South Africa: Media can keep girls’ Olympic dreams alive

Date: August 24, 2012
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Johannesburg, 23 August – The dust is settling from post-Olympic celebrations and most athletes have made their way back home. In South Africa, we welcomed our athletes with joyous celebrations, not least of all 800 meter silver-medallist Caster Semenya. There’s no doubt that girls across the nation are looking to Semenya, bronze medallist Bridgitte Hartley, and other women competitors with Olympic dreams of their own. We are also nearing the end of Women’s month, a good time to think about the role the media plays in keeping these dreams alive, or not.

Online commentary points to girls and women as dominating social media during the games. Yet in both social and mainstream media, this attention shows that female athletes often found their looks, style of dress and physical appearance to be cause for comment. This is nothing new for sport coverage, but the year 2012 marked the first time all participating countries sent female athletes to compete and the first time all events were open to women, so perhaps we would have thought things had changed.

An example from South Africa is the opening match of the football series, in which Banyana Banyana faced Sweden. The post-game buzz occupying social networks like Twitter and Facebook, aside from Banyana’s performance, were mocking the team’s loss, blaming it on societal norms of how ‘fat’ African ladies are.

And this is not just an African problem – teenage gymnast Gabby Douglas made history by becoming the first American to win gold medals in both the team and individual all-around, and the first African-American to win gold in the individual all-around. Yet the day after she won her second medal, a good bit of negative attention focused on her hair, which netizens described as “messy and unkempt.”

As the amount of female activity on social networks shows, the quality and quantity of media coverage is not an accurate reflection of the amount of sport played or watched by women. Media coverage is generally inadequate and selective. This is disappointing, as women have made consistent contributions to South African sports at all levels, yet their achievements receive limited coverage by the mass media.

According to Pam Serra, researcher at the South Africa Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC), negative social perceptions of women athletes are still rampant. “Women in sport are still very much undermined,” she says, adding that looking at the patterns and the gap between the two sexes, it is clear that media coverage is one sided, and that a “sex sells’ trend is still prevalent. This is especially true in photographs, which often show women athletes wearing shorter, tighter, and sexier outfits.

Serra says that women’s sport is seen as “different” to men’s sport. There is a common perception that “In soccer and rugby, the pace (of women) is boring and slow.” Or that in the field of soccer, where women have made great strides “they’re still not a pretty sight running after the round leather ball, as compared to men.”

Six months of media monitoring conducted by Serra and Cora Burnett of three newspapers in South Africa – Beeld, The Star and The Sowetan – found significant differences in the representation of men and women in sports. Men in sport are usually depicted as having strength, toughness, and aggression, while their female counterparts tend to be noted for their grace, balance, beauty, and finesse. Men tended to feature in action shots, while women athletes usually in pose photos.

The Gender and Media Progress Study (2010) conducted by Gender Links echoed these observations, finding that sports is the most widely covered topic in South African media, over a quarter of all coverage of any topic. Yet women represent only 10% of the voices heard, and only 13% of journalists report on the topic. This is shocking in a country that has wide-ranging commitments to gender. Even more importantly, media coverage translates into sponsorship and opportunities – less coverage means less support.

For Jabulile Mazibuko a midfielder for Alex Ladies Football Club, it is disheartening to pursue a career that holds few future guarantees. “As a young sports woman I’m even discouraged to continue pursuing my career and living the dream of being a well-known soccer player,” she says, adding that it’s rare to see any broadcasting channel broadcast women sport games and if they do, the timing allows for few viewers.

Mazibuko says that the time slot given for women games is just a mockery. After all, who watches a football or a netball game at 00:00 on a weekday? It just doesn’t make sense.

It is also unfortunate that, although journalists should be objective, media house staff have their own stereotypical attitudes and values that reflect in their work. All this unbalanced coverage reinforces the stereotype that sport is for men, and if women engage in sport it should be for fun only, and not as a profession.

Media is key to overcoming barriers to women’s and girls’ participation and progressively achieving gender equality in sport. If the media focuses more on women athletes and various roles that women play in the sports industry, it will help eradicate stereotypes and marginalisation, and encourage women’s involvement in sport. For all of the young girls out there who have Olympic aspirations, this kind of coverage will surely keep these dreams alive.

Kopano Sibeko has worked with Reckord Noweto and Alex Pioneer newspaper, and is currently working with the Forum For the Empowerment of Women as a citizen journalist. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, special series on gender, sport and the 2012 London Olympics, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.


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