Tag Archives: Olympics

Gender & the Olympics: A Commentary

I wrote about three significant trends pertaining to females and the Olympics for Minnesota Public Radio. Namely I wrote 2012 has marked the 40th anniversary of title IX in the US, female Olympians outnumbers their male counterparts for the USOC, and women in predominately religiously conservative Muslim nations were allowed to compete for the first time in summer Olympic history. I also wrote about the lack of women in positions of power for the US Team (also see previous blog).

After I wrote that piece I’ve been thinking about other broken barriers, and in some cases have proven just how far girls and women in sport have yet to go. Other key occurrences include:

1. African American women winning gold in sports traditionally dominated by Whites–Serena Williams (tennis, becoming only the 2nd female to obtain the Golden Slam), Gabby Douglas (all-around gymnastics). However, both athletes competed in sports and trained in systems that are not under the jurisdiction of Title IX (i.e., private, non-school based). This is a key point because while Title IX as dramatically improved participation rates for females, girls and women of color have not benefited from this law to the same degree as their White peers.

2. On Friday, August 9, 2012, Shannon Eastin became the first female to referee an NFL game. This is key for many reasons–its provides proof females can be in other visible roles in football than cheering on the sidelines, it provides a role model for girls and young women to aspire to a career in refereeing at the highest level, and it provides evidence that women are capable of referring a sport that most don’t play (no one ever raises an eyebrow when men ump or coach softball!). Unfortunately due to enduring sexism and gender stereotypes about women in positions of power she will endure criticism that is not leveled at her male colleagues, and backlash in the blogosphere. However, her appearance is not without controversy due to the NFL ref picket line.

3. While US women have won 58% of the medals for Team USA (as of 8/10/12), female athletes in most all sports have been criticized and subject of derogatory remarks for not being feminine or attractive enough. There are a number a articles on this topic which details that “faces not feats” are predominately highlighted in Olympic coverage. I was encouraged by the fact some female athletes fought back and resisted those who tried to marginalize their amazing feats.

The reason why this matters is that just as many current Olympians (e.g., Alex Morgan, Gabby Douglas, Missy Franklin) talked about how their aspirations for gold began as they watched 12, 8 or 4 years ago, today’s girls are doing the same. Girls need to see active, athletic female role models rather than be subject to commentary about how female athletes should look and conform to society’s notions of femininity and beauty. Athletes are beautiful…in all shapes, sizes, sport types, ages (equestrian Karen O’Connor is the oldest Olympian competing for the US at age 54; swimmer Katie Ledecky is the youngest at 15).

For some female athletes they self-promote by relying on looks, and for those who have them…can we blame them?. According to Jere Longman, a NYT writer, “Lolo Jones has received far greater publicity than any other American track and field athlete competing in the London Games. This was based not on achievement but on her exotic beauty and on a sad and cynical marketing campaign.” As Jones took 4th place in the 100m hurdles by a tenth of a second, I wondered if all the attention and hype distracted Jones’ attention and energy from optimal performance. What is even MORE interesting is that Longman’s critical column of Jones garnered considerable criticisms of its own (here, here, here, here).

…primarily from blogs that are rarely interested in covering women’s sport!

So is the lesson from “low blows on LoLo” that one should not be mean spirited and critical of the Olympic “It Girl”? (I’m reminded of my blog where I criticized the SI cover portrayal of 2010 Winter Olympic It Girl Lindsey Vonn). That female athletes should be left alone to market and promote themselves as they see fit? That it is OK if girls and young women internalize consistent messages of “it is more important what you look like than what you can do athletically” that can, according the to American Psychological Association, lead to a host mental and physical disorders?

If remaining gender barriers are to be broken, how female athletes are portrayed, portray themselves, and critiqued by the media must be examined and changed.

Athleticism and talent of ALL female athletes, not just the ones who meet society’s standards of femininity and attractiveness, (of all the hours of NBC coverage I did not see any of female weightlifters or boxers) should be sufficient for coverage.

