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Social media data shows public backlash to sexist Olympic coverage

By Jordan Hanson  •  August 22, 2016


Social media data shows public backlash to sexist Olympic coverage

Posted by: Jordan Hanson on August 22, 2016

It's no secret that Americans are largely passing on the opportunity to get caught up in Rio Olympic fever. Ad Age recently reported that both ratings and viewer deliveries for 2016 Rio Olympics coverage is down over 32 percent from the first two days. Average household ratings clocked in at 13.9 across 26.5 million viewers.

After examining ratings data for the last three Olympic games - Beijing, London, and Rio - makes it absolutely clear that Rio is the worst-performing of those mentioned.


According to Nielsen-live-plus-same-day data, NBC's opening ceremony broadcast for the Rio games is the poorest-received since the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona (13.8 rating), and the least-viewed since Athens in 2004 (25.9 million viewers).

That said, Nielsen still reported that some in the US are watching the Olympics, so it's reasonable for us to guess that these same people will also be talking about the Olympics on social media. Let's take a look at social conversation data to get a better understanding of the social media landscape:

Social media data confirms Rio Olympics are underperforming both Beijing and London


With an ongoing outbreak of the Zika virus, toxic sewage levels throughout the waterways of Rio, and no shortage of security, corruption, or bribery allegations to speak of, news sources have continued to spur conversation on social media about the events in Brazil as they unfold.

So, with all of the potentially troubling topics at this year's Olympics in Rio, what factors seem to be dragging down US viewership? Let's take a look at the social media data using Infegy Atlas to find out which topics show up.

In the first two days of the Olympics, only two athletes were singled out in a universe of 9 million posts

Michael Phelps and Simone Biles. Unsurprisingly, the conversation around both of these celebrated athletes is overwhelmingly positive, as noted by the green color, though Simone a little more so than Michael Phelps, at 100% and 75%, respectively.


With US Gymnastics wrapping up their team gold medals to widespread applause across social channels, let's look at how people talk about US swimming a little more specifically.

The top athletes for US Swimming this year are Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps

Despite the fact that each are equal members of Team USA, the social conversation landscapes for each athlete are dramatically different in a way that showcases how coverage of elite male athletes like Michael Phelps tends to gloss over obvious sexist challenges faced by female teammates.

This is the topic cloud for Michael Phelps, for example:


His starring teammates Ryan Lochte and Katie Ledecky make the cut here, too. Both are discussed overwhelmingly in a positive nature.

You'll also notice how the topics tend to be more directly related to the actual competition and less about the sexist circumstances, conditions, and conversation topics female athletes are forced to endure in competition.

For instance, 'gold medal' is the biggest topic mentioned alongside any conversation about Michael Phelps and the Olympics.

You'll also notice that people are more focused on Phelps when they're talking about him, too, another luxury his female teammates like Katie Ledecky are frequently denied. 

Because we're looking for any references to 'Michael Phelps' within the total volume of Rio Olympic conversations on social media, this topic cloud gives us a better understanding of the way *most* conversations about athletic prowess go for male Olympians.

Katie Ledecky's post content is much more negative than Phelps' - in a way that feels like she's been robbed

We can repeat our strategy in looking for conversations about Michael Phelps. Here, we'll contrast Michael Phelps' topic cloud with female Olympic teammate and world record holder Katie Ledecky to demonstrate the differences.
In this case, we'll look for references to Katie Ledecky on her own. This is where it gets interesting:


Remember how I pointed out that Phelps' topic cloud was overwhelmingly positive? Or how the conversation topics were related to his sport? It also didn't include any of these topics, such as 'the horrible way broadcasters' are talking about the achievements of female Olympians in Rio.

Michael Phelps is almost a big deal in conversations about Katie Ledecky on social media as her own independent world record (which is generally discussed in a negative context, a sharp contrast to the celebratory tones widely associate with Phelps).

To put things in the context of conversational intensity, people felt almost as passionate about her individual gold medal as they did the broadcasters giving away credit for the achievements Ledecky - and other female Olympians like her - worked so hard to achieve.

