Views / Opinion

Scott White: It’s time for female athletes to get equal time at the Olympics

After decades of relegating women’s events to weekdays and off-prime hours, thus denying female athletes the same media exposure their male counterparts have always enjoyed, changes are finally coming to the Pyeongchang Games, thanks to the efforts of one Canadian.

Nancy Lee in 2000 when she took over as the head of sports at CBC. Lee left the CBC in 2006 to become chief operating officer of the Olympic Broadcast Service at the Vancouver Olympics. She has remained a champion of women’s sports and worked with the Olympics to make schedule changes that give female athletes better exposure, writes Scott White.

TORSTAR FILE PHOTO

Nancy Lee in 2000 when she took over as the head of sports at CBC. Lee left the CBC in 2006 to become chief operating officer of the Olympic Broadcast Service at the Vancouver Olympics. She has remained a champion of women’s sports and worked with the Olympics to make schedule changes that give female athletes better exposure, writes Scott White.

It is a date Canadians will always remember as one of the great moments in our sporting history: Feb. 28, 2010. You know it well — Sidney Crosby scores in overtime to give Canada the gold medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

It was the ultimate performance at the last and pinnacle event of the Olympic Winter Games: the men’s hockey final. But here’s what you probably don’t remember about that Sunday eight years ago.

No female athletes saw any action that day — the final day of competition. In fact, women have traditionally been kept off the schedule of the final day of the Winter Olympics (and don’t fare much better at the Summer Games).

That’s changing at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang — and a Canadian has something to do with the fact the Olympic movement is starting to make some long-overdue changes to ensure better gender equality.

The significance of the schedule as a tool for gender equality may not be obvious to the casual sports fan, but it’s an important factor for many reasons. Events scheduled on weekends gain larger broadcast audiences. Relegating women’s events to weekdays and off-prime hours denies female athletes the same media exposure that their male counterparts have always enjoyed.

If women are not given equal scheduling opportunities there is inevitably less media exposure. And less media exposure unfortunately suggests women’s sport is less important.

Media coverage of the Olympics also creates heroes and role models — not just for boys but girls too.

So that’s why it is important that on the final day of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, women will compete in the gruelling 30-km mass start cross-country skiing event. And a few hours before that, the women’s curling gold medal game will take place — likely one of the most-watched events in Canada if Rachel Homan’s team from Ottawa is going for the gold.

This imbalance in the Olympic schedule has long been a bugaboo for Nancy Lee, the former head of CBC Sports. Lee left a 20-year career at CBC in 2006 to become chief operating officer of the Olympic Broadcast Service at the Vancouver Olympics.

Lee has remained a champion of women’s sports and has spent the past several years working with the International Olympic Committee, broadcasters, international sports federations and the Pyeongchang organizing committee to make schedule changes to give female athletes better exposure.

“You need to step back and figure out what the sports system is doing to enable the media to ignore women’s sports,” Lee told a hearing of the Canadian Heritage Committee in 2016. “Until you fix that, you are reinforcing the stigma that women’s sport is less credible.”

“How can you blame the media for not covering women when there are no events on the last day of the Olympics?”

I am the only Canadian member of the IOC’s Press Committee, a group that advises the Olympics on a wide range of issues regarding the nonbroadcast media that cover the Olympics. Lee made her first gender equality presentation to our committee almost two years ago. I could feel my face turn flush red with embarrassment during the presentation — I had been to three Olympics and, as the former sports editor and editor-in-chief of The Canadian Press news agency, I’d overseen coverage of many more Games. It had never occurred to me until that moment that the schedule was so imbalanced against women athletes.

Apparently I wasn’t the only man to miss it.

“Most reporters, producers, and media executives just don’t think about it,” Lee told the Parliamentary committee. “It’s not on their radar screen. The result is that when they’re making editorial decisions around what to cover and determining where to allocate resources, they are not applying a gender lens as part of that decision-making.”

The Olympics need to go a lot further to attain gender equality. Lee recently completed a gender equality review for the IOC. The recommendations address gender equality in several areas: the number of sports at each of the Games (there will be 49 men’s events and 44 women’s events in Pyeonchang); funding; equal representation on decision-making bodies and even issues like how athletes are portrayed — think about those beach volleyball uniforms women athletes wear.

Let’s all hope the next great moment in our sporting history happens when Canadian women take the gold medal in curling on Feb. 25 — the final day of competition at this year’s Winter Olympics.

Scott White is editor of The Conversation Canada and a sits on the International Olympic Committee’s Press Committee.

More on Metronews.ca