From “hollow-eyed pixies” to “team of adults”: Media portrayals of Olympic women’s gymnastics before and after an increased minimum age policy
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Plagued by criticism for its athletes being deemed too young and fragile, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) increased its minimum age eligibility policy for Olympic gymnasts from 15 to 16 in 1997 in an attempt to shift media perceptions of the sport in a more positive direction, lengthen gymnasts' careers, and prevent injuries and burnout. Utilising framing theory, this study sought to determine how US-based newspapers portrayed Olympic gymnasts' age and physical appearance over the course of eight Olympic Games, how these portrayals changed over time, and whether coverage changed after the FIG's minimum age rule increase. US newspaper articles from every Olympics from 1984 through 2012 were analysed using qualitative document analysis methodology. Results revealed changes over time coinciding with the minimum age rule implementation. Portrayals of age shifted, with younger gymnasts being described as children and kids in the earlier years of the study and as teens or women in the later years, although language used in quotes by national sport organisations was found to perpetuate the stereotype of gymnasts as children. Regarding physical appearance, height and weight were focused on in the earlier years and excluded from coverage in the later years, although these aspects re-emerged in 2008 due to the intense scrutiny surrounding the Chinese women's team, who were involved in an age falsification controversy. The results illustrated the powerful framing function of the media, how those outside the media can influence frames, and how controversial issues can impact media portrayals.
Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health
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