Analysis Media

Olympics’ Coverage Still Shortchanges Female Athletes

On The Issues Magazine

There are a lot of issues with the Olympic media when it comes to the appearances and presentation of women athletes, and many untapped and emerging opportunities, as well.

Originally written by Jane Schonberger for On The Issues Magazine

Growing up in the ’70s, I loved watching the Olympics. As an athlete myself, I sat mesmerized through performances from exciting athletes like Nadia Comaneci and Bruce Jenner. I became engrossed in learning about their back-stories and personal journeys to the Games.

Watching the Olympics is still a highlight for me. But when I stopped playing tennis and swimming competitively and started thinking critically, I realized there are a lot of issues with the Olympic media when it comes to the appearances and presentation of women athletes, and many untapped and emerging opportunities, as well.

What’s Wrong with the Olympics?

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Four key problem areas about the spectacle of the Olympics and the presentation of women athletes pop out from the peer-reviewed research.

First, male athletes receive more media attention than female athletes. More overall coverage is devoted to male athletes both on television and in print publications, such as Sports Illustrated. When media opportunities are limited for women, it’s difficult for them to get exposure and advance professionally.

Secondly, the type of attention women receive differs from that given to men. During the 2004 Olympics, male athletes were more likely to be portrayed as “courageous, strong, and independent” compared to female athletes who were likely to be described based upon their “physical attractiveness and sexuality.” There’s no doubt that stereotypes perpetuate themselves within our culture, and the more stereotyping occurs, the harder it is to overcome.

A third point is that media attention toward women athletes and the quality of it are not getting better with time. One would think that as more women advance in the workplace and become empowered members of society, these trends would get better. But we’re not seeing much improvement. Even as recently as the Beijing Olympics in 2008, researchers found that NBC gave more on-air time to male competitions compared to the 2004 Athens games and 2000 Sydney Games despite near parity in participation. The men on telecasts also received more comments about “strength, intelligence and consonance, compared to their female counterparts.” For those interested in numbers , only 23 percent of Olympians at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles were women, a figure that jumps to 42 percent for Beijing 2008 and 45 percent for London 2012. In fact, with the addition of women’s boxing, the London Games will be the first to feature both sexes competing in every sport on the Olympic program.

The fourth, and perhaps most crucial, point is that money follows the exposure and attention. Forbes published an article in 2010 on the highest paid female athletes. Not surprisingly, tennis players, led by Maria Sharapova, ruled as the top-earning female athletes. Women’s tennis is, arguably, the most commercially popular and successful among all women’s sports, likely because it is an individual sport that draws a greater percentage of male followers than other women’s sports.

But the dollars don’t just come on the court — they come afterward from lucrative endorsement deals and appearance fees. As a female athlete, if you can’t provide a large stage for a brand, you need a targeted platform like the Olympics to elevate your visibility. Since the built-in audience is practically guaranteed, when the Olympics come around every two years, brands come out of the woodwork to associate themselves with female athletes.

For example, going into 2012, the P&G hair care brand, Pantene, sponsored — for the first time in the brand’s history — 11 elite female athletes from around the globe as its newest beauty ambassadors.

While Olympics attention is a good thing and any extra attention that female athletes get from the media and brands is a bonus, I wonder if two weeks every two years will be enough to help females advance. What about the 206 weeks between Games? Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about how to change the paradigm.

Putting Women Athletes on Top

While the facts are not-so-inspiring, I also see opportunities. This is where it gets fun, and why I’m so passionately dedicated to increasing visibility for women in sports.

NBC producer Molly Sims said during the recent International Olympics Committee Women & Sport Conference in Los Angeles that during the Olympics, tune-in rates between the male and female audiences in the U.S. are strikingly similar. In fact she noted that 52 percent of NBC’s viewership during the Games is female — more than any other sports programming. This increased female audience provides a special and unique platform for female athletes.

There are two reasons why the Olympics provide such a great opportunity. First, patriotism. Experts say “at the Olympics, national flags trump all other forms of identity”– even, most notably, gender. So when rooting for Team USA, viewers essentially don’t care whether the athlete is male or female. They just want America to win. A second leading reason why the Olympics are popular with the mainstream is because they offer more variety than traditional sports telecasts. Some researchers have seen that women prefer watching more gender-neutral, non-contact or “feminine” types of sports, such as gymnastics, swimming and beach volleyball, and enjoy the emotional back-story that Olympics coverage provides.

There’s also an incredible long-tail opportunity for female athletes on the Internet. The 2008 Games was largely considered the first “online Olympics.” That year, NBCOlymipcs.com offered more than 3,500 hours of online coverage from Beijing, including 2,200 hours of live video coverage. More than 50 million unique users watched 75 million video streams, and nearly 18 percent of audiences consumed content on both television and the Internet. Researchers Tang Tang and Roger Cooper argue that “the Internet should be able to remove gender inequalities caused by imbalanced sports telecasts and allow men and women to access the content they want, when, where, and how they want it.”

