Why the Olympics can heal sport's gender bias

The UK media has ignored women's sport for a long time but with Olympics only months away are things starting to change?

    (L-R) Jess Varnish and Victoria Pendleton break the world record to win team sprint gold at Olympic Velodrome [GETTY]

    In May 2011, I wrote an article about the demise of women’s sport in the UK.

    To be more accurate it was about the media’s attitude towards women’s sport. Women were still playing sport in their numbers but the public heard very little about it.  

    As sports coverage on every platform increased, pieces about women’s sports decreased. Men dominated the sports pages to such an extent that only 5% of media coverage was devoted to women’s sport in the UK.  

    This male proliferation of the British sports media was difficult to excuse. 

    At a time when many sections of society worked hard to treat women and men equally, a completely different set of rules were being followed by TV execs and newspaper editors.  

    Yes, more men play sport and read the back pages - but a 95% domination? Surely that was a figure worth getting angry about. 

    The Times changing?

    However, after observing sport's coverage over the last few months, I believe this 95% figure needs revising.       

    Flicking through papers such as the UK’s Evening Standard and The Times, I have noticed more and more features dedicated to female athletes springing up. On February 18th, The Daily Telegraph ran a piece about the women’s Great British cycling team on its front page. 

    The Telegraph’s coverage not only highlighted how the GB team broke two world records in the space of 20 minutes but symbolised a crucial shift in sports reporting.

    So what has accounted for this change? One needs to look to the future for the chief reason but also to the past for a likely stimulus.   

    In November 2011, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was left with egg on its face after it emerged not one woman had made the shortlist for their 2011 Sports Personality of the Year award. Despite memorable years for swimmers Rebecca Adlington and Keri-Anne Payne, women had been marginalised in the selection process. 

    As the BBC came under fire for its shortlist, women’s sports figures used the opportunity to show a general disapproval of how the media treats women. Inspirational figures such as Hope Powell, Dame Kelly Holmes and Baroness Grey-Thompson spoke out about the plight of women’s sport and how hard it was to drum up support and funding without the media’s backing.

    The SPOTY debate gave the media reason to question its male-dominated coverage, but it is one upcoming event in particular that has pushed women back into the limelight.  

    Olympic shift

    With only months to go until the 2012 London Olympic Games, the media simply cannot ignore women’s contributions to sport any longer. Thankfully, the Olympics have galloped into town just in time to save the day and joust for coverage with a sport commonly known as football.

    The Olympics give media outlets the opportunity to represent women more fairly while covering an event the British public want to hear more about. 

    Racism is the main issue journalists do not want to be tarnished with but charges of sexism during an Olympic year is hardly the most professional of appendage either. News outlets will be working hard not to be labelled chauvinistic during this global and inclusive celebration of sport.  

    On a global level the Olympics play a crucial part in challenging inequalities. Qatar have already announced they will be sending women for the first time to the Olympics and the event has put pressure on Saudi Arabia by the Human Rights Watch to lift its ban on women playing competitive sports.

    "Sadly a women’s talent does not always take precedence over her sexuality. This proves there’s still a lot work to be done to challenge perceptions about female sports stars"

    However, the UK is not above gender discrimination. Many features on women’s sporting accolades are hidden in mysterious and secret parts of newspapers, or hidden completely. 

    How many people know the England women’s cricket team are world champions or that the England women’s rugby team are currently defending their Six Nations crown? Did anyone hear that five female Great British football players were left without a club following the cancellation of the WPS in the United States? 

    Even pieces about Olympic hopefuls Keri-Anne Payne and Jennifer Ennis often start with a paragraph about boyfriends, weddings, fashion and nail acrylics. 

    Sadly a women’s talent does not always take precedence over her sexuality. This proves there’s still a lot work to be done to challenge perceptions about female sports stars. 

    Even if things seem to be improving, journalists must continue to focus on female athletes so that the public (men and women) can interact with this marginalised world. It is important to learn more about female sports representatives so that when the Games begin we are familiar with the characters and care about what happens to them. 

    Who knows - if we are lucky - this interest will carry on past the Olympics. Through a positive and inclusive attitude to female sports figures more girls will be encouraged into sport – which is the whole point of making such a song and dance about this issue in the first place. 

    Sadly in the four years that have separated the last two Olympic Games women have gradually been pushed from the sports agenda. Due to this it will take some time and effort by the media and the public to get used to their reappearance.

    But we must! Because it is unfair to ignore thousands of women who entertain us while competing in sports they love. 

    And the host nation should set an Olympic standard of sports reporting it can be proud of.

    Joanna Tilley is a freelance journalist working with Al Jazeera on the Sport website. She has worked at Sky News, Sky Sports News and LBC Radio.

    Follow her on Twitter (@joannatilley) or her website, http://mythoughtonsport.blogspot.com/

    Al Jazeera is not responsible for the content of external websites

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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