Newspaper Coverage of Female Athletes Competing in Selected Sports in the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games: The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same

Article excerpt


This study was a comparison of how selected newspapers from Canada, Great Britain, and the United States reported on female athletes competing in four "gender-appropriate" sports with female athletes competing in four "gender-inappropriate" sports at the Centennial Olympic Games. The liberal feminist theoretical framework underpinning this study views equality of opportunity and individual liberty as an inevitable by-product of political, legal, and educational reform juxtaposed with a gradual social acceptance. Content Analysis was used to examine all the articles and photographs from the front pages and the sports sections of the newspapers. Based upon the data, female athletes competing in the "gender-appropriate" sports of swimming, gymnastics, tennis, and diving received more newspaper coverage than female athletes competing in the "gender-inappropriate" sports of soccer, softball, field hockey, and volleyball in terms of the average number of words per article and the average number of paragraphs per a rticle. In addition, the "gender-appropriate" athletes were over-represented in the average number of photographs, the average number of photographs on the first page, and the average number of photographs on the top of the pages. Qualitative analyses of articles and photographs revealed a subtle but discernable amount of culturally stereotyped coverage.


The modern Olympic Games, as a quadrennial international event, can be viewed as the major sporting event of the twentieth century. The Olympic Games reflect past, present, and future societal and cultural changes including the changing status and roles of women (Lee, 1992). The history of the modem Olympic Games is permeated with sexist ideology and discrimination (Hargreaves, 1984). The history of the modern Olympic Games from 1896 to more recent competitions details a continuum of female athlete participation that ranges from exclusion to qualified inclusion in the "gender-appropriate" (GA) individual sports through the gradual recognition of "gender-inappropriate" (GI) sports. When the modem Olympic Games were introduced in 1896, sport was a masculine domain. Only a few "GA" individual sports that emphasized aesthetic form, grace, precision, and style were socially acceptable for female athletes.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modem Olympic Games and a consummate Victorian-Edwardian gentleman, was vehemently opposed to women taking part in competition. He asserted, "Women have but one task, that of crowning the winner with garlands" (quoted in the Sports Council, 1995). In 1896, few women's sporting events were considered "GA" and thus safe for the Olympic Movement to embrace and include in the modern Olympic Games. The earliest inclusions of women's sports were the four selected "GA" individual sports chosen for this study. Tennis was introduced in the modem Olympic Games for female athletes in 1900, swimming and diving in 1912, and gymnastics in 1928. More recent inclusions were volleyball in 1964, field hockey in 1980, and soccer and softball debuting in the Centennial Olympic Games in 1996 (LeUnes & Nation, 1991). The relatively recent adoption of these traditionally "GI" team sports is one indication that the physiological, psychological, and socially constructed myths of female frailt y were not effectively challenged until the last two decades of the twentieth century.

The print media is an influential agent for defining political, social, and cultural boundaries and providing a common sense of experience (Pember, 1974). Underpinning the generally accepted adage that newspaper proprietors are free to print whatever prejudices the advertisers do not object to, is the principle that newspapers rely on the market for their existence. As a consequence financial rationales and not social responsibility determine coverage of female athletes. Newspapers cover those events that are perceived to be of most interest to their readers and commercial benefit to their advertisers. …


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