With the Internet rising as a leading platform to consume sports, female athletes need to amp up their social media footprint and become active. Dan Levy of Wasserman Media Group discussed the importance of athletes having an active Twitter account. Levy says, “Every single perspective sponsor, it’s the first or second thing they look at. It’s the difference between getting a deal and not getting a deal.” I’d add that female athletes, by putting in the extra effort and creating an engaged audience, also elevate not only their personal brands, but their sport and female athletes as a whole.

Trending to the Future

And it’s not just the athletes who can get involved on the Internet, it’s the fans and other media platforms, too. ESPN launched espnW in 2010, and it has since grown to a successful business for the company. The espnW brand seems to have found a home by focusing its content primarily on female fans.

Similarly, WomenTalkSports.com (a blog network I created in 2009 with Ann Gaffigan and Megan Hueter) has developed into a vibrant online community among female athletes, fans of women’s sports, journalists and bloggers. If you truly want to help raise the visibility of female athletes, you should support these sites by visiting them, commenting and sharing the articles. The larger the community that female athletes and fans have, the more visible we are to the community at large.

A leading argument attempting to explain why female athletes receive less attention than males is women’s physical performance — we can’t jump as high, swim as fast or lift as much weight. As time goes on, however, women are closing the gap. After all, in comparison to our male counterparts, women are just getting started.

Here’s a great example in running. In September 2011, a team of researchers looked at the winning sprint times for the 100-meter race across genders, looking back over the past 100 years. It shows that women are progressing in a remarkable fashion. In addition, the study indicates that if the current trends on running times continue, projections will intersect at the 2156 Olympics, when — for the first time ever — the winning women’s 100-meter sprint time of 8.079 seconds will be lower than that of the men’s winning time of 8.09 seconds. Researchers say this could occur as early as the 2064 Games or as late as the 2788 Games. I may not be around then, but hell, it still makes me happy — you can bet the world will tune in for that.

Strong is now considered beautiful. With the advancement of women in society and the changing ideals of body image and sexuality, a strong, successful woman is “the new sexy” and “the new beautiful” — an image worth pursuing even for those who are not athletic. Strong women challenge conventional notions about beauty and convey a contemporary look and attitude. From a brand perspective, now is one of the best times to support female athletes. As our culture continues to change and adapt, female athletes need to harness and embody changing ideals — I believe it will elevate their status and bring increased sponsorship dollars.

Yes, the 2012 London Olympics and the months preceding it are an exciting, celebratory time for women in sport. Women and girls around the world will be tuning in and watching athletic performances across many disciplines that both amaze and inspire. Viewers will get to see sports that are rarely on public display. Challenges will be overcome. Records will be broken. Heroes will emerge.

But, while tuning in, it’s important to think critically about what you’re watching or reading and ask yourself — what’s missing, and what could be better next time? Then, think about what needs to happen by 2016 and how you might be able to help.


Jane Schonberger is a producer and media consultant who is currently the CEO of Pretty Tough Media, Inc, a lifestyle brand for tween/teen female athletes that creates specialty content and products, including a series of sports-themed YA novels published by Penguin USA. Schonberger is also the Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Women Talk Sports LLC, the largest blog network devoted to female athletes and fans, and is the Sports Editor for BlogHer.com.

Analysis Abortion

From Webbed Feet to Breast Cancer, Anti-Choice ‘Experts’ Renew False Claims

Ally Boguhn & Amy Littlefield

In a series of workshops over a three-day conference in Herndon, Virginia, self-proclaimed medical and scientific experts renewed their debunked efforts to promote the purported links between abortion and a host of negative outcomes, including breast cancer and mental health problems.

Less than two weeks after the Supreme Court rejected the anti-choice movement’s unscientific claims about how abortion restrictions make patients safer, the National Right to Life Convention hosted a slate of anti-choice “experts,” who promoted even more dubious claims that fly in the face of accepted medical science.

In a series of workshops over the three-day conference in Herndon, Virginia, self-proclaimed medical and scientific experts, including several whose false claims have been exposed by Rewire, renewed their efforts to promote the purported links between abortion and a host of negative outcomes, including breast cancer and mental health problems.

Some of those who spoke at the convention were stalwarts featured in the Rewire series “False Witnesses,” which exposed the anti-choice movement’s attempts to mislead lawmakers, courts, and the public about abortion care.

One frequent claim, that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, has been refuted by the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. But that hasn’t stopped “experts” like Dr. Angela Lanfranchi, a breast cancer surgeon and anti-choice activist, from giving court testimonies and traveling around the world spreading that brand of misinformation.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

During a Thursday session titled “The Abortion-Breast Cancer Link: The Biological Basis, The Studies, and the Fraud,” Lanfranchi, one of Rewire’s “False Witnesses,” pushed her debunked talking points.

Throughout the presentation, which was attended by Rewire, Lanfranchi argued that there is “widespread fraudulent behavior among scientists and medical organizations to obfuscate the link” between abortion and breast cancer.

