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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