The following thoughts were prompted by watching the U.S. women’s soccer team win gold in satisfying fashion. I’ll have more on soccer further down, but the women are ruling the U.S. Olympic effort so far. They’ve won more than 50% of the medals won by USA so far. I don’t have exact numbers yet because the Games are still in progress, but chew on these facts: The women’s soccer team won gold, whereas the men’s team didn’t qualify for the Olympic tournament. The women’s water polo team won gold, while the men fell in the quarterfinals. The women’s indoor volleyball team is playing for gold over the weekend, while the men’s team lost in the quarterfinals. The women’s beach volleyball teams finished 1-2, while the men were knocked out before the medal rounds. Claressa Shields and Marlen Esparza won medals for boxing, while the men were entirely shut out of the medals (the first time that has ever happened in an Olympics where the U.S. competed). The women’s gymnastics team outperformed the men. Not all these athletes received the benefits of Title IX, but still it’s a beautiful thing, ain’t it?
Which isn’t to say that things are all rosy on the women’s side of sports. The whole Lolo Jones controversy (kicked up by Jere Longman’s sniping piece in the New York Times) has raised a host of interesting issues. Of course Jones was overhyped relative to defending Olympic gold medalist Dawn Harper, and it was likely because Jones is gorgeous and better at marketing herself, though evidently not so good at it as to prevent Longman from writing his piece. But then she was still a legitimate player in the medal race and she had a compelling story, having led the 110m hurdles finals in Beijing before falling near the end.
To me, this whole thing isn’t a sports story so much as it is an indicator of how society at large tends to treat women. In any field, attractive people tend to receive preferential treatment, and we see it even in sports, which is the one place where beauty theoretically shouldn’t matter. There have been male athletes who’ve been overrated because they’ve been good-looking (Derek Jeter, David Beckham), and on the women’s side this seems to be even more pronounced. Look no further than the U.S. women’s soccer team for an example; they’ve received much more coverage than the women’s water polo team. It’s true that the soccer team has a ready-made narrative on their side, but it’s hard not to notice that they also have women who look like Hope Solo and Alex Morgan, where the water polo team does not. (Water polo tends to favor the sort of women and men with thick necks rather than the more willowy types.) For that matter, the U.S. women’s basketball team has largely gone unnoticed by the mainstream press, partly because they’re unchallenged by other nations, and partly because they don’t have a glamor-girl type of player to draw attention to them. (They haven’t had one of those since Lisa Leslie retired.) Disentangling all the prejudices and preconceptions that we have about women in sports will probably take several generations. The best thing we can try to do is try to see these women for who they are rather than measuring them against some imagined standard of how athletes or women or women athletes should behave.