The 4% Project: 2020 Women’s Olympic Trials Marathon Coverage

 In Thoughts, Women runners

On March 18, 2019, I read something that woke me up, that burst me out of a self-made bubble that was abundant with stories about women in sports, especially women in running.

Here’s what I read: “Forty percent of sports participants are women, but they received only three to four percent of media coverage, and only one to two percent of the airtime on networks such as ESPN and Fox Sports.” Yes, you read correctly: Women receive less than 4% of sports media coverage in the US.

That quote is from the Fast Women newsletter, which was citing a piece published by KQED from a few days earlier. And when I read it, I was floored. I knew things were bad, but really?! That bad?!

I had so long ago abandoned mainstream media for any kind of women’s sports news—because there mostly was none—that I’d lost track of how lopsided things were. When I started ramping up my interest in following female runners, I looked to podcasts, and then other places where I knew could find the news I was looking for, places like Fast Women, The Kick, Run the North, and, of course, Women’s Running.

However, the way women athletes are represented in the mainstream media and how often that happens, and who gets that coverage and why is important. It influences where money goes. It influences who gets endorsements and sponsorships. It shapes how the larger public views a sport. It plays a big hand, along with advertising, in shaping the image of what a participant in that sport looks like. And all of that matters, a lot.

So, I decided to get out of my personally tailored media bubble and look at what mainstream coverage of women in sports looks like, with a specific interest on women and running. I’m calling it The 4% Project.

Part of my interest is to dig deeper into where that 4% statistic came from, and I’ll get to that in later posts. But here, I started with something very simple: a snapshot. A look at how mainstream media covered the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials.

I chose this event because here, the women came out huge! From my standpoint, this was the biggest, most exciting marathon event for women in the US . . . ever! So many stories! So many qualifiers. Such a really deep, the deepest!, field of competition. Over 450 women lined up for the race February 28. That’s 450 women who had run the qualifying time of a 2:45 marathon, or a 1:13 half-marathon, or faster.

By comparison, that’s over double the number of women who’d toed the line for the 2016 event. And it was almost double the number of men who lined up in 2020.

And it all came down to who was going to snag those top three spots, those three automatic births onto the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Team.

The results were equally as exciting and surprising. There was a lot for the media to grab onto. So what did they do?

To answer that question, I used a straightforward method: I looked at the post-race coverage in the top 12 newspapers by circulation in the US (as assessed by Statista; I’ve listed them highest to lowest circulation). I also looked at post-race coverage from ESPN and Sports Illustrated, the two biggest sports publications in the country. To find the coverage, I used the search term “Olympic marathon trials.”

Here’s what I found.

This Is What 4% Looks Like

Even When the Women’s Race Is Almost Double the Size of the Men’s

1. USA Today: Welp, this publication couldn’t even bother to mention in the headline that there was a women’s race, not in the headline or the two-part subhed.

This is how it read: “Olympic marathon trials: Galen Rupp dominates men’s race; 43-year-old makes team.” (The 43-year-old is Abdi Abdirahman.) Predictably, the women’s race received much less coverage than the men’s, and the first mention of the women’s race comes in the 4th paragraph. And for some odd reason, they quote Kipyego and Seidel up top, and cover Tuliamuk at the end of the story. The quotes from Kipyego and Tuliamuk focus on them being from Kenya and becoming US citizens. There’s no mention of Tuliamuk’s accomplishments as a runner, but we do hear a lot about Rupp and all he’s done. We do learn, however, about the hat Tuliamuk wore to the news conference.

Images: Up top, Rupp triumphantly crossing the finish line; lower down, the top three women’s finishers post-race with medals on.

If you want to read it yourself:

2. Wall Street Journal: Here, the focus was on shoe technology winning the day. But the primary focus is on shoes from Nike. Of course the top 2 women didn’t wear Nike, so the headline is referencing the men’s race: “At U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, It Was All About the Shoes: Galen Rupp leads Nike sweep of men’s qualifiers, while Aliphine Tuliamuk wins close women’s race.” The fact, of the top three women, only Kipyego wore Nike is mentioned in the story.

Images: top image of Rupp winning; a mid-story “related video” with a still of a men’s field; a photo of Tuliamuk toward the bottom, post-race, on the podium, medal around her neck; she’s holding the American flag spread out across her shoulders.

