimmer picture. A 2005 report found that men make up 78 percent of all sports coverage and that in those stories, 65 percent quote or refer to only men.

On the bright side: viewers, readers and journalists alike are seeing the gap and calling it out. On NBC’s delayed “live” broadcasts and online streams, viewers are watching women’s fencing and judo and weightlifting. Many of the latter, perhaps, did so on the Twitter advice of Samuel L. Jackson [], where he gushed: “Ladies weightlifting drama! Lil’ babes, picking up heavy s***t!” His choice of vernacular may be less than ideal, but compared with the din of wearisome gossip around the field of traditional sports and the radio silence on these nontraditional ones, his enthusiasm for undeniably strong women is positively refreshing.  

While the underrepresentation is vexing, it’s important to consider the supersaturated media climate. We live in a time that hungers for immediate superlatives – the newest, highest, brightest, best – and then devours them. Is that what makes athletes like 2008’s swimming superhero, Michael Phelps, burn out so quickly? Certainly there are other interdependent factors at work, such as the problem of overtraining and injury. But it’s tempting to imagine how the athletes whom the media spotlight overlooks, because of their gender or their unpopular sport or both, might benefit. Rather than scoop up buckets of medals in two Games (8 in Athens and 8 in Beijing, 14 of them gold))  and then burn out as Phelps has, they might have the stamina to remain champions over decades of going the distance, as Natalie Coughlin has.

More on Coughlin and a few others tomorrow. (And McDonald’s – I promise.)

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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Meg Heery is a freelance editor and a regular contributor to the Jersey
City Independent and NEW magazine. (On Twitter, check for her more
frequent notes on the Games@megheery.)

See also:

Meg Heery, "London, Day 2: Women Win, Not Unicorns." Cafe, On the Issues Magazine, July 29, 2012.

Martha Burk, "Who Owns Sports? Dissecting the Politics of Title IX." On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2012.

Jane Schonburger, "Olympics' Coverage Still Shortchanges Female Athletes." On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2012.

Anngel Delaney, "Enduring Women." On the Issues Magazine,


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