And when they perform well and give it all they had in the tank, we should celebrate— not compare them to men, call them “manly” or other gendered slurs, subject them to sex testing, or wonder if performance enhancing drugs are involved (e.g., Ye Shiwen, Caster Semenya).

Female Olympians By the Numbers #London2012

A great deal of discussion exists about the historic fact that Team USA female athletes outnumber their male counterparts in the 2012 London Summer Olympics …269 women and 261 men to be exact.

Given 2012 marks the 40th Anniversary of Title IX, this is ironic for a few reasons.

1. As Founder of Women Talk Sports Network, Jane Schonberger points out, media coverage of female athletes in the Olympics has lagged behind participation. If media coverage were to reflect and be in proportion to the % of female athletes, than ~50% of the coverage would given to women’s teams. Perhaps this year coverage will be equal, but based on previous data I am not overly optimistic.

2. While female athletes outnumber males, female head coaches of USA Olympic Teams are a minority. Based on the research of my summer interns (thanks Alyssa & Emma!) and the information available (some of which is unclear, unavailable or can’t be found), the USA Olympic Team has 9 female Head Coaches total (Tennis, T & F, Synchro Swim, Swimming, Soccer, Pairs Rowing, 4’s Rowing, and Table Tennis).  All nine are head coaches of female athletes. Based on this data, less than 30% of the women’s teams and 0% of men’s teams are coached by women. If this data is incorrect please let us know.

Augusta National: When “Tradition” = Justified Discrimination

I’ve been following the story of IBM CEO Virginia Rometty and the Augusta National green jacket/membership controversy.

In short, IBM is a long time sponsor of The Masters golf tournament, held at Augusta National Golf Club which bans women from membership. Traditionally, the CEO of IBM dons the champion “green jacket” and is given a club membership. Not this year. Instead of changing their rules to allow Rometty a green jacket and membership, the men in power at Augusta chose to continue their “tradition” of discrimination. In addition, IBM remained silent.

Dr. Martha Burk wrote a great column in Women’s e-News titled “To IBM: Women Saw That” about why this matters. She writes, “Much of the argument centered on whether the club had the “right to remain private” (translate “engage in discrimination at will”).”

Burk makes two great points.

1. This is not about golf, it is about power relationships.

2. IBM’s silence endorses the gender discrimination against their female CEO

Ironically as I write this blog I’m listening to Alice Eagly, PhD (Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University) co-author of Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders on NPR and President Obama is holding the White House Forum on Women in the Economy.


In terms of gender equality, It is clear that IBM, Augusta National have missed a key opportunity and left the putt short.

Even more ironic is the headline of a Washington Times story titledThe Masters 2012: IBM’s Virginia Rometty overshadows Tiger Woods” as if to suggest it is incredulous that a female could and IS taking the spot light away from a male.

Given the Saudi’s just announced they would send ZERO females to the summer London 2012 Olympics, which is a rule violation of the IOC, we shall see if the IOC & Jacques Rogge (himself not a picture of advocating for gender equality) bans Saudi Arabia from the games. Any bets?

On Champagne, Cigars, Celebrating, and Chicks (i.e., female athletes)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Canadian women’s hockey team post gold medal controversial celebrations in the last 24 hrs.

My initial reaction was “What?, this is not good for women’s sports“. I have some new thoughts after taking a step back.

1. I realize my reaction was very US-centric and most Canadians feel this is not newsworthy (as Michelle posted in my previous blog) or a big deal. Is my reaction, and of those who share this viewpoint a result that Canada won the game and put a dent in American chauvinism?


2. This issue has definitely brought to light the double standards for behavior that exist for men and women, and athletes are no exception. On one hand I thought, “Why not? Celebrate, you won the gold medal!…the men do it all the time!” But on the other hand, is following the men’s lead or reproducing male celebratory traditions a good thing?  I keep thinking back to the 1999 World Cup when Brandi Chastain whipped off her shirt to expose her Nike sports bra after the USA secured the win in penalty kicks. Chastain’s behavior was both roundly criticized (that isn’t appropriate for women to do! She is sexualizing herself!) and applauded (finally we get to see a strong, athletic female body!). In an attempt to justify the post-bra incident, Chastain and others stated “the guys do this all the time”. Why is it that women have to justify their (inappropriate) celebratory actions following amazing athletic achievements with the disclaimer “the men do it!”?  This complicates the issue because it at once normalizes the behavior (see the men do it, so we can too) but makes it seem unladylike precisely because the men do it.

