By: Lisa Lai
The Olympics have included women since 1900. Does it still represent them, one century and two decades later?
At the turn of the twentieth century, there were approximately one thousand Olympic contestants. Twenty-two were women, the very first ones ever– a mere 2%!– to compete at the Olympics. Now, the presence of women athletes nearly equate that of men. In fact, more sports for women were introduced last year, some of which include: skateboarding, baseball/softball, karate, sports climbing, and surfing. Indeed these statistics show that society has gone a long way in terms of representation, equality, and welcoming women, but it has more alarmingly shed light on the fact that right from its beginnings in 1896, the Olympics has been stacked against women. It is, however, not just inclusive of the competition during the Games– it’s the whole process, from training in preparation to modeling for magazines.
It’s no secret that athletes have to endure rigorous training to even qualify for the international event. Male and female athletes alike have to watch their food consumption and track their weight. But there is a thin line that separates what a healthy athlete should look like and what a healthy person should look like. This line, which should not be crossed, most often is. Take the case of Mary Cain, an exceptional seventeen-year-old female runner training with male Nike coaches four years ago. Cain was instructed to lose an unproportional amount of body weight so that she could run even faster. Though she lost weight, Cain gained the problems that came with Red-S Syndrome, which, due to fasting, jeopardized her bone health– she broke five bones while training– and compromised her body’s estrogen levels she needed to survive. Additionally, she had no psychologists, much less any who were women, so as a result, Cain internalized her emotions. She started cutting herself, and once supported by her parents, recognized that, to stay alive, she had to quit training at Nike. Cain’s story shows the ignorance not only for the female body, but also for the mentality and experiences, even in a renowned conglomerate company. If women and their bodies are dismissed before the Games even start, are the Olympics really welcoming women?
They say they are, but they favor only a certain type of woman. In 1936, Olympic female contestants had to endure mandatory sex testing to verify that there were no men who may be passing as women. Although the Games framed it as a necessary measure to ensure that there were no unfair advantages, the blatant fact is that people were suspicious of women’s incredible performances. And this belief still stands: Caster Semenya, a South African runner, improved her run time by four seconds and was immediately scrutinized. Through a sex verification test, it was discovered that her testerotone levels were higher than the average or “normal” woman. The public was quick to comment. Is Semenya a woman? Is she allowed to participate as a woman in the Olympics? But the larger question is: What is a woman? Reduced to biological factors, and more crudely, measured numbers, Semenya’s case illuminates and challenges the segregation between the sports for men and women, and to some extent, even questions why other genders are not represented. If the Games centralize women’s biology more than their athletic ability, are the Olympics really welcoming women?
Even after the international spotlight, the public continues to see women’s bodies first before her athleticism and skill. In fact, a study found that the media is found is more likely to comment on female athletes as “girls” rather than “women,” than “boys” for “men,” implying that women– or “girls,” rather– should not be taken as seriously as men because they are less aggressive and competitive. Sports journalists, 90% of whom are male, typically describe these “girls” using factors like age, marital status, and physical features much more than they do men, skewing the public’s perspectives on female athletes and the validity of what they do toward inferiority. But the media does not stop there in misrepresentation; the perceptions of female Olympians are sexualized, drawing attention to their bodies. Vogue magazine’s June 2012 issue spotlights the Olympics and features soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo and tennis player Serena Williams happily linking arms with swimmer Ryan Lochte. While Lochte is pictured in his swimming trunks, Solo and Williams are wearing body-hugging bathing suits that say more for their figures than their athleticism, which, by the way, has nothing to do with the bathing suits they are wearing. As simple as a photo, the media forces the wedge between women and athleticism deeper by emphasizing their sex appeal over their athletic capability. If athletically gifted women are not taken seriously, are the Olympics really welcoming women?
As a patriarchal power, the Olympics, from start to finish, is stacked against women. As shown through the experiences of Cain and Semenya as well as the mis-portrayals through media, women and their bodies are dismissed, questioned, and sexualized. So are the Olympics really welcoming women? Not truly, no.