Female Athletes and Media Attention

The things Zuska has to say often make me uncomfortable, and the way she says them often irritates the hell out of me. But I still read her blog, because she almost always makes me think about things in ways I hadn't before. Her post about the recent Lindsey Vonn Sports Illustrated cover is a great example of all of that.

Rudeness makes me want to stop reading. The "d00dz", "ladybraned ladeez", "mansplaining", and generalized sarcasm and condescension that littered Zuska's post irritated the hell out of me. But after spending just a small amount of time on actually looking at the issue, I'm having a very hard time figuring out why she might want to be polite about this.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but sports is supposed to be about competition, strength, skill, and determination - that's the theory, anyway. But if that was reality, most of you would be almost as familiar with the names "Jessica Long" and "Natalie Coughlin" as you are with "Michael Phelps". I'm willing to bet that quite a few of you know that Coughlin is an Olympic swimmer, but not much more than that. I'd be shocked if more than a handful of you have even heard of Long.

Let's start with Jessica Long - she's an absolutely amazing young woman. She won three medals in Athens in 2004, and six in Beijing in 2008. She'll turn 18 at the end of the month. It's extremely unlikely that she'll appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And, no matter how good she might be as a swimmer, I'll bet you a thousand dollars against a jelly doughnut that she's not going to be featured in the Swimsuit Issue.

The reason that you probably haven't heard of Long - and the reason that I'm confident she won't be featured in the swimsuit issue - is simple. Long is not an Olympic athlete. She's a Paralympic athlete. The fastest swimmers in the world can swim a 400 IM in about 4:30. Long takes close to 6 minutes, but she does it without legs.

Natalie Coughlin is a fantastic swimmer. During the 2008 Olympics, she became the first American woman to win six medals in a single Olympics - and that's on top of the five she won in 2004. She became the first woman to win the gold for the 100 m backstroke in two consecutive games. Michael Phelps was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated several times. Coughlin, not once.

But there's an even better way to see the discrepancies in the way these swimmers are seen by the public. The Google sees all, knows all, and reveals all.

A search for "Michael Phelps" medals returned about 590,000 hits. A search for "Natalie Coughlin" medals returned 48,800. A search for "Jessica Long" medals returned 3,070. And it gets better.

Take the word "medals" out of each of those searches and replace it with "sexy". Phelps comes back with 424,000 hits - that's well under the total for the "medals" search. Coughlin, on the other hand, comes in with 194,000 hits - triple the attention she gets for the medals. The search for Jessica Long and sexy came in with 3,800, but after looking at the first couple of pages of hits it appears that virtually all of those are false positives related to various Jessicas with long hair.

More like this

Lindsey Vonn is on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Womentalksports.com notes Vonn is first a GREAT athlete, but she also represents norm of feminine attractiveness. The combination of athleticism and attractiveness make Vonn the likely poster girl of the US Olympic Team, and the media hasn't…
I am generally not hugely enthusiastic about the Olympics, and I really wasn't following the run-up to the Beijing games this year. The games turn out to be great mindless distraction while SteelyKid is between feedings, though, so I've ended up seeing a fair amount of them. I know you're dying to…
As you may or may not have heard, the evidence in the upcoming perjury trial of Barry Bonds was unsealed yesterday, and includes a number of positive drug tests. And, really, my main reaction was "Oh, thank God." It's not that I'm enthusiastic about hearing steroids-in-baseball talk again, but the…
So, in case you hadn’t noticed, I was taking a brief vacation, a long weekend if you will. As a result, I hadn’t planned on posting new completely original material until Wednesday or Thursday. (Monday’s post, some of you noticed, was a modified crosspost from my not-so-super-secret other blog.)…

I call shenanigans on this. First, comparing a paralympics athlete with an olympic athlete is not comparing apples to apples. The argument there should be we should pay more attention to the paralympic athletes, not women vs men.

With Coughlin vs Phelps, Phelps tied the record for most medals won in one olympics. Isn't that more noteworthy than Coughlin accomplishments? If anything I would argue also that the importance of the number of medals won is more of an exponential function. Is one medal all that noteworthy? Not exceptionally (of course all medal winners are important, but there are a ton of single medal winners from the US), and especially not in swimming where there are many medals awarded.

