Representations of gender in the live broadcast of the Tokyo Olympics

Prof Toni Bruce

Professor of sport sociology and sports media at the University of Auckland. She is a regular columnist and research source for journalists. She recently published a global synthesis of gendered patterns of sports media coverage in Sex Roles and a sports media novel, Terra Ludus.

Section 1: Tokyo You & Mega-Events

The Olympics represent a rare moment when sportswomen are catapaulted into the public eye, and widely celebrated for their sporting achievements. My observations of the live Tokyo Olympics broadcast in New Zealand revealed some interesting shifts in the terrain of gender representation in elite sport. 

The first is that gender equality is clearly ‘on the agenda’. Hard on the heels of popular movements like #MeToo, news coverage highlighted issues in how media represent sportswomen such as the Tokyo Olympic broadcaster’s announcement that it would avoid images that sexualized female bodies. It also highlighted athletes’ decisions to challenge sexualisation in women’s sport such as the Norwegian women’s handball team, who attracted a fine for competing in tight-fitting shorts rather than the required bikinis, and the German gymnastic team who competed in full-length unitards. 

The global media coverage of these actions is good news for women’s sport—even if it has taken over 40 years of activism for issues of sexualisation to be taken seriously by mainstream media. Sports organisations are also on board. The IOC’s 2021 portrayal guidelines promote “gender-equal, fair and inclusive representation in sport.”  Advice includes “do not focus unnecessarily on looks, clothing or intimate body parts.”   

However, although coverage of issues in representation is important, the risk is that it does not translate into media practices that embed women’s sport as an ongoing, normalised part of everyday sports reporting. Historically, teams or individuals became the face of an issue while coverage of their actual sporting events and performances lagged behind. In short, the aim is to normalise sportswomen as athletes, rather than as female athletes

We know that real change has happened when regulations and rules change. The Olympic broadcaster’s decision to avoid sexualised images is an example of this, which I saw enacted in practice, especially in beach volleyball. Based on my ‘smorgasbord’ approach to watching as many sports as possible across 12 different Sky Sport live Olympics channels, it seems that the Olympic broadcasters broadly achieved equal, fair and inclusive representation, with a few longstanding issues still needing attention. 

Media researchers are concerned by media coverage that is unequal in amount or positions sportswomen as different from sportsmen. Yet there was little evidence of sportswomen being presented as inferior, weaker or less able to cope with the emotional and mental pressures of elite competition  in the live coverage I consumed. Instead, there was greater recognition of the physical and emotional costs of elite sport, such as gymnast Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from some events, and the effects of media and public interest on weightlifter Laurel Hubbard’s performance as the first transgender Olympic competitor.

Positively, live coverage of the quadrennial Olympic Games remains a high point in media coverage of women’s sport. For ‘home country’ athletes, the amount of coverage by gender is broadly equal for women and men, especially in smaller countries like New Zealand where every medal is celebrated and women often win more medals than the men. Overall, women and men were represented as serious athletes competing at the pinnacle of their sports, and their hard work, determination and sacrifices were presented in similar ways.  Commentators focused on technique, power, skill, style, fitness, mental strength, and ability to overcome pain and injury. Athletes and teams were introduced in terms of their previous successes, current world records or rankings, training disruptions and other factors that might affect their performance. Men and women were validated for expressing emotion, including crying, after winning or losing. 

Although diverse patterns emerged between different female and male commentators and sports, overall they appeared comfortable referring to all sportsmen as men. In contrast, there were references to ladies and young ladies—a polite or old-fashioned way of referring to women—but rarely to gentlemen. However, the only explicitly unequal construction I heard was a male cycling commentator referring to the ladies and the men’s events.  Some expert analysts—who are more likely to be former elite athletes than trained broadcasters—referred to the girls (and less frequently the boys), which are terms commonly used by athletes in team sports. So this slippage was not unexpected, even if it remains inappropriate to infantilise adult women as girls

Another positive was the almost complete focus on sportswomen’s athlete role rather than gender role (mum, wife). For example, rather than framing sportswomen with children as unusual supermums, commentators normalised pregnancy as a natural aspect of an elite sportswoman’s career by presenting it in the context of past sporting achievements (medals, records), and focusing on how time away from competition affected their Olympic preparation. 

Finally, perhaps reflecting the introduction of same sex marriage laws, commentators appeared to normalise same-sex, particularly lesbian, relationships. I heard no references to gay male partners but commentators talked about lesbian couples in substantially similar ways to heterosexual couples. For example, gold medal rower Emma Twigg’s thank you to her wife was presented as unremarkable.

Overall, then, the Olympics get a tick of approval. The real challenge is for sports media to show they can achieve this quality of coverage all year round.