Today’s Guest Post comes from a member of our affiliate interested in gender studies.
The glorious feats of human athleticism on display during the Olympic games can be a fantastic break from some of the more mundane routines of our everyday life. The games give people something to look forward to, something worthwhile to train for, and something that coworkers, friends, and family can talk about together. But if you are paying close attention, the Olympic Games can also serve as an ideal nexus for viewing and discussing many of the intersectionalities of asymmetric power relationships that pervade American society.
To me, the argument is simple: if you are the best at an internationally recognized sport, you should be allowed to compete in the event regardless of how you are categorized regarding gender, sex, sexual orientation or religious affiliations, and you should receive equal media coverage for equal success. Isn’t that what the Olympic Games should be about? Pitting the best athletes against each other and equally lauding their prowess?
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. There are a lot of examples from the Olympics which demonstrate the contrary. Not only are women and intersex individuals relegated to a lesser status regarding their physical acumen, there are a barrage of mitigating factors which serve to dissuade these individuals from taking part in sports all together.
While the Olympic Games are absolutely stunning, we should not lose sight of the fact that we are viewing the games through the framework provided by NBC, the company which serves as distributor and gatekeeper for a majority of the content Americans receive regarding the games. Since the data for this year’s games hasn’t been released yet, we can look to the 2010 games for more insight to avoid overt editorialization. An analysis of NBC’s prime time coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics found that men were far more likely to be promoted and advanced than women athletes. The study ‘What’s The Gendered Story? Vancouver’s Prime Time Olympic Glory on NBC’ goes on to argue that, “(a) when excluding mixed-gendered pair competitions, men received more than three-fifths of the remaining airtime, (b) 75% of the most-mentioned athletes were men, and (c) sportscasters again employed dialogue differences in key areas including that men were more likely than women to be portrayed as succeeding because of their experience, while women were more likely than men to be depicted as succeeding because of courage and failing because they lacked commitment.” Not only was the amount of airtime vastly different depending on the athlete’s gender, the cultural narrative presented by NBC was vastly different as well. NBC is given the honor of presenting excellent athletes, and they do so in a way that overlooks the accomplishments of women.
Not only are these asymmetric power relations reproduced via the media; sexually discriminatory practices are built within the Olympic Games themselves. A poignant example of this sort of discrimination in practice was seen during the qualifications for short hill ski jumping in 2010. Even though the Olympics finally outlawed mandatory sex-testing of athletes for the 2000 Olympic Games (opting instead for “suspicion based testing”), Lindsey Van, the vagina-owning-individual who held the world record for short hill ski jumping, was not allowed to compete. In defense, President of the International Olympic Committee Jacques Rogge stated that the decision “was made strictly on a technical basis, and absolutely not on gender grounds.” The world record holder for short hill ski jumping was denied access to the Olympic Games because of her gender, based on the “technicality” that there weren’t enough other women competitors in that event. Even though Lindsay held the world record, beating both men and women.
A group of athletes sued the Vancouver Organizing Committee and the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that this exclusion was illegal gender discrimination. Unfortunately, the court had no authority over the International Olympic Committee. The only way Lindsay could compete would be is she underwent a two-year-long medical procedure to change her gender and then provided the appropriate government documents proving that she had changed her gender. She declined the change and lost her record in 2010. Fortunately, because of the press coverage she was able to procure for this injustice, women’s short hill ski jumping will be an event for the 2014 Winter Games.
For a plethora of reasons, the Olympics can be a much-needed release from everyday life for a large cross-section of Americans. But there are a lot of regressive elements that manifest during these events, and if we are to hold these institutions in such high regard as a society, we must act with due diligence to correct these injustices.
(For more information, please see What’s The Gendered Story? Vancouver’s Prime Time Olympic Glory on NBC in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media Volume 56, Issue 2, 2012, by James R. Angelini, Paul J. MacArthur & Andrew C. Billings.)