Olympic sexism study: Male athletes have skill and female athletes have luck

According to a new study on past television coverage of the Olympics, sports commentators talk about athletes in notably different ways depending on their gender. And by “notably different” I mean “pretty sexist.” The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Delaware, analyzed NBC’s primetime coverage of past games. The main findings:

  • When female athletes succeed, commentators tend to focus on luck and less on physical ability.
  • When female athletes fail, physical ability and commitment are noted.
  • When male athletes succeed, commentators applaud their skill and commitment to the sport.
  • When male athletes fail, it is not necessarily about their failure, but about how their competitors succeeded.

So basically women athletes can never truly win and male athletes can never truly lose. A neat trick, if you’re invested in upholding male fantasies of athletic superiority. Another trick: Devalue female athletes’ talent and hard work by instead harping on how hot they are.

The study found a similarly stereotyped pattern when it comes to race. When discussing white athletes, commentators were more likely to mention commitment and composure, while they focused more on African-American athletes’ physical ability and strength and Asian athletes’ intelligence. Plus, while it’s not totally surprising, NBC way disproportionately covered American athletes.

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Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/smsintexas/ Sarah

    “Plus, while it’s not totally surprising, NBC way disproportionately covered American athletes.”

    Um, it’s a US network. I have no issue with this. It’s weird you mentioned it at all.

    • jayn

      While I also have no problem with it (at least in theory), I’ve noticed in the past that different networks handle their coverage of the Games differently. Some cover entire events, while others will show only their own country’s athletes and then switch to something else. I’m not fond of the latter format, because I don’t get to see how those athletes compare to their competitors.

    • http://feministing.com/members/jaciem/ jaciem

      I have a problem with it. I think it’s odd that a network focuses disproportionately on athletes from one country (even the country the network is based in) during an event that is touted as beyond nationalism.

      The Olympics are supposed to be an event that celebrates the athleticism of individuals and brings together people from many nation-states in that celebration. (Whether or not it succeeds is another question entirely.)

      And when the USian athletes are coming in 10th or 12th, I’d like to see the winners more than I’d like to participate in the jingoistic rah-rah USA USA crap that NBC pushes every. single. time. This has bugged me for years and I’m delighted to see it mentioned.

      • http://feministing.com/members/smsintexas/ Sarah

        I do see your point, jaciem. I too want to see adequate coverage of the winners of the events, regardless of their nationality. But if I were running a US network, I’d certainly be highlighting our US competitors at a higher rate than other countries’, simply because I think my viewers would be interested in the “home team.”

        • http://feministing.com/members/cactuswren/ Susan C Mitchell

          But there’s a point at which it becomes bizarre: I’m thinking of the (tennis) US Open a few years ago during which NBC repeated during the afternoon the same match they’d broadcast live in the morning — because this match included Serena Williams, but none of the afternoon matches had an American player. The assumption, as far as I can tell, was that an American audience would rather watch the match they’d already seen shown over again than watch live coverage of matches that didn’t involve an American player.

  • http://feministing.com/members/courtkneestl/ Courtney

    The race angle is very true – as much as I adore baseball and hearing play-by-plays, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the announcers comment on the speed and base-running skills of the African-American players. I don’t think it’s intentional or necessarily has any negativity behind it – it’s just a heavily ingrained stereotype that we often don’t even realize we have, and is obviously problematic.

    I also find it frustrating that female athletes so very rarely get praise for their ability, but rather for their looks. When I read interviews or stories about certain female athletes, even if it’s not overt, I notice that the articles focus heavily on how these women “stay in such great shape” and have “such great bodies.” I think it’s okay to comment on being physically athletic – male athletes like Blake Griffin grace the covers of magazines, bare chests and all, frequently. But when it comes to male athletes, the stories focus on their athletic abilities and dedication to the sport, whereas the stories about female athletes seem to focus more heavily on keeping up their appearance.

    Commentators also seem to focus heavily on the emotions of female athletes – this is pretty obvious in the case of Venus and Serena Williams who are not only sexualized, but painted as angry while male athletes of similar composure are painted as intense or driven. Again, though, this goes back to the ingrained stereotypes that women are emotional and always looking to take other women down.

  • http://feministing.com/members/treydawgg/ Trey

    I’m with Sarah on this one. It’s a US channel with US viewers, of course it’s going to feature what the viewer/consumer wants…US athletes.

  • http://feministing.com/members/treydawgg/ Trey

    Oh, and also wanted to say, I thought the way that women athletes vs. male athletes were reported as far as successes/”failures” is pretty interesting. I’m going to have to listen more closely for it.

  • http://feministing.com/members/gaulding/ Jill Gaulding

    This is what researchers into cognitive bias call the fundamental attribution error. It’s related to another kind of cognitive bias called confirmation bias — basically, your brain doing what it can to keep perceptions in line with the stereotypes that are already built in.

    But just because our brains tend to do this automatically and subconsciously doesn’t let us off the hook. The only way to correct for cognitive bias is to be aware of it. Only then can you work to debias your thinking — and the sexist things you might otherwise say about the reasons Olympic athletes are successful.