Immediately after Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu won the gold medal for the 400-meter individual medley, NBC commentator Dan Hicks credited her husband as 'the man responsible' for success.


While it's true that Katinka's husband Tusup is her coach, it seems strange that there aren't commentators giving Michael Phelps' credit to his wife, after all.

Granted, this type of thing does happen when male athletes' partners are celebrated, too, but those situations generally involve more discussion about how the athlete's partner has been supportive along the way instead of entirely overshadowing the athlete's accomplishments.

Other instances of sexist commentary in the Olympics have been highlighted in social data, too, which illustrates that this is more similar to a general pattern of behavior in sports media than any kind of isolated incident. 

#EverydaySexism quickly became a lightning rod for conversations around the achievements of female Olympians and the way commentators were robbing these women of well-deserved glory.

Corey Cogdell, like Katie Ledecky, is another female Olympian who fell victim to the same sexist pattern.

Generally speaking, when these women are mentioned most positively, it is within the immediate conversational context of a male athlete or, worse, when commentary lays their Olympic accolades directly at the feet of their partner or spouse.

Rio bronze medalist Olympic shooter Corey Cogdell was referred to by the Chicago Tribune as 'wife of Chicago Bears lineman.' At least they printed her photo correctly?

The original headline of the story didn't even mention Corey's name, either. It has since been edited to correct the error. You can find the corrected story here.

Let's recap:

What did social data show us about the differences in coverage between male and female Olympians in Rio?

  1. Most of the time male Olympians are mentioned on social media, it is to champion their accomplishments during the international competition.
  2. When female Olympians are mentioned by news sources in commentary on social media, it is often to contextualize their success as female athletes in terms of another male figure described, as in the cases of Katinka Hosszu and Corey Cogdell, respectively.
  3. Even when female Olympians are mentioned on their own by individual users, the discussion often centers around the challenges of being a female athlete in an environment that prioritizes male athletic achievement at the expense of female athletic notoriety.

While social media conversations around various women competing on behalf of Team USA highlight the sexist realities faced by our female Olympians, it doesn't seem that these conversational topics are bleeding over into the discussions around male Olympians, or we would have seen some element of it in the conversational topics around Michael Phelps in the context of Katie Ledecky, which is generally discouraging.

Our recommendation for all Olympic commentators: focus on celebrating the achievements of these female athletes, who have each worked incredibly hard to get where they are in Rio. They obviously deserve it.

Brands should be concerned, too: Coca-Cola, AtoS, Bridgestone, DOW, GE, McDonald's, Omega, Panasonic, P&G, Samsung, and Visa all have direct ties to the Olympics via their own sponsorship, which says nothing of the immense amount of ad dollars NBC is charging these brands to be associated with sexist coverage of female Olympians. And NBC is running tons of ads this year.

If I were advising one of these brands, I would be using social media monitoring data like the elements I've showcased here in order to evaluate how negatively the sexist commentary would affect our brand association, and even take steps to mitigate some of that risk by independently embracing the accomplishments of these athletes.

Even if they've been handed a bad PR situation, the Worldwide Olympic partners have a single unique advantage - they're not bound by IOC Rule 40 to avoid advertising associated with the Olympics.

Particularly as these topics about Olympic coverage commentary seem to keep making their way around social media circles, interested and innovative brands would do particularly well to turn these social media lemons into advertising lemonade.


After all, Visa paid for and ran this ad showing Michael Phelps swimming across the ocean in preparation of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, a unique benefit offered to them under Rule 40 as official sponsors. They - or other Olympic-associated brands - could spare some kind words for Katie Ledecky, Katinka, Hosszu, Corey Cogdell, and other female Olympians without affecting their bottom line too negatively.


Did you enjoy this post? Be sure to let me know on Twitter! I also think you'll enjoy this post, too:

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Topics: brands, sentiment, spokespeople, audience, social data, tv, advertising, perception


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