Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Women, girls, ladies and athletes

Gabrielle Douglas, Olympic athlete (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
I'm not really into sports - except, of course, for the Boston Red Sox and the Celtic - but I'm a bona fide Summer Olympics Junkie. I don't watch the Winter Olympics half as much as I do the ones held every four years in the summer. I'm not sure why, but there it is.

I love just about everything about the Summer Olympics, even the sports I probably wouldn't watch on a good day - or, even a cold, rainy day - like archery, rowing, track and field, synchronized swimming and volleyball - in the pool or on the sand.

I hardly know anything about many of the sports, much less the athletes - despite the great pains the commentators take to make sure I know EVERYTHING about them -  but I find myself jumping up out of my chair and cheering, "C'mon, c'mon. That's it! Go! Go! Go! YESSSSSS!"

I am in awe watching the human spirit soar as I watch it push the human body over balance beams and hand rings and floor mats and water and sand and pavement.

About that commentary, though. Have you noticed? It's sooOOOooo annoying.

I know that "dead air" is death on television and radio, but most of it the commentators are just inane when they don't become downright silly.

The Queen makes her entrance - Opening Ceremony
I understand that the commentators are trying to provide us with "context" but I almost lost it during the Opening Ceremony when Bob Costas gave this "context" for Australia: "It was originally founded as a penal colony."

Way to go, Bob. Wonder what "context" the Aussies would give for the founding of America.

Costas outdid himself, though, when he, noting that Luxembourg is actually the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, innocently asked, “why don’t they march in the ‘g-spot’?”

Mr. Costas was, apparently, referring to the nation’s proper alphabetical position as its Olympians entered the stadium.

However, Meredith Vieira, out-Costased Costas when she announced, “… [The] money shot tonight, the one that I think went viral, was the one with the Queen.” (whose double parachuted, Bond style, into the stadium during the Opening Ceremony).  Oye! Meredith! "Money Shot" is a term used in the porno business.

The "context" for the commentary on the various Olympic events isn't much better. I actually heard a commentator say about an athlete on the balance beam,  his voice all breathy and hushed and filled with importance and significance, "And, at the end of the routine, he will dismount."

Bob Costas has become a fixture of The Olympics, but boy, I sure miss old Jim McKay.

It was shortly after that comment, however, when I was just about to throw the remote control at the television set, that I had the sudden realization that my remote control had a "mute" button.

I hit it. Ah, peace! I can "mute" during the performance and "unmute" when I think I want to know more about the sport or the country or the 'backstory' of the athlete I'm about to watch.

It's a beautiful thing.  Let's give the inventor of a "mute" button a Gold Medal.

Serena and Venus Williams.
What I find most annoying, however, is the reference to the female athletes - no matter their age - as "girls".  Note, please, that none of the males - no matter their age - are referred to as "boys".

I don't know of any male athletes who are as young as some of the female athletes. I've seen one young woman diver from China who was fourteen years old and one American swimmer who is fifteen years old.

Not only are these women highly skilled and trained, but they have poise and grace and confidence, which I found just as amazing as their performances in the water.

Not only are these athletes performing for thousands of people in the stadium and billions of people around the world, they are competing for an Olympic medal. For their teams. For their families. For their friends and neighbors and supporters. For their countries. And, for themselves.

The pressure on them is nothing less than ginormous. And yet, there they are: Focused concentration. Bodies, minds and spirits alert and at the ready. And, more often than not, these women are smiling.

Amazing!  Especially when you consider that it wasn't until 1972 when Congress passed Title IX, otherwise known as "Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act" which states,
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance...
Until then, young women mostly took "Home Economics" and learned how to make macaroni and cheese while young men were learning how to become competitive athletes.

Missy Franklin
Participation in the Ancient Olympic Games was limited to male athletes only. The only way women were able to take part was to enter horses in the equestrian events.

Even in the early years of the modern Olympics, women were not well represented. Women participated for the first time at the 1900 Paris Games with the inclusion of women's events in lawn tennis and golf.

Women competed in swimming events for the first time in 1912, but none of them were from America, which did not allow its female athletes to compete in events without long skirts. Women's athletics and gymnastics debuted at the 1928 Olympics.

Over time more women's events were added. In 2012, women's boxing was introduced, resulting in no remaining sports that do not include events for women.

Equality in the available sports is one thing, but in many countries women do not have equal right to participate in sports and the opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games. Prior to the 2012 Olympic in London, three Muslim countries have never before sent a female athlete: Qatar, Brunei, and Saudi Arabia. However, they all bowed to IOC pressure and sent female athletes to London. Now every national Olympic committee has sent women to the Olympic Games.

Here's the thing about these women athletes.
  • The first modern Olympics in 1896 didn’t allow women to compete.
  • In 1904 there were 6 women athletes and 645 men.
  • The first post-war Olympics in 1948 featured nearly ten times as many men as women.
  • As recently as 1988 the ratio of men to women was almost three-to-one.
Recent years have seen a major shift toward equal representation. This summer, for the first time ever, the United States will send more women (269) than men (261) to the Olympics. (Click here for more statistics about women Olympic achievements.)

So, women have not only had to work twice as hard as men to achieve their goals, men have had a one hundred and twelve year head start in being able to participate in the Olympic games.

And then, some idiot commentator - male or female, but mostly male - has the nerve to call them "girls". Or, if they are between 18-30, "ladies".

Are you kidding me? These are athletes. They are "female" or "women" or "young women" who are "swimmers" or "gymnasts" and perform at track and field, archery and water sports, but to call them "girls" - especially when the males and men are not called "boys" is evidence of flat out sexism.