Compare Coughlin vs Phelps and the US men's and women's gymnastics teams from 2008. Google has about 4 times as many hits for the women vs the men. Now which of these won a medal? I knew that the women did. Most people do. They actually both won a silver medal for team. (Side note: adding sexy to the search surprisingly gives more results for the men than the women. But it's tougher to say what this means because it's not individuals.)

I'm not arguing that there is rampant sexist treatment or anything going on for gymnastics. I'm just saying that I don't buy into your metrics as a measure of sexual attitudes. Phelps won more than Coughlin and tied an olympic record. Of course that will be more noteworthy. Long is a paralympic athlete. Tell everyone to check out the paralympic games, they are truly amazing to watch, but don't use it as an example to say that women are marginalized.

I'm sorry, are you saying you think that in fairness, there should be MORE websites devoted to the sexual attractiveness of a 16-17 year old?

Um. Yeah. You may really, really want to rethink this post.

Oh yeah the Jeux Olympique are out of whack. Next week thousands of Canadians are going to protest against the games themselves in Vancouver. In essence they agree with you.

When this issue comes up, there's one name that always pops to mind -- Brianna Scurry. While not ugly, she's, eh, kinda plain. She was/is also one of the best women's soccer goalies in the world -- had to be to be to be the goalie on the 1999 US Women's World Cup team. At the end of the final game, they go down the lineup to show each of the athletes getting their medals... but when Scurry got hers, the camera cut away. Was it looks? Was it race (Scurry is black)? Who knows. But what it wasn't was fair.

Obviously, Vonn should have been wearing her burka.

sarcasm,perhaps. some call that funny. but condescension? wtf?

And in any case did you read the linked post from that Chris Chase person? sarcasm and condescension are called for in response to such clueless, yet assertive, response to the original comments on the pr0nification of women on SI covers.

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 06 Feb 2010 #permalink


I did not expect that either Coughlin or Long would receive as much attention as Phelps. As you pointed out, his accomplishments were outstanding and would have received more attention regardless of the gender or disability of the others. But that much less?

The point that I was trying to illustrate by including Long - poorly, I'll admit - was the extent to which our views of athletes seem to be shaped by factors beyond their skill and performance. It would be good if the paralympics received more attention, but at the moment the question I'm interested in is why they don't already.

As far as Coughlin goes, you are right that her accomplishments do not match Phelps', but I'm not sure they're so unimpressive that they deserve an order of magnitude less attention. But that's a side issue, and one that I don't want to get bogged down in now. The comparison between her and Phelps that I think sheds the most light on the issue of how athletes are perceived is the "sexy":"medals" ratio - 0.71 for Phelps versus 3.98 for Coughlin.

Let me make that point again - people are slightly less likely to be impressed by Phelps sexiness than they are by his skill, but people are almost four times as likely to be impressed by Coughlins sexiness as her skill. Meanwhile, Long receives very little attention at all, despite the fact that her own skill is extremely remarkable, because the athletic accomplishments of someone with a physical disability are valued less than those of the able bodied.


I'm sorry, but where did I imply that references to the sexiness of any of the athletes were a good thing? I reported those numbers for Long because I had done the same for the other two, and would most likely have been criticized on other grounds had I failed to do the same for Long.


I see no reason based on this issue for any sort of protest against the games themselves. The problem is societal, and has nothing to do with the events.


Right, because obviously a female athlete can only be depicted as a sex kitten or an asexual being - no middle ground allowed. But thanks for helping make my point.


I actually used the phrase "called for" to describe the sarcasm in an earlier draft, and I can't remember why I left it out of the final. But I thought I was at least implying that when I said that I couldn't think of any good reason for Zuska to be polite about this issue.

Franks is pretty clueless about her inability to articulate her position rationally, but she actually has a real point of sexism here.

