The 2018 Winter Olympics are in full swing and I’m entirely addicted. I watch everything. Sure, I have my favourites but I will watch almost any sport. I’m always interested when they talk to athletes, both those who have medaled and those who haven’t. I want to know what goes on in their brains and I’m always inspired by the dedication they (typically) demonstrate to reach such an elite level in their sport.
At the same time, in all of my life, I am often struck by the unintentional biases that creep into how we perceive the world. Are we more likely to ask males to help us move things? Are we wondering how a female successfully keeps her emotions in check? Do we ask a male individual if they have a girlfriend or wife instead of a partner? That’s the frightening thing about biases is that sometimes we don’t notice when they come out. It might not even be a bias we hold ourselves, but we struggle to use language in a way that is different and more inclusive and accepting. Therefore, when I saw a research article about how CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) covered male versus female athletes during their primetime coverage of the Sochi Olympics I was, needless to say, intrigued.
One of my personal gripes for many Olympics has been the difference in coverage between the male and female hockey events. Not to mention the outrage at the Canadian women’s hockey team celebrating with beer and cigars while skeleton gold medalist Jon Montgomery was praised for knowing how to party (this link goes to Wikipedia and yes I realize that can be less than accurate at times but 1) I remember this story personally, and 2) you can check all the references for the piece in the list at the end).
So, how does CBC’s primetime coverage portray men and women athletes during the Olympics. Men get more coverage, particularly in sports like Ski Jumping (okay women just made their debut in Sochi so that one may make sense), Alpine Skiing (really?), and Hockey (not surprised but are you still serious!). But what is even more interesting was the terms that were used to refer to athletes from each of these genders. Apparently, men succeed because of athletic ability and intelligence and fail because of lack of intelligence; women succeed because of experience (there was no stand out reason why they fail). Male athletes also received more comments about being outgoing/extroverted and their emotions compared to women who were more likely to receive comments about their size/parts of the body.
There are some disclaimers, while Canada had more female competitors than the overall average, we still weren’t quite at 50% so there are more male athletes to comment on. There are also a number of sports that still don’t have women’s events (two of the three ski jumping events for example). And, some of the biases that might have been expected were missing such as courage. Some of the discrepancies found in CBC’s broadcasts also go against what has been found in broadcasts elsewhere.
The thing is that these small judgements mean something: why in the world are we questioning a male’s intelligence if he doesn’t succeed in his sport in one event? As we face a world that seems to be increasingly polarized over stereotypes and differences we need to be extra aware of how language can lead us to particular ways of thinking, even ones that don’t actually match the values we hold.
I’m going to go watch some intelligent women and experienced men compete in sport now.
Paul J. MacArthur, James R. Angelini, Lauren Reichart Smith & Andrew C. Billings (2017) The Canadian State of Mind: Coverage of Men and Women Athletes in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Prime Time Broadcast of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 61:2, 410-429, DOI: 10.1080/08838151.2017.1309412