Linguistics

Was this the most sexist Olympics ever? Our language research team investigates…

Lauren Ward

In the build up to Rio 2016, the language research team here at Cambridge created a special Sports Corpus to look at the language used in context to sport and if this differed depending on gender. As the Corpus provides trends in language over time, the team decided to also run a more focused study – this time only collecting data from Rio 2016 – to ask: Is sport reporting improving or getting worse?

The original study showed that women in sport seem to be underrepresented even more so than usual; in the general Corpus ‘men’ or ‘man’ is referenced twice as much as ‘woman’ or ‘women’, but in the Sports Corpus , ‘men’ are mentioned almost 3 times more often than women. It also highlighted that when women are being mentioned, it’s about their appearance or personal lives instead of their sporting prowess; top collocations for women include ‘aged’, ‘older’ and ‘married’ whereas for men it’s ‘fast’, ‘strong’, ‘beat’. You can see more of the findings in this interactive infographic.

After analysing the results from the Sport Corpus and hearing the anecdotal incidents of sexism through this year’s Olympic games, the team feared the worst for the study on the Rio 2016 Corpus. Sexism in sport reporting seemed to remain a hot topic throughout the event, with tweets like this:


Team GB’s Andy Murray even had to correct a highly experienced BBC commentator, who had congratulated Andy for being the first person to win 2 gold medals in Tennis at the Olympics, that the William sisters had in fact won 4 each.

It was therefore a welcome surprise to receive such heartening results from the follow-up study. The Rio 2016 Corpus showed that there was still work to do but the gender divide in sport language is getting better.

Men’s sports received just 20% more air time than women’s during the Rio Games – a considerable stride towards striking a balance considering the last report and the gender-imbalance found across the general Corpus. The gender-neutral term ‘sportsperson’ was also used with a considerably higher frequency during the 2016 Olympics in comparison to the language of sports more generally.

The Rio 2016 Corpus also reflects that this year’s Olympics have been ‘breakthrough’ games for women in sport. The high association between the words ‘female’ and ‘first’ suggest that female athletes that were the first to achieve something in their event or country got the coverage they deserved, for example Taekwondo fighter Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin who made history by becoming the first Iranian woman to ever win an Olympic medal.

Delving deeper into the Rio 2016 Corpus though, it wasn’t always the sporting action that took centre stage. The research also revealed that the word ‘green’, was commonly associated with the words ‘colour’, ‘water’ and ‘pool’ in Olympic reporting, relating to the transformation of the alluring crystal blue diving pool to a murky green colour overnight.

Read more about the differences in gender, language and sport in this language research whitepaper.


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