3. Many people I talked and listened to stated, “I’d have the same reaction if the men’s team did the same thing”. I’m not sure this is entirely true. What this statement does is erase the gendered component inherent in this event. Sports are not gender neutral or gender blind activities, so the reaction is inextricably linked to the fact the athletes were female and we have expectations for how men and women are supposed to behave.

4. I think one of the issues at play here is we just don’t get to SEE strong, powerful, female athletes celebrating in such a public way because women’s sports are so rarely covered in sport media. This type of celebration might be commonplace, but we don’t see it. When the Yankees win the World Series or the Lakers win the NBA Championships we see their celebrations–in fact an extra half hour is usually devoted to covering the celebrations both on the field and in the locker room.

I might have more thoughts about this, but for now…what do you think?

update 2/28/10: a Canadian colleague passed this article from The Winnipeg Free Press, that has an interesting and new point…happy athletes…oh my!

A Not So Good Day For Women's Hockey: What Were the Canadian Women Thinking?

Canada's Meghan Agosta (2) and Jayna Hefford (16) celebrate with cigars after Canada beat USA 2-0 to win the gold medal.

So I woke up this morning still thinking about the gold medal women’s hockey game between USA and Canada. What a great game! Before I could fully open my eyes and drink half a cup of coffee, one blog reader alerted me to the breaking story and pictures of the Canadian women celebrating on the ice after the arena had cleared. At first I thought she was referring to the fans celebrating with cigars and beer, not the player’s themselves. After I’d woken up a bit and clicked on the link she sent (Thanks Cindy!) I thought I was having a nightmare! What were the Canadian women thinking? Is this a way to portray one’s sport and your team? Here is a full slide show of the “celebration”. These pictures are really quite unbelievable for so many reasons, the least of which is that one of the players is under the legal drinking age (Poulin. Follow up: In Poulin’s providence the legal drinking age is 18, in BC it is 19).

I suppose one could make the argument that men do this, so this can be seen as progress for women’s sport, but that is a real stretch. Obviously athletes–male and female alike– celebrate when they win big games, but this type of public celebration in an Olympic venue is just not appropriate. Celebrations of this type typically happen (and should happen), in the locker room, or at a night club, or in private. I get the athletes were excited and proud to win the gold over their biggest rival, and win in their own country…but this is disrespectful to Canada, hockey, women’s hockey, their teammates who weren’t there,  coach, and the Olympics in general.  It certainly is not good for women’s sport! If I thought women being sexualized on the cover of Sports Illustrated was bad for women’s sport, I’m not sure where this ranks! I’m really stunned.

I’m not against women smoking cigars (to each her own), although I’m sure this will be critiqued by many because cigar smoking is typically thought of a male activity and not “ladylike” (and remember the male commentator throughout the game referred to the women as “ladies”). Also, I’m not saying I believe it to be ladylike or unladylike. That isn’t my point, like I said, to each her own.  However, if you are a gold medal Olympian and want to smoke a cigar, drink champagne or beer or double fist it, don’t do it on the ice of an Olympic venue (regardless of if you are male or female!). I do wonder, as have others, what the reaction would be if male athletes engaged in the same behaviors?

I also wonder how long it will take people to start with homophobic/lesbian/dyke comments and speculation (in fact it has already started). Remember it is a common pattern of marginalization that whenever females are great athletes, and particularly when they play a sport characterized by strength, speed, & power which encroaches upon activities traditionally and historically only reserved for/associated with males (like sport/hockey, and cigar smoking) they are usually immediately labelled lesbian. Pay close attention to how the media will construct this event in addition to the public reaction.