If you want to read it yourself:

3. New York Times: The lead image of the race coverage is of the women’s top three on the podium. And there’s a lot of information about the women’s race. Of the major newspapers, they did the best by the women, no question.

But where the Times did well by the women when covering the race, the follow-up coverage is . . . disturbing: there are two stories featuring Molly Seidel, and one story featuring Des Linden.

And there are exactly zero stories featuring the winner of the race, Aliphine Tuliamuk.

If you want to read it yourself:

4. New York Post: No coverage. But, the Post did have a ho-hum story in the Living section the day before the Trials titled “US marathoners say they have no time to fear Olympic cancellation.” The story mostly featured Scott Fauble (he was the only image) and had one quote by Kellyn Taylor.

5. Los Angeles Times: No coverage.

6. Washington Post: Following the expected formula, a bunch of info is given about Rupp’s win, and finally by the 6th paragraph, we get to the women’s race. Here’s the coverage Tuliamuk got: “In the women’s race, Tuliamuk finished eight seconds ahead of 25-year-old Molly Seidel, who took second with a time of 2:27:31.” That’s it. There’s an image of Tuliamuk bent over crying, with her face in her hands; the caption reads: “Aliphine Tuliamuk reacts after winning the women’s marathon trial.” The photo that leads the story, in contrast, shows Rupp triumphantly crossing the finish line, arms outspread, huge smile on his face.

After stating the top three in the women’s race in that 6th paragraph (that only place that mentions Tuliamuk in the text, or Siedel for that matter), the story dives back into talking about Rupp. There is a mention of where Linden finished, and a small bit about Kipyego, including a quote at the very end. For good measure, the story ends with a quote by Rupp—you know, in case we forgot who the story was really about.

If you want to read it yourself:

7.–9. Star Tribune, Newsday, Chicago Tribune: No coverage

10. The Boston Globe: The Globe featured women for its lead and only image. The photo is of Tuliamuk and Siedel standing together after the finish, captioned: “Winner Aliphine Tiliamuk (right) wrapped herself in glory Saturday, as did Boston’s Molly Seidel, who also made the US Olympic marathon team by finishing second in the trials.” Then we return to status quo with the story talking about the men’s race; it gets to the women in the 4th paragraph. From there, it’s even handed. Results come under the main story, men first, par usual.

I’ll point out that the Globe also did a follow-up story about Siedel. She lives in Boston, so that seems appropriate. Also, it featured an image with Siedel and Tuliamuk, and a photo with the women’s and men’s 2020 Olympic marathon teams.

Read if for yourself:

11.–12. New York Daily News, Tampa Bay Times: No coverage

ESPN: The headline here sets the tone: “Galen Rupp Wins 2nd Straight Olympic Marathon Trials.” For a second, I thought this was just going to be only about the men’s race, but no. In the first sentence it reads: “Galen Rupp, Aliphine Tuliamuk and America’s other top distance runners have claimed their spots on the U.S. Olympic marathon team.” Oh, but wait, it is almost exclusively about the men’s race from there, and mostly about Rupp. Also, there was one photo; it was of Rupp.

You can read it for yourself:

Sports Illustrated: This coverage was well done. The title is evenhanded and the race story is distinctly divided between the men (coming first) and women, and this format works well. Further, there is equal coverage between the two races and this is the only article to point out Aliphine Tuliamuk’s long list of running accomplishments.

But then, just like the New York Times, we see two follow-up stories about Seidel. And, again, zero stories about the winner, Aliphine Tuliamuk.

You can read it for yourself:

The Takeaway

In the mainstream media, running doesn’t get a lot of coverage. So these big events are just about all that most everyday regular media readers will see.

Continuing in to minimize women’s participation by underreporting it, at times grossly so, compared to the men is misleading and irresponsible journalism. To reiterate, women outnumbered men in the start lists by almost 2:1. To the 243 men, there were 465 women.

Of course, what continues to deeply disturb me is the non-altering dearth of coverage about winner Aliphine Tuliamuk, or third place finisher Sally Kipyego, following the race, when there have been several articles about Molly Siedel. It’s disgraceful.

I keep waiting. With the lack of sports happening right now, every day that ticks by is an opportunity for the press to tell these stories . . . and they don’t.

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