Rio 2016: The Olympics are a rare reprieve from men's sport

Australia's 4x100m freestyle relay team show off the gold medals they won on the first night in Rio.

Australia's 4x100m freestyle relay team show off the gold medals they won on the first night in Rio. Photo: AP

The Olympics are here, the one time every four years where swimming and shooting take the newspaper pages usually reserved for football and cricket. Just four days in, we've already seen some of the Olympics most perennial features: questions about the host country's readiness, a bit of diplomatic tension between Australia and China over a swimmer's comment, and complaints about the coverage of the events. While some Australian fans have taken to social media to vent about uneven coverage and a live-streaming app that is less than reliable, American viewers have it much worse: NBC, the network that is showing the Games, has decided to put both the televised events and even the online streams on delay, so they can be seen in prime time.  

It's not a surprise that NBC has decided to tape-delay many Olympic events - the American network has a history of mediocre-at-best Olympics coverage. What is more surprising is the justification given by network executive Jim Miller for the delay:

"The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the Games than men, and for the women, they're less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It's sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one. And to tell the truth, it has been the complaint of a few sports writers. It has not been the complaint of the vast viewing public."

United States' Simone Biles performs on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women's qualification.

United States' Simone Biles performs on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women's qualification. Photo: AP

Obviously, the notion that because more women watch the games, the audience is "not particularly sports fans" is absurd. Women routinely make up between 30 and 50 per cent of sport audiences (depending on the sport and the country). Similarly, the idea that the delay is justified because women are "less interested in the result than the journey" is entirely inconsistent with my experience of women in sport. I have shed tears over losses (and wins) with plenty of other female sports fans. Miller's separation of results and stories is a false dichotomy: they exist together, not in opposition to each other.


But underneath all that absurdity, there is a kernel of truth: the audience for the Olympics is noticeably different than other sporting events. It's not because the audience is "not particularly sport fans"; it's because they aren't fans of our dominant sporting culture: men's team sports. This is true in both the United States and Australia. The Olympics challenges our day-to-day understanding of what it means to be a sports fan.

Despite the many different codes of football that people play in Australia, our sporting culture is unfortunately homogenous: dominated by men's team sports. Even the recent developments in women's sports have mostly been around creating women's leagues for historically male team sports. Netball is an exception, but it is an unusual one.

Liz Cambage (#8) and the Opals in their match against Turkey.

Liz Cambage (#8) and the Opals in their match against Turkey. Photo: Carlos Osorio

Around the world, other sporting cultures are far more interesting and diverse. While men's sports have a virtual monopoly on sporting culture in Australia, other countries have developed vibrant competitions and fan bases for sports that have both genuine gender diversity and are based on individuals rather than teams. While these sports might not dominate, they are a regular and easy-to-access part of the sporting culture.

The same can't be said of Australia. Here, being a sport fan almost inevitably means watching team sports. Even if you mostly watch women's sport, other than netball, your options are dominated by the football codes and cricket.

The Olympics offers a rare reprieve from this. The more diverse offering attracts a more diverse audience. People who don't think of themselves as sports fans spend two weeks glued to the television. And many of these fans are women.

Rather than seeing this as a repudiation of the centrality of male team sports to our sporting culture, instead these fans are portrayed as not being "real" sports fans. This reaffirms the idea that "real" sport is male and team-based. The diversity of popular sports in the Olympics challenge this centrality: popular sports like swimming, diving and gymnastics do not remotely resemble the football codes. Categorising people who enjoy watching these sports as not "real" sport fans is to suggest that the only "real" sports are the ones that are on our TV every weekend.

What we should take from the Olympics is not that its audience isn't "real" sports fans, but that these sports fans are largely ignored by our sporting culture. This is largely a product of history: sport was seen as having a moral dimension, and team sport was a way of inculcating values. These values were steeped in ideas about masculinity.

By the time the era of muscular Christianity ended, Australia's sporting culture was fairly established. The dominant sport codes were already entrenched. Challenging that dominance requires resources that emerging sports rarely have, unless they have a wealthy benefactor or international backing. That women's sport is mainly growing in traditionally male codes is also part of this legacy: these are the sports that have the resources to invest in new competitions.

The Olympics offers a break from this monotony. While it would be wonderful for Australia to develop a more varied and inclusive sporting culture, until then these four weeks every four years are precious. The people who only watch the Olympics are every bit as "real" as any other kind of sport fan: they're just ignored the rest of the time.