Lastly, these pictures are going to be seen by thousands of young girls and boys, who look up to these great athletes as role models. We somehow construct female athletes as better candidates for positive and “family friendly” role models than male professional athletes, so when “girls behave badly” or out of character to this prescribed norm, the outcry is loud and swift. What makes me sad is this lapse in judgment will probably forever taint their great play. They are now at risk to be remembered, not for their great play on the ice, but for the partying that ensued after the horn blew. What an opportunity lost.

Note: Read the Byline To Finish Line blog as well which outlines some similar perspectives, but raises other issues pertaining to this event.

A Great Day for Women's Hockey

I managed to get home and watch the DVR’d USA v. Canada women’s hockey game before anyone could tell me the score (now that was a gold medal effort!). I watched every second of a great game, possibly the best women’s hockey I’ve seen. Although USA didn’t win (0-2), I was never so proud of women’s hockey.

 What I wasn’t proud of was the male commentator (I love Cammi Granato in the booth as a 2-time Olympian, she added great insight and I hope to see more of her as a sport commentator) who throughout the entire game called the women “ladies” (which has been critiqued previously in this blog). Three or more times when a great play was made by a Canadian woman, he compared her to a Canadian male hockey player, “Poulin handles the puck like Sidney Crosby”. Why not just say, “Wow, what great stick handling!” and leave it at that. You’d never hear the reverse.

Despite this annoying commentator, it was a fun game to watch. Seeing the US team get their medals and watch how each player held back tears after years of preparation culminated in this one game, I got choked up. The veterans like 4-time Olympians Angela Ruggiero and Jenny Potter, and 3-time Olympian Natalie Darwitz were holding back tears probably for different reasons than their 15  first-time Olympian teammates. How cool would it be as a young girl to see these great women play a sport you love? I never saw women playing hockey on TV growing up. It wasn’t until adulthood I traded in my figure skates for hockey skates. Now I play in the Women’s Hockey Association of Minnesota (WHAM) with some of the aunts and cousins of current Team USA Olympians–women who would of made the Olympic team in their prime, if a team existed at that time. (note: I don’t play at their level!) WHAM is the largest women’s hockey league in the US, with over 80 teams at 7 levels.  Hockey is a great game and living in The State of Hockey, Minnesota, I can tell you we do breathe hockey here. Seeing Minnesota natives and women who played on the University of Minnesota women’s hockey team be a part of  Team USA is pretty cool.

You could tell Team USA was disappointed, but I think the gesture of Angela Ruggiero putting her arm around the rookie player in the medal line next to her as if to say “I know how you feel, but enjoy this moment” was telling of the character of the entire team.  Congratuations to both teams! What a great day for women’s hockey!

Should ESPN's Kornheiser Be Fired?

[polldaddy poll=2751478]Amidst the Olympic fanfare, last week ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser made comments about the attire of colleague Hannah Storm, ESPN SportsCenter co-anchor, on his Washington radio show.

Kornheiser, opined that Storm was wearing a “horrifying, horrifying outfit” and a “very, very tight shirt,” adding that she “looks like she has sausage casing wrapping around her upper body.”  ESPN confirmed that Kornheiser has been suspended for two weeks from his duties on Pardon the Interruption.

What do you think about this? Comment here and vote in this poll.

2010 Olympic Sport Media Gaffes…So Far

During the first week of media coverage of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, a few interesting things emerged in terms of sport media coverage and sport commentators.

1. It has been noted elsewhere by colleagues at the John Curley Center for Sport Media and Pat Griffin that commentators (and female athletes themselves!) continually call the adult female athletes “girls”, rather than women. I have yet to hear male athletes referred to as “boys”. They outline why this is problematic in a very clear and concise way, and is worth a read.

2. Despite the fact the first-ever Pride House for LGBT athletes and friends at the Vancouver Winter Olympics (which does not have any official affiliation with International Olympic Committee or the Canadian Olympic organization), sport media commentators continue to make derogatory remarks about certain athletes masculinity and femininity (or more accurately, the lack thereof). This is particularly true when it comes to US men’s figure skater Johnny Weir, the target of many stereotypical jokes. I watch The Today Show on NBC most mornings and it never fails that Matt Lauer, Meridith Vieira and Al Roker will make a joke or imply something about an athlete’s sexual orientation–listen for it!