Helen Glover and Heather Stanning (Telegraph)
Some of the reporters try.  One of my friends posted this on FaceBook:  
Sue Barker interviewing Prince William and Prince Harry today on BBC 1 (Day 7: 16.00-18.00), "You were at the rowing yesterday with history made, Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, first women to win a rowing gold at the Olympics." Prince William, "Rowing and cycling have always been big in the UK... the girls have done really really well..this was the first, right?." Sue Barker, "Gold medal for the women, yes..." Prince William: "the women, yes...and the legacy for the future where the girls have done really really well hopefully the young will follow."
I don't know if he was being dense or petulant or didn't like being corrected by a commoner, but it seemed pretty deliberate and intentionally sexist to me.

Well, let's hope "the young" won't follow your sexist lead, Wills, old chap (she says, remembering the wedding of Wills and Kate wherein the Archbishop of Canterbury made a big flourish of taking the bride's hand from her father and placing it on the hand of her groom). Le sigh!

Lolo Jones (Reuters)
Look, I know it can be complicated. Women sometimes refer to themselves as "the girls" or "my ladies" and men sometimes refer to "going out with the boys". I know oppression can be complex, internalized as it sometimes gets.

And yes, I know that track and field athlete Lolo Jones has relentlessly marketed herself as vixen, virgin, and victim, mostly to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses.

Three years ago, she posed nude for ESPN Magazine and she appeared on the cover of Outside magazine seeming to wear a bathing suit made of nothing but strategically placed ribbon.

At the same time, she has proclaimed herself to be a 30-year-old virgin and a Christian. And oh, by the way, a big fan of Tim Tebow, but the odds are slim that she will stand a chance of winning an Olympic medal in the 100-meter hurdles and almost no possibility of winning gold.

Lolo Jones knows that 'sex sells' and, if part of the Olympics is "making a name for yourself" while creating a legacy, why not cash in on it, using your "best assets"? Men with six-packs do it all the time. Le Sigh.

The Women's Gymnastic Team
And yes, I know. The Women's Gymnastic Team (AKA "The Fab Five") look premenstrual and, in fact, pre-adolescent.

They are - at least on camera - tiny and cute and bubbly, and someone has decided that they need to do those perky little twists and wiggles between floor routines, smiling relentlessly as they toss their heads in a petulant sort of way and their ponytails add a sassy little swing.

I haven't seen male gymnasts - from any country - with those "cute" moves on the mat.

The press gives them cute names like "The Flying Squirrel" and insists on taking a perfectly beautiful name like "Gabrielle" and shortening it to the more cute, girly sound of "Gabby". I mean, the young woman doesn't have an ounce of body fat and moved away from her in family in Virginia so she could train with a Chinese coach in Iowa and become the best gymnast in the world.

With sacrifices like that, she ain't no "Gabby girl". She's a young, incredibly gifted and talented 16-year old woman named Gabrielle. She's the first Black woman to win a Gold medal in all-around Gymnastic competition. Her parents and family and friends get to call her "Gabby". No one else. And, please, I let's stop focusing on her hair. As one person tweeted: "If you want to ride Gabby Douglas for her hair, you should be open to her coming over to critique your muscle tone."

She is not her hair. She's a force of nature. 

Everyone is agog over Ryan Lochte's abs, but no one is talking about his hair care products.

Some of my feminist readers will complain that "God" is, to many in the world, a boy's name. Some of my more enlightened male readers will also point out that nurses who are men are often referred to as a "male nurse" in the same way that women who are priests are referred to as "women priests".

I know. I know. As I said, oppression is a complex and complicated social construct.

There are "women's sports" and "men's sports" and sometimes the sport is the same. The point I'm trying to make is that, if men are going to be referred to as "athletes" then women who compete in athletics deserve the same courtesy and respect.

Call them athletes. Call them "women ______ (fit in the appropriate sport"). But, please, unless they are under age nine (and too young to compete in the Olympics anyway), they are "young women" or "female" or, simply "women".

Larisa Latynina
Forty years after Title IX and one hundred and twelve years after women were allowed to even compete in The Olympics, I think we've earned the right to be called what we are: women who are athletes.  Olympians, as a matter of fact, whether or not we win the Gold, Silver or Bronze.

Indeed, at this writing, there have been 18 men and 9 women who have won Olympic medals in the history of the events.  Not bad, all things considered. Give us another decade and watch those numbers flip like Jordyn Weiber on the horizontal bars.

However, the most Olympic medals held by any individual athlete has, until a few days ago, has been a woman. 

As Larisa Latynina, former Soviet gymnast, whose 18 Olympic medals were the most won by any athlete for 48 years - until US swimmer Michael Phelps won his 19th medal on July 31, is quoted as saying, "I'm quite happy there is a man in the world who can overcome my record, finally."

I think it's wonderful that people from all nations can set aside their differences and compete for the love of the "Olympic spirit".

Now, if we could set aside our sexism - even for just a few days every four years - the world would truly be a better place.


Ann said...


Muthah+ said...

Just watched the women weight lifters. Two American Women I can relate to. I love it!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ann - Amen!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Muthah+ - weight lifters, male and female, have been described as having the built of "a brick "shit house". They are fearsome.

Karen said...

Love the quote from Larisa Latynina.

And yes, the Olympics are special. Only occasionally watch sports otherwise, but HAVE to watch the Olympics.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

After 48 years? Great quote, but especially after all that time and all that sexism!

Fr. Chip, SF said...

Great essay, Elizabeth. Lots of good 'talking points re: general sexism.

Fr. Chip, SF said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Fr.Chip. We need to remind these commentators that people ARE listening to them, which is why so many of us are hitting the "mute" button.