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The 2010 Olympics and Gender Roles: Highs and Lows

Written by Sarah Seltzer for - News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

The Olympics are a wonderful event for female athletes, who get the rare and coveted chance to have the eyes of the entire world upon them. I know I'm finishing this first week of events with a brand new set of heroines, as I do every four years. The Olympic's female dynamos are rightly raised to the level of superstars for their physical and mental prowess, and unlike with other major professional sporting events, during these games the spotlights is shared evenly, gender-wise.

But the Olympic games, which are carefully-choreographed for the public and covered to death by the media, are also a moment to take stock of the progress we still need to make in terms of how we view women athletes. They also remind us of the flawed ways we talk about gender, and the performance of gender roles in public. As the Caster Semenya controversy reminded us, traditional attitudes towards male and female categories still hamper our ability to appreciate pure athleticism.

Kept off the Course:

Veronica Arreola over at AWEARNESS blog rounded up most of the issues viewers have noticed when it comes to female athletes. She has a good summary of the most egregious barrier, which is the inability of talented female ski jumpers to get official Olympic recognition and inclusion of their event:

Why? Apparently it's because women are "too fragile," along with an outdated system of rules that allow the International Olympic Committee to keep "American Lindsey Van, who holds the world record for the single longest jump by anyone, male or female" from competing for a gold medal. When the IOC tries to explain that women can't compete because there aren't enough women jumping, the conversation circles around to, How can we increase interest and participation if women's ski jumping isn't allowed at the Olympics?

And I'd also add that if it's true that the top women are competing at the same caliber as the men, why not allow the smaller number of women jumpers to get in on the main competition and compete directly with the men, at least until the sport is more popular?

Hopefully we'll see these women jumpers with their own event in 2014.

Tough Gals:

We know that watching female ski jumpers would be wildly exciting based on the other women who performed feats of daring with their feet strapped to planks this week.

Right now, before any of the solo female figure skaters have taken to the ice, the heroines are a group of badass mogul and downhill skiers: Lindsay Vonn, Hannah Kearney, Julia Mancuso and Shannon Bahrke. Snowboarders Hannah Teter and Kelly Clark and Australian Torah Bright also utterly wowed with their spins and tricks on Thursday night.

Who wouldn't get a thrill watching these women jump and flip and speed down the mountain in record time? But their competitors who took brutal falls and then got back up after flying hundreds of feet in the air or sliding down snowbanks also proved the toughness and mettle of women competitors. For some reason, the horrific wipeouts we witnessed on the mountain this week have a different significance than the hair-raising, can-they-keep their-balance falls we see the more demure gymnasts and figure skaters take. These skiers are aggressive, hungry, and on an edge between perfection and catastrophe. And the sanguine snowboarding women who took ten-foot drops, flipped over, and then got up and grinned were a great model for the sheer joy of the competition.

And yet these dominant athletes still are consistently referred to, officially and unofficially, as "ladies," "young ladies" or girls. Their physical beauty is often thrown in when commentators discuss their skills. The announcers and cameramen really love panning to views of the men in their life, and when we watch women perform, we hear constant reference to their boyfriends, husbands or brothers. Why, after Vonn's victory, were we treated to ten minutes of her sobbing into her husband's arms. What was with the endless pre-race chatter about her seductive Sports Illustrated swimsuit spreads? There's still a level of condescension here that would be eliminated if we took women's sports more seriously during the non-Olympic years.

I wish women's year-round sports got the same kind of play these Olympic events do. It's sad that professional women's sports on both the team and individual levels seems to disappear for three years.

Flying Guys

The performance and perception of gender norms affects both female and male athletes. This year, the wide-open field of top contenders for male figure skating has made it a more popular even than usual. One of the American contenders is the flamboyant, outspoken, publicly-beloved Johnny Weir, a fashion-loving Russophile who has become something of a gay icon (although he refuses to discuss his sexuality).

There's almost too much to unpack when it comes to the gender issues with the male skaters. In a world where all the men wear sequins and spandex, twirl and wave their arms to music, Weir is still controversially "out there" and it couldn't be more obvious that he makes people uncomfortable in this notoriously conservative sport. The announcers on NBC made so many awkward allusions to Weir's "soundbites" and "personality" they reminded me of schoolkids still unable to say the word "gay." Meanwhile they gushed over his arch-rival, the supposedly more masculine Evan Lysacek--the eventual gold medalist who skated with black feathers or a glittery silver snake on his costumes.

Weir doesn't have Lysacek's pure athleticism, but he does have a rabid following among old-school skating fans who love his style and miss the days when grace and artistry mattered as much as jumps. It was strange that NBC didn't do a segment on Weir, even a traditional cheesy redemption narrative. The commentators weren't the only ones who seemed predisposed against Weir: both his bobble-free performances were wildly applauded by the crowd, thousands of fans who then booed for what seemed to be undervalued scores from the judges (this explanation for Weir's low scores is: "Simply put, the judges didn’t like his routine much.")

The skating establishment seems traumatized by their status as an artier sport, one routinely mocked by those who think it shouldn't count as athletic. For that reason, and maybe for others, the powers that be appear to have embraced Lysacek's persona over Weir's. In 2008, in a cliche-ridden but fascinating piece about the Weir-Lysacek rivalry, the Times reported:

During a figure skating broadcast last year, the announcer Mark Lund, who is openly gay, said, “I don’t think he’s representative of the community I want to be a part of,” and, “I don’t need to see a prima ballerina on the ice,” before praising Lysacek’s masculinity.

Sounds like a sport with an identity crisis. Whether there's outright homophobia at play here or just panic about being the "girliest" of Olympic sports, to us fans it feels like the skating establishment needs to loosen up.

What do you think?

What have you observed, gender-wise, while watching the games this year? What's impressed you or ticked you off? Please share in the comments section.

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