3. If you’re watching ski jumping, you probably won’t hear a word from sport commentators about female ski jumpers, as the IOC voted last year to not allow them to compete.  Much of the general public has no idea about this issue, as evidenced by the Huffington Post article a friend sent me last week. She thought I’d “want to know” and she was  surprised and a bit outraged these women were denied the opportunity to compete. I had to laugh, as I (and many others) have been following this story for some time it seemed like old news.

Lindsey Vonn: The Epitome of Mental Toughness

Congratulations to Lindsey Vonn who demonstrated the epitome of mental toughness by winning the gold medal in women’s downhill at the Vancouver Olympics. Mental toughness is defined as being able to perform at the top range of your abilities, on command, regardless of the situation. Her win demonstrated how she is not only a great athlete and fierce competitor, but was able to compete despite overwhelming media attention, medal expectations, critics, a painful shin injury, conspiracy theorists who claimed her shin injury was fabricated to diffuse expectations, and academicians with a critical perspective.

Mental toughness is a psychological skill that can be taught and developed, and mentally dealing with and tolerating pain is an essential element to successful and consistent performance. On the men’s side snowboarder Shaun White, who similarly won a gold medal in the men’s halfpipe would also exemplify mental toughness.

Many of my sport psychology colleagues work closely with the USOC, and are currently at the Olympics helping to increase the likelihood of optimal performance for Team USA. To learn more about mental toughness, psychological skills training and the field of sport psychology, there are numerous sites you can visit including:

NOT the Same: Vonn v. Kitt Sports Illustrated Covers

Sports Illustrated Covers of Olympic Skiers

In rebuttal to the “Vonn Watch” Sports Illlustrated cover blog post I made, many people commented and pointed out that A.J. Kitt was similarly posed in 1992 and no one called it sexual. I don’t recall  the media buzz, so I’ll have to take their word on this point, but I’m inclined to believe it to be true.

Many argued the cover of Kitt was “exactly the same” which provided evidence that male athletes, particularly skiers, can be similarly portrayed in the media.

I would argue from a sport media research perspective that these covers, while at first glance appear to be “exactly the same”, they are in fact not similar in many key facets. The reason why the Kitt photo is unlikely to be interpreted as sexualized, while the Vonn cover might, is the focus on this post.

1. Kitt is literally “in action” doing his sport, Vonn is posed in a tuck position–she is not literally skiing.

2. Kitt has his helmet on, Vonn does not. Skiers don’t ski without their helmets.

3. Kitt is looking down the hill as he would DURING COMPETITION, Vonn is posed looking sideways (not downhill) into the camera.

4. Kitt appears to be actually in context on the mountain, Vonn in her picture appears to be super imposed with the mountains in the background. (However, I am not certain of this)

5. Kitt is leaning down the hill which connotes forward motion during his event, Vonn is static and while she is in a tuck position there are many other positions she performs in the course of a race that could of been used that might be construed as less sexualized.

Another point many made on the blog about this photo comparison, is that we had to “see Vonn without her helmet” because otherwise no one would know who she is because skiing is such an obscure sport. However, Kitt is pictured with his helmet on where we can’t see his face. He is identified by a caption. I would argue skiing is no more or less obscure today than it was in 1992. Therefore, the argument that we need to “see Vonn’s face” to know who she is does not hold up.

I will make one last point that might lend credence to the sexualized argument (albeit subliminally). There is one ironic twist to the Vonn cover photo if you didn’t catch it prior. Someone who works in the media pointed out to me that if you look at how the text in the bottom right corner aligns, you can clearly see the word “AsS” is spelled out vertically (start with the capital “A” in America and look down to the next line of text). Is this coincidental?

Is it great that a female was on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Olympic preview issue–YES! Could the photo chosen been a better representation of the great athleticism and talent of Lindsey Vonn–YES!