You probably went online in the past few weeks, hoping to check out the medal standings at the London 2012 Olympics. While the Internet isn’t a great barometer for rational thought, when you step outside of medal coverage, even women athletes at the top of their field cannot avoid being skewered. Have you ever typed in any combination of women, athletes and Olympics? In the context of this issue of Maine Women, filled with strong female athletes, it was frustrating to see the limited scope of what my search found.
Please, dust off my soapbox.
Women have been competing at the Olympics since the Paris Games in 1900. The year 2012 marks the first time the U.S. Olympic team has more women competing than men. Dubbed the “women’s games,” this is the first time women are competing in all 26 sports and is the first Olympics for women from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei. It also marks the first games to include women’s boxing. And yet with so many achievements, the women’s events get less coverage, despite a bigger percentage of women tuning into the Olympics.
Given all this progress and momentum toward equality, I was horrified with what my casual Internet search came up with: critical reviews of female athletes’ appearances, weight, wardrobe and level of sex appeal. Results about trends in fingernail art and best outfits were at the top of the search results, rather than stories about athletes like Americans gold medalists Missy Franklin, Serena Williams and Sanya Richards-Ross.
This column is not a callback to an earlier post about women’s coverage in the media, because I’m excited to report that despite all those sensational, shallow stories about women, there seems to be more hope for equality through the progress made at this summer Olympics.
To be fair, the same Internet search replaced with male, rather than female, did bring up some sex symbol articles about men, too. An article from The Daily Beast went as far as to say men’s water sports are “a welcomed sequel to the movie ‘Magic Mike,’” and jokingly opened the article with, “They don’t call it the XXX Olympics for nothing.”
In the name of fairness, the Huffington Post featured a picture galley of zoomed-in, closely cropped images of male athlete’s backsides in response to London’s Metro and The Daily Sun heavily featuring their women’s beach volleyball teams’ bottoms, rather than action shots from the matches.
While we are making great strides in equality on this international stage, the coverage still features more about top male athlete’s performances than their female counterparts.
Still, there is a lot of talk about both women and men as sex symbols, and there certainly are more absurd stories affecting women athletes at the Olympics. Did you know they tried to pass a rule that would force female boxers to wear skirts because there was difficulty telling women boxers from their male counterparts? How about the Australian and Chinese men’s soccer teams flying first class to the Games, while the women flew coach, despite the women’s teams being ranker higher, with the Chinese women in contention for gold?
It’s not only sexism where strides are being made. Sexuality is being talked about more at the London Olympics.
South African archer Karen Hultzer came out in London, hoping to make it easier to those struggling with their sexuality. The U.S. team leads the charge with 27 openly gay athletes, making progress in sports, an area of a long-standing culture of homophobia. There are still areas of the world where people are killed for being gay, and the athletes competing in London hoped to show solidarity and make progress.
Then there is social media. While Facebook was started in 2004, YouTube in 2005 and Twitter in 2006, social media has exponentially increased the number of users even since the 2008 games in Beijing. In four years, Facebook has added 800 million active users and the Twitterverse has gone from 6 million to about 150 million users. Add to that more people having smartphones, as well as London making social media involvement a high priory, you can see why London is being dubbed “Socialympics” or the “world’s first social media games.”
Athletes shared their rare views as competitors and fans had the opportunity to have a dialogue with the athletes and about the events. Twitter has helped athletes earn sponsors and was the medium for U.S. gymnastic to receive praise for their gold medal performance from Beyonce?, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and President Obama.
The top athlete followed on Twitter, according to social media site Mashable, is American track star Lolo Jones, not Michael Phelps. Ryan Lochte or Usain Bolt. Despite bursting into the social dialogue because the 29-year-old hurdler is saving her virginity for marriage, she has maintained her following through her charming and comedic tweets.
The London games were exhilarating, but what is most exciting than the upsets, rivalries and national pride is seeing examples of sexism, racism and homophobia slowly being chipped away. Here’s hoping no soapbox will be needed for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
In the 2012 Summer Olympics, women’s beach volleyball players like American gold-medalists, Misty May-Treanor, left, and Kerri Walsh Jennings were allowed to wear shirts and shorts if they wanted more than a bikini for competition.