She does fall victim to ignorance (or she's dense), though, when she repeats the point that SI doesn't feature many female athletes. Anyone who watches any sport for a second knows that the best athletes tend to be men. Find me a woman who can be as tough as Lucic or run the bases like Ellsbury or find space like Welker or defend like Garnett and then I'll watch. And then I'll buy a magazine based upon her being on the front cover. But until then, don't expect to see many women on the cover of sports magazines.

It may also be somewhat important that phelps is the best person in the world at the various swimming things he does whereas coughlin is the best woman. I'm not saying that this is the only reason people are more interested in phelps' accomplishments, I think the points you bring up also play a part, but I don't think this factor should be ignored in your analysis. If phelps and coughlin were to race, phelps would win by a very large margin. It's he same reason I'm more interested in pro football than college, or the premiership than he mls, the athletes in the former in each example are better in an absolute sense.

But after spending just a small amount of time on actually looking at the issue, I'm having a very hard time figuring out why she might want to be polite about this.

Because it is tiresome to be female in a society that expects women to look pretty and sexually welcoming at all times.

By OleanderTea (not verified) on 06 Feb 2010 #permalink

Your clarifications were helpful, since I admit that there was a lot of "extraneous noise" in the original post. With respect to the attention given to paralympics, however, I really don't know what to say. It is indeed very politically correct to say that the Paralympics deserve much wider coverage since performances of the contestants are just as impressive.

But I am actually not sure whether that premise is actually, in general true (it is anyway hard to determine). The problem is that most of the disciplines in the Paralympics are pretty marginal, with very few (comparatively speaking) active athletes worldwide. There are many cases of athletes who perform very well in the Paralympics who, prior to some accident that lead to their handicap, were pretty mediocre performers in their sport and who would never have been even close to qualifying for the Olympics. Did these suddenly acquire a devotion or single-mindedness after the accident in question, or is it the case that given the low number of competitors, winning a Paralympics medal is, yes, far easier? It is, of course, hard to tell in each particular case, and any answer will probably not be universal. But the suspicion is indeed part of the reason why I, for one, am less interested in the Paralympics than the Olympics, and also the reason why I am actually less impressed, to be honest, by medals in some of the more marginal sports in the Olympics. To repeat myself - it is hard to determine how well the contestants would have done if there had been a hundreds or thousands times as many other contestants they had proved themselves better than, and while it might be unfair in some cases, I do think it matters and know that it colors my own opinion.

So when you say "Long receives very little attention at all, despite the fact that her own skill is extremely remarkable, because the athletic accomplishments of someone with a physical disability are valued less than those of the able bodied" I think you are, literally, correct - but I am not sure that the reason Paralympics contestants receive less attention is only due to the fact that "our views of athletes seem to be shaped by factors beyond their skill and performance".

Conjecture: teen/early twentysomething males are the group most likely to concern themselves with an athlete's sexiness.

Observation: There are approximately 19 straight males for every gay male, and this proportion applies to teen/early twentysomething males.

Tentative conclusion: There are many more people who would write about a female athlete's sexiness than a male athlete's.

Find me a woman who can be as tough as Lucic or run the bases like Ellsbury or find space like Welker or defend like Garnett and then I'll watch. And then I'll buy a magazine based upon her being on the front cover. But until then, don't expect to see many women on the cover of sports magazines.

Hawd00dche! Quit trolling for GYOMFBA page hits, loser.

Zuska has some important points to make about inequities for women in intellectual fields where their accomplishments are the equal of men, and I'm grateful for the education she's given me on that score. But in sports, sorry, you'll always get, and deserve, less attention than the world champion when your title is "world champion of those with vaginas", or "handicap X". This isn't just true of women. Take any male world champion fighter at a lower weight class. Their paydays and media attention are fractions of what mediocre heavyweights get.

Consider this in light of the overwhelming majority of heterosexual men among sports fans, and the objectification of female athletes becomes inevitable. Why do you suppose men almost always wear less revealing clothing than women in practically any sport you care to observe? Sure the SI cover of Lindsey Vonn is in poor taste, but what did you expect? They are out to sell magazines and they know their audience, just like the tennis honchos who have the women play in skirts while the men wear pants.