'The Rise of Mothers in Elite Sports' – Gender, Media and Sport


Much of the academic research on sport media over the decades has examined the amount and types of coverage received by female athletes and women’s sport when compared to the male equivalent. Hundreds of studies have shown how sport media generally offer far more space and greater emphasis to male athletes regardless of the type of sport, level or age of competitors, medium type, or host country of the media outlet. An overwhelming number of studies have also concluded that female athletes receive different treatment, although explanations as to how exactly this trend plays out and what can be done to undermine it, vary. These studies ruled that not only do female athletes suffer ‘‘symbolic annihilation’’ due to lack of media coverage, but that what amount of coverage they do receive only further reinforces the gendered hierarchy of sport. Many of these practices are so deeply woven into the fabric of women’s sport coverage that the majority of the public does not even notice them, let alone question their nature. One such marginalising practice, as this study shows, is linked to female athletes’ impending or existing motherhood. Though having somewhat improved over the years, the ongoing, sexualised and dismissive portrayal of sportswomen at the hands of predominantly male-run sports media and content platforms, is has not been eradicated quite yet. That being said, one must recall that sport consumption is a mediated process – from subject to framing, and frequency of coverage – these choices all inevitably impact audience perceptions of value and quality which is why, the media’s very interest in women pursuing athletics during pregnancy and beyond is crucial as it demonstrates how pregnancy, motherhood and sport are in fact not mutually exclusive.

Within the broader context of sportswomen’s media representation, this study turns the spotlight specifically onto media representations of elite athletes who are mothers. As it is clearly unfair to assign a singular identity to athlete-mothers and is therefore, no wonder that the media, which in itself is far from one-dimensional, portrays a more complex identity, especially outside the sports sections. However, as some sports pages and reader comments have indicated, the “mother, first; athlete, a distant second” narrative framing of female athlete-mothers in which their athletic accomplishments are undermined in favour of a more sympathetic maternal portrayal, is a long way from obsolete. In order to further our understanding of the complexity of an athletic mother identity, this study focuses on the media coverage of Serena Williams’ motherhood who in September 2017, gave birth to a daughter in an emergency cesarean-section. The discourse surrounding Serena Williams across various media platforms underscores the problematised, undermined and often clashing identities of mother and elite sportswoman, and yet through her example, the discussion becomes that much more multi-layered, fluid and empowering than previously observed.