In a statement, the irony of which may have been lost on many in the room, Lanfranchi told attendees that sometimes “scientists in the pursuit of truth can be frauds.” Lanfranchi went on to point to numerous studies and texts she claimed supported her theories and lamented that over time, textbooks that had previously suggested a link between abortion and breast cancer in the ’90s were later updated to exclude the claim.

Lanfranchi later pivoted to note her inclusion in Rewire’s “False Witnesses” project, which she deemed an “attack.” 

“We were one of 14 people that were on this site … as liars,” said Lanfranchi as she showed a slide of the webpage. “Now when people Google my name, instead of my practice coming up,” Rewire’s story appears.

Priscilla Coleman, another “False Witness” best known for erroneously claiming that abortion causes mental health problems and drug abuse, similarly bemoaned her inclusion in Rewire’s project during her brief participation in a Thursday session, “The Conspiracy of Silence: Roadblocks to Getting Abortion Facts to the Public.”

After claiming that there is ample evidence that abortion is associated with suicide and eating disorders, Coleman suggested that many media outlets were blocking the truth by not reporting on her findings. When it came to Rewire, Coleman wrote the outlet off as a part of the “extreme left,” telling the room that “if you look deeply into their analysis of each of our backgrounds, a lot of it is lies … it’s bogus information.”

An extensive review conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2008, however, found “no evidence sufficient to support” claims such as Coleman’s that “an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion.”

Rounding out the medical misinformation pushed in that session was Eve Sanchez Silver, the director and founder of the International Coalition of Color for Life. According to the biography listed on her organization’s website, Silver bills herself as a “bioethicist” who focuses on “the Abortion-Breast cancer link.”

Silver, who previously worked at the Susan G. Komen Foundation but left, she said, after finding out the organization gave money to Planned Parenthood, spent much of her presentation arguing that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. She also detailed what she referred to as the “Pink Money Cycle,” a process in which, as she explained, money is given to Komen, which in turn donates to Planned Parenthood. As Silver told it, Planned Parenthood then gives people abortions, leading to more cases of breast cancer. 

The seemingly conspiracy-driven theory has popped up in several of Silver’s presentations over the years.

Though Komen does in fact provide some funding to Planned Parenthood through grants, a July 2015 press release from the the breast cancer organization explains that it does “not and never [has] funded abortion or reproductive services at Planned Parenthood or any grantee.” Instead, the money Planned Parenthood receives from Komen “pays for breast health outreach and breast screenings for low-income, uninsured or under-insured individuals.”

On Saturday, another subject of Rewire’s “False Witnesses” series, endocrinologist Joel Brind, doubled down on his claims about the link between abortion and breast cancer in a workshop titled “New American Export to Asia: The Cover-Up of the Abortion-Breast Cancer Link.” 

Brind described the Indian subcontinent as the ideal place to study the purported link between abortion and breast cancer. According to Brind, “The typical woman [there] has gotten married as a teenager, started having kids right away, breastfeeds all of them, has lots of them, never smokes, never drinks, what else is she going to get breast cancer from? Nothing.”

When it came to research from Asia that didn’t necessarily support his conclusions about abortion and breast cancerBrind chalked it up to an international cover-up effort, “spearheaded, obviously, by our own National Cancer Institute.”

Although five states require counseling for abortion patients that includes the supposed link between abortion and breast cancer, Brind told Rewire that the link has become “the kind of thing that legislators don’t want to touch” because they would be going “against what all of these medical authorities say.” 

Brind also dedicated a portion of his presentation to promoting the purported cancer-preventing benefits of glycine, which he sells in supplement form through his company, Natural Food Science LLC. 

“If I sprain my ankle it doesn’t swell up, the injury will just heal,” Brind claimed, citing the supposed effects of glycine on inflammation. 

In a Thursday session on “the rise of the DIY abortion”, panelist Randall O’Bannon questioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) March update to regulations on mifepristone, a drug also known as RU-486 that is used in medical abortions. Noting that the drug is “cheap,” O’Bannon appeared to fret that the new regulations might make abortion more accessible, going on to claim that there could be “a push to make [the drug] available over the counter.”

O’Bannon claimed there are “documented safety issues” associated with the drug, but the FDA says mifepristone is “safe and effective.” A 2011 post-market study by the agency of those who have used the drug since its approval found that more than 1.5 million women had used it to end a pregnancy in the U.S. Of those women, just roughly 2,200 experienced an “adverse event.” According to the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, mifepristone “is safer than acetaminophen,” aspirin, and Viagra.

Speculating that misoprostol, another drug used in medication abortions, was less effective than medical experts say, O’Bannon later suggested that more embryos would “survive” abortions, leading to an “increased numbers of births with children with club feet, webbed toes, and fingers [and] full and partial facial paralysis.”

According to the World Health Organization, “Available data regarding a potential risk of fetal abnormality after an unsuccessful medical abortion are limited and inconclusive.”

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!

Right?

If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.