The Requisite Olympics Post
I love the Olympics. This is the first time in my life that I haven’t been able to watch the games regularly due to technical difficulties (ie, the streaming is causing problems on my computer and I don’t have a TV). The identity nerd in me is fascinated by the nationalism that pulls through during major sporting events like this; I’m blown away by the talent that we are able to bring out, and by how young some of our athletes are-~-how driven they are, and how successful. There are a lot of things to love about the Olympics, for sure, but there are also a lot of things that deserve some pause.
Let’s start with Gabby Douglas. Remember Gabby Douglas? First US woman ever to win both team gold and all around gold in gymnastics at the Olympics? She’s sixteen and she just kicked everyone’s butts? Gabby Douglas deserves all the praise we’ve got for her performance in the Olympics, and for what it took to get there. She has been living away from home for two years training, and her dad, a member of the US military, is less a part of her life than one might have hoped. And she’s been a champ.
So how is she repaid for being a champ? First, the media decided to vilify her mother for being a single mom. There’s no real evidence that this was a bad choice, but the media LOVES to vilify single mothers, and they jumped on it. As news sources such as the Christian Science Monitor have pointed out, a lot of it has to do with pervasive but “subtle” racism: America loves to paint the narrative of the dysfunctional, Black single mother and the absent or otherwise failed Black father, and uses this narrative for everything from justifying the differential in incarceration rates to vilifying the African-American community in general. As if that weren’t enough, people have been so quick to praise Douglas’ host family in Iowa, and while I’m sure they are fantastic people who genuinely care about Gabby, her mother also made some incredible sacrifices in letting her daughter move to Iowa to train. On top of that, this is just another fine example of our inability as a society to accept that something other than a traditional heterosexual two-parent household could be stable and functional. It’s a load of crap, and that’s half of what Gabby Douglas got.
But let’s not just harp on the white community. I’m white, and I halfway don’t want to touch this with a stick, but it’s time to face the facts: no one should have been fixated on Gabby Douglas’ hair when she was busy, I don’t know, winning the Olympics. She did something incredible, something that deserved to be celebrated, and what she got in return was a bunch of people going on about her hair wasn’t “kept” and how she needed to “represent”. You can read more about this here and here.
But Gabby Douglas isn’t the only athlete worth mentioning, and gymnastics certainly isn’t the only sport worth discussing if we’re going to talk about gender issues and failure to properly recognize female athletes at the Olympics this year. Let’s talk about beach volleyball, shall we? Misty May-Treaner and Kerri Walsh Jennings just won their third Olympic gold in beach volleyball. That’s freaking impressive. And what are people hung up on? Photos of their butts? Beach volleyball was honestly added because people liked watching women in bikinis, and this gave them an excuse. Never mind that it’s a great sport, and May-Treaner and Walsh Jennings are incredibly athletes, the best the sport has ever seen. Bathing suits. That’s where people’s heads are at.
Then of course there’s weightlifting. US female weightlifter Zoe Smith had to shut down her Twitter because of the sexist comments she was receiving. Why? Because being strong isn’t feminine? Because having muscles isn’t “sexy”? People need to get over themselves.
It’s not just a sport to sport issue though. Sexism in sports is a systemic issue, and the media is a big part of it. And it’s not just that they fixate on butts or hair or what girls wear when they are performing; it’s the way that female athletes are discussed, too. When female athletes succeed, it’s attributed to luck, and when they fail, it’s attributed to lesser ability, but the opposite is true when men are discussed (sound familiar? Sheryl Sandburg made a similar argument about gender and success in the workplace). That’s a huge problem, because it devalues the achievements of female athletes who work and train hard to get where they are today; it says that women can’t actually be good, the way that men are.
If we’re going to glorify and celebrate sports, then we need to celebrate what the Games are really about: achievement, dedication, hard work, success…and these are all things that can and should be attributed to female athletes. Instead of hypersexualizing them or fixating on how they look as opposed to what they can do, we should be focused instead on the sacrifices they’ve made and all they’ve accomplished, the same way we do with men. Our women are accomplishing incredible things, and they deserve to be celebrated for it. Strength is beautiful, success is beautiful. It’s time we started acting like it.