Sunday, August 19, 2012

The female Olympians

(Originally published in Guyana’s Stabroek News on 4 August 2012)

I have been in sports heaven this past week. I look forward to the Olympics for one reason only:  to see women athletes perform on an international stage while the world watches intently. Let’s face it; there are very few other venues by which we can watch female athletes perform.
Throughout the world on a national level, sports enthusiasts can watch male cricket, male football, male basketball, American male “football,” male baseball, male hockey, male rugby, male wrestling…male everything! I cannot think of even one example of female sports to watch at all on a national level.
Men like to think they alone are interested in sports. Like education, politics and religious leadership, they want it to be a man thing (insert caveman growl here). It seems they like the idea of being able to own this part of the human experience, too. But those men who believe women are not interested in sports are as wrong on that assumption as they were about women not being interested in education, politics, technology, religious leadership and so much more.
For example, I love sports. I love to watch sports, though not all sports. I am not a fan of any sport that involves violence. Because of my abusive childhood, I cannot watch violence of any sort without flinching. As such, sports such as American football are not appealing to me at all.
However, I am an avid baseball fan (in spite of fact that US national teams are all male). I keep up with the stats of my favourite team and love to go to games. Likewise, I have also been so excited for weeks in anticipation of the Olympics and I’ve been up at 4 am many days this past week watching the games with enthusiasm.

The final paragraph of an interesting July 29 New York Times article on the female athletes of this year’s Olympic Games caught my attention. The article, entitled “A Giant Leap for Women, but Hurdles Remain,” said, “Yet female soccer players have also gained praise for performing without the diving, theatrical writhing and complaining inherent in the men’s game. A British reader named Geoff Cooling wrote to The Daily Mail on Sunday that he had watched an entire match devoid of excessive preening and whining. ‘Was I dreaming?’ he wrote.”
I had never given this “preening and whining” much thought before watching a male volleyball match in the London games. Since men have always dominated sports teams, it is easy to just assume the theatrics are a natural part of the game. In contrast to the women I watched yesterday, the men were bellowing after spikes. There were obvious self-congratulatory gestures and yells. And there was even some open self-adulation. I turned the game off.
It was at this point that I finally realised why I like watching female athletes as opposed to males. I like the grace, disposition and focused-thought of the female athlete in contrast to the yelling, preening and aggressiveness of the male athlete. In fact, the one male-dominated sport I truly enjoy watching – baseball – is generally void of such showy aggressiveness.
Yet male sports teams dominate the national stage while female sports teams are relegated to quiet competition out of sight from the world. Male athletes are also given more credit for their athletic abilities. For example, that same New York Times article said, “Japan’s women’s soccer team is the World Cup champion. But its players were forced to fly coach, while the men’s team rode in business class, on a 13-hour flight to Paris from Tokyo before the Games.”
The male athlete is still celebrated in first class while the female athlete is hidden away in coach.
When female Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen took gold with a time that incredibly outpaced American gold medallist Ryan Lochte’s final 50 in the men’s race by a split-second, a male US coach cried foul and accused her of doping. This was an unsubstantiated claim as Olympic officials had cleared her to participate in the games.
Yet still, in the minds of that male coach, a woman could never be as fast as a man. And yet, this year’s Olympic Games are the first that women will participate in every sport and every participating nation will have a female on their team. In 1896, when the Olympics started, women were not allowed to participate in the games. They were lucky to be “allowed” to watch.
One hundred years later, in the 1996 games in Atlanta, there were still 26 nations that did not have female athletes.
Despite the many challenges, women are starting to compete on the same level with their male counterparts. I can’t help but wonder what the Olympic Games will look like in another 100 years, when women have had a chance to push themselves as far as men have always been encouraged to.
I recently read a quote by Lois Wyse that said, “Men are taught to apologise for their weaknesses, women for their strengths.” This is true in so many ways, the least of which is when it comes to sports. The world still hides athletic women away in coach without any public national teams to encourage and celebrate their abilities. What a loss to the human race!
In the same way female intelligence has long been hidden and not celebrated, female athleticism is stuffed in a dark corner and only allowed to come out once every couple years, after which they are again stuffed in that dark corner. Women should be celebrated in all their glory and not made to feel guilty when they excel in areas previously dominated by men.
Why is it that when a woman out-performs a man, her veracity is called into question? Because it is still hard for men to believe women really are their equals. The world celebrates Michael Phelps as “The Greatest Olympian” (according to The Guardian), but refuse to celebrate a 16-year-old female athlete who has made history.
This may be the first time in Olympic history that a woman has out-performed a male gold medallist. But, mark my words, it will not be the last.

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