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Vancouver Games & gender: Lindsay Vonn to Johnny Weir

Last week, writing about sports as labor, I noted that sports are a form of collective identification—of solidarity—a way to bring a community together around feats of strength and competition that have nothing to do with war or resources.

The Winter Olympics are going on, and they show off this identification principle in the extreme. People who think little of patriotism are encouraged to support their nation’s athletes who do this not for money, like pro teams (though many of these athletes are professionals) but for glory—for themselves and for their country. It’s international competition (and sometimes obnoxious jingoism), but with a nonviolent goal.

The Olympics are problematic in many ways—when they come to a city, policing ramps up and the poor are shuttled out of the way. I don’t want to denigrate the very real protests against the Olympic industry any more than I do the real complaints against public spending on U.S. pro sports stadiums while people live in poverty blocks away.

But I love the Olympics. For the first time since I’ve moved, I wish I still owned a TV. I love the sudden obsession of people across the world with sports that are almost never mentioned in the other three years. Luge? Skeleton? Suddenly we all know these athletes’ names and can banter them with our friends the same way we normally exchange references to TV shows.

The Olympics also allow focus on female athletes—suddenly we see the female equivalent of men’s sports we’re used to cheering, as well as brilliant individual athletes in sports most people usually don’t follow. Even if they haven’t seen her, most people now know Lindsay Vonn’s name. And women’s ice hockey? I got your women’s ice hockey.

Well, not really. I’ve heard almost no discussion of women’s ice hockey. One of the few team sports in the Winter Olympics, hockey is always a central focus for me, and since 1998 we’ve had women’s hockey in the Olympics as well. Yet the women’s games seem to be held at times that won’t “interfere” with the men’s tournament or other events that need the ice, and so even this ardent feminist, lover of women’s sports and of ice hockey in particular, has often missed most of the games.

At NPR, Frank Deford noted that women’s team sports still suffer from “a glass grandstand,” where for some reason women’s individual sports are popular but women’s team sports don’t see the same response. This is true in non-Olympic years just as much—think of women athletes you’ve seen on TV recently. Chances are most of them are individuals—Serena Williams, for example.

Deford points out,

“There is, significantly, a considerable emotional difference between team and individual sports because teams represent an entity — a school, a college, a city that we identify with.

“Even now, we do not yet seem prepared to accept women’s teams as our representatives.”

Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey noted years ago that movies are targeted at a (heterosexual) male gaze; audiences assumed to be male were to identify with the male protagonist and to derive pleasure from looking at the female star. Sports have often seemed to revolve around the same principle—how many men do you see at pro team sports games wearing a jersey, often with their favorite players’ names stitched on the back?

Individual female athletes seem to be acceptable targets for the male gaze, but somehow women’s team sports don’t work that way. When the Olympic women’s soccer team was the object of so much acclaim, much attention was focused on the lovely Mia Hamm.

Even as recently as last summer, Wimbledon officials blithely admitted that “physical attractiveness” played a part in which women played at center court. Lindsay Vonn, target of so much admiration, is an “all-American blonde”—who uses men’s larger, heavier skis because of her size and strength (but you’ll find many more references to her appearance even in articles that note this fact).

Ice hockey doesn’t lend itself to the gaze—players wear pads and helmets. Yet the women show as much skill as the men do, and the utter dominance of the Canadian women, who’ve outscored their opponents 41-2 in their three preliminary victories, is as worth commenting on as anything else at the Olympics.

As Deford notes, women are as guilty as anyone else when it comes to not supporting women’s sports. Perhaps it’s that for hetero female audiences, the male athletes are targets of the gaze themselves—but then why not the supreme pleasure of identification with the team?

I resented Deford’s comment about women not being “wired” to support women athletes, because the biological essentialism is just wrong, but perhaps instead we should note that we haven’t been socialized to work in teams. A group of strong, powerful women working together for a common goal? We see how that’s treated in media comments even today about the feminist movement, don’t we?

Even women’s individual sports aren’t safe–International Ski Federation president Gian-Franco Kasