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Gender & the Olympics: A Commentary

posted by One Sport Voice
Saturday, August 11, 2012 at 9:59am EDT

Dr. Nicole M. LaVoi: This blog reflects my critical eye and voice on all things sport. I am a critical thinker, scholar, and researcher in girls & women in sport, youth sport, and coach & sport parent education.

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I wrote about three significant trends pertaining to females and the Olympics for Minnesota Public Radio. Namely I wrote 2012 has marked the 40th anniversary of title IX in the US, female Olympians outnumbers their male counterparts for the USOC, and women in predominately religiously conservative Muslim nations were allowed to compete for the first time in summer Olympic history. I also wrote about the lack of women in positions of power for the US Team (also see previous blog).

After I wrote that piece I’ve been thinking about other broken barriers, and in some cases have proven just how far girls and women in sport have yet to go. Other key occurrences include:

1. African American women winning gold in sports traditionally dominated by Whites–Serena Williams (tennis, becoming only the 2nd female to obtain the Golden Slam), Gabby Douglas (all-around gymnastics). However, both athletes competed in sports and trained in systems that are not under the jurisdiction of Title IX (i.e., private, non-school based). This is a key point because while Title IX as dramatically improved participation rates for females, girls and women of color have not benefited from this law to the same degree as their White peers.

2. On Friday, August 9, 2012, Shannon Eastin became the first female to referee an NFL game. This is key for many reasons–its provides proof females can be in other visible roles in football than cheering on the sidelines, it provides a role model for girls and young women to aspire to a career in refereeing at the highest level, and it provides evidence that women are capable of referring a sport that most don’t play (no one ever raises an eyebrow when men ump or coach softball!). Unfortunately due to enduring sexism and gender stereotypes about women in positions of power she will endure criticism that is not leveled at her male colleagues, and backlash in the blogosphere. However, her appearance is not without controversy due to the NFL ref picket line.

3. While US women have won 58% of the medals for Team USA (as of 8/10/12), female athletes in most all sports have been criticized and subject of derogatory remarks for not being feminine or attractive enough. There are a number a articles on this topic which details that “faces not feats” are predominately highlighted in Olympic coverage. I was encouraged by the fact some female athletes fought back and resisted those who tried to marginalize their amazing feats.

The reason why this matters is that just as many current Olympians (e.g., Alex Morgan, Gabby Douglas, Missy Franklin) talked about how their aspirations for gold began as they watched 12, 8 or 4 years ago, today’s girls are doing the same. Girls need to see active, athletic female role models rather than be subject to commentary about how female athletes should look and conform to society’s notions of femininity and beauty. Athletes are beautiful…in all shapes, sizes, sport types, ages (equestrian Karen O’Connor is the oldest Olympian competing for the US at age 54; swimmer Katie Ledecky is the youngest at 15).

For some female athletes they self-promote by relying on looks, and for those who have them…can we blame them?. According to Jere Longman, a NYT writer, “Lolo Jones has received far greater publicity than any other American track and field athlete competing in the London Games. This was based not on achievement but on her exotic beauty and on a sad and cynical marketing campaign.” As Jones took 4th place in the 100m hurdles by a tenth of a second, I wondered if all the attention and hype distracted Jones’ attention and energy from optimal performance. What is even MORE interesting is that Longman’s critical column of Jones garnered considerable criticisms of its own (here, here, here, here).

…primarily from blogs that are rarely interested in covering women’s sport!

So is the lesson from “low blows on LoLo” that one should not be mean spirited and critical of the Olympic “It Girl”? (I’m reminded of my blog where I criticized the SI cover portrayal of 2010 Winter Olympic It Girl Lindsey Vonn). That female athletes should be left alone to market and promote themselves as they see fit? That it is OK if girls and young women internalize consistent messages of “it is more important what you look like than what you can do athletically” that can, according the to American Psychological Association, lead to a host mental and physical disorders?

If remaining gender barriers are to be broken, how female athletes are portrayed, portray themselves, and critiqued by the media must be examined and changed.

Athleticism and talent of ALL female athletes, not just the ones who meet society’s standards of femininity and attractiveness, (of all the hours of NBC coverage I did not see any of female weightlifters or boxers) should be sufficient for coverage.

And when they perform well and give it all they had in the tank, we should celebrate– not compare them to men, call them “manly” or other gendered slurs, subject them to sex testing, or wonder if performance enhancing drugs are involved (e.g., Ye Shiwen, Caster Semenya).

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