During the Olympics, we get to watch all sorts of women play all sorts of sports. That is no small deal.
Unlike in our everyday sports experience where men are the assumed participants unless otherwise specified, in the Olympics, events are tagged “men’s” and “women’s” equally. For once, “men’s” is not the default. Instead, pop culture at large invites us to learn these women’s stories, trace their journeys, and praise their accomplishments.
Women’s visibility in the Olympics is a double-edged sword, though.
The Olympics is an event predicated on nationalism, a manufactured collective “us.” People compete as part of a nation and, in turn, the nation embraces those athletes in ways that it fails to do in the day-to-day. The same belief that leads people to desire border fences, to malign immigrants, and to justify preemptive wars is the one that creates a metaphorical umbrella under which all athletes, male and female, find themselves during the Olympic games. Women’s efforts on the pitch or in the pool matter because they help fulfill the uncomfortable need for “us” to be better than “them.”
This is also true of other athletes who work outside of normal cultural boundaries. Melissa McEwan states that "men’s sports frequently coded as 'feminine' (gymnastics, trampoline, equestrian events, ice skating in the winter games, etc.) and/or that are not directly physical, aggressive contests (swimming vs. American football)” are also accepted during the Olympics. Additionally, we celebrate multi-cultural backgrounds that are often disparaged: Danell Leyva was born in Cuba! Khatuna Lorig used to compete for Soviet Russia! Leo Mazano, silver medalist in the 2012 1500M track race, originally came to America undocumented! Despite how or why they got here, during the Olympics, all our athletes represent “us.”
The national Olympic umbrella is broad, allowing plenty of space for women’s sports. While we embrace those women, the other side of the sword cuts deep, too. We say to female athletes, “We will love you for your successes and praise your boundary-pushing, but we will simultaneously question your actions and your appearance and remind you constantly of the gendered power dynamic that we are allowing you to thwart in the name of national glory.”
The examples from London of the double-edged sword are abundant.
1) Being a black U.S. woman in the Olympics.
Gabby Douglas is the 16-year-old African American gymnast who led the USA’s Fab Five to a gold medal in the team event and became the first woman of color to win the gold medal in the individual all-around competition.
There is little doubt that seeing Douglas on top of the medal stand will positively affect young black gymnasts. Dawn Rhodes, once an aspiring teenage African American gymnast herself, wrote, “I imagine another little girl may see herself in Gabby Douglas and believe, now, that her dreams aren’t so crazy after all.”
The flip side of the Douglas story is the unending negative scrutiny on both Douglas’ appearance and her personal background: her mother’s finances, criticism over whether her leotards are patriotic enough, screeds against her mother’s parenting choices. Most famously, Douglas has had to answer endlessly for her hair, to which she replied, “Are you kidding me? I just made history. And you’re focusing on my hair?”
The same young black girls that see their future represented in Douglas’ success also see these criticisms lobbed at her.
See also: Serena Williams and Lolo Jones.
2) The plethora of body types.
During the Olympics, all sorts of body types are represented, from the heavy weightlifters to the slim, lithe gymnasts to the sculpted muscles of hurdlers. This year people rallied around Sarah Robles, the USA’s best weightlifter, male or female, to help secure her a corporate sponsorship. Leisel Jones, an Australian swimmer, showed that you can be fast in the pool even if you don’t look like what most people expected.
These celebrations of different body types, though, butt up against the ongoing attempts to determine the biological line between “male” and “female.” Caster Semenya, a runner from South Africa who carried her country’s flag in the opening ceremony, has been at the center of this body policing over the past few years. Her presence on the track has caused governing bodies to try to draw a distinct biological difference between the sexes in problematic ways: "The International Olympic Committee recently released a new sex-testing policy that could prevent women athletes with hyperandrogenism, determined by natural testosterone level, from competing in London … Less feminine-looking women athletes will likely be singled out to undergo investigation.”
3) Clothing choices.
On one side: women competing in hijabs (spotlight on Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi).
On the other side: more discussions about beach volleyball bikinis (and pictures about said bikinis).
4) Individual accomplishments vs. gendered language.
Perhaps one of the best things about the Olympics is that we learn so much about the individual female athletes both before and after their events but also while they are actively competing.
Kristin Armstrong won gold in the cycling time trial in 2008 and then retired. She had a child in 2010. She then came out of retirement and has now won a second consecutive gold medal. She is almost 39 years old and is now the oldest olympic cycling medalist ever. NBC commentators praised her amazing accomplishments during both the road race (in which she did not place) and the time trial.
Yet, the accomplishments of this very grown-up woman were couched in a serious failure of language: repeatedly the two announcers referred to Armstrong and the other women she was competing with as “girls.” This language is used in many other sports when almost none of the competitors fit the age-range of the term.
Watching a 38-year-old cyclist crush the field while being referred to using a diminutive is frustrating, to say the least.
5) What women can do vs. what people think they should do.
For the first time ever: boxing. And Saudi women competed for the first time ever, one doing judo while wearing a hijab.
And like all times ever, a sexist post in a major publication about women doing “manly” sports. Sigh.
In the end, the double-edged sword of women’s visibility in the Olympics = the awesome + the maddening.
Jessica Luther is a historian, graduate student, educator, reproductive rights activist, staff writer at Rant Sports, and a freelance writer/blogger.