This Olympics, make the effort to support female athletes

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One of the most memorable days of my senior year in high school happened in the midst of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. 

During the Canada versus USA semifinal men’s hockey game, my school projected the game onto the large screen in our gymnasium. Students were excused from class to watch, teachers handed out popcorn and treats and together we watched the men’s team come out on top in overtime, solidifying their spot in the finals. It’s a day I look back on fondly. 

But it struck me soon after that my school hadn’t offered the same sort of support to the women’s team. Canada’s 2014 women’s team had an intense series of games culminating in an exciting final match, where they beat the US in a thrilling 3-2 overtime win. But awareness and support for the women’s team was lacking.

It’s a recurring trend. The 2010 Vancouver Olympics men’s hockey final saw the highest viewership for a hockey game in 30 years: 16.67 million Canadians tuned in to watch the men’s team play. 

Contrastingly, the women’s final attracted only 7.5 million people.

According to a 2016 lawsuit filed by several top US female soccer players, those on the US women’s Olympic soccer team were paid $30,000 each in comparison to the male players’ $68,750 salary, A team with several world and Olympic championships under their belt received less than 50 per cent of the compensation their male counterparts did for simply showing up. 

Equality and recognition for the efforts of working women has significantly improved over the past few decades. Even so, it’s evident the sports industry is a sphere in which progress continues to be slow-moving. 

There are contributing factors to the aforementioned statistics: men’s sports generally gain substantially higher revenue. Male-dominated sports and leagues like the NHL are undoubtedly guaranteed to be viable capitalist enterprises. As a result, these garner thus more media coverage, better broadcast agreements, lucrative endorsement deals and substantial merchandise profit, all because there’s an audience. 

People pay attention to men in sports to an extent that doesn’t reach the female side. 

The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport produced a research-based sports documentary in 2014 called Media Coverage and Female Athletes, which revealed despite women making up 40 per cent of all athletes, they receive merely four per cent of all media coverage. 

In addition, when coverage or promotion of women’s sports does occur, female athletes are more likely to be shown in sexually provocative poses, and their athletic prowess is often cast aside in favour of dialogue about their personal lives and appearance. Or they’re discussed solely in relation to a man. 

Olympic trap shooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein, upon winning a bronze medal in 2016, was referred to by The Chicago Tribune as the “wife of a Bears’ lineman.” That same year, Katinka Hosszu broke a world record in the 400-metre medley, a victory promptly credited to her husband and coach while his alleged verbally abusive behaviour was left unmentioned. 

Rhetoric used by the media when discussing Olympic athletes often includes words like “married” or “unmarried” when discussing women, while men are attributed words like “fastest” or “strongest.” This disparity in vernacular highlights incredibly problematic perceptions about females in sports. 

The aforementioned documentary also addressed myths that there’s not an audience for women’s sports, or that they want to see athletes sexualized — both of which were proven untrue. Critics who deem female athletics as boring or incapable of matching the thrill of men’s games often lack enough exposure to women’s games to accurately make this judgement. 

Moreover, our attitudes about the value of women’s sports are problematic — female athletics aren’t perceived as worthwhile. These ideologies extend to the corporate side; the NBA paid their players an average $5.15 million in 2012 — or approximately 50 per cent of league revenue. WNBA players, whose average salary was $72,000 in 2012, receive less than 25 per cent. 

As a result, unrealistic and problematic media portrayals — coupled with public misconceptions about women’s sports — diminish the value of the industry, the athletes’ skill and the overarching necessity for not only female sports participation but appreciation.  

The audience is there — women’s tennis is the only sport where the females either match or outweigh men in compensation, viewership and awareness, so it can’t be said that female athletics isn’t engaging or profitable. 

But in order for progress to occur across the board in the sports industry, media presentation of women’s sports needs to change, along with the mindsets of the general public. It means tuning into their games, allowing them the chance to excite us and appreciating their efforts.

Female athletes deserve the same notoriety, during this year’s Olympics and beyond. But we need to take the steps to allow for women in sports to prosper alongside their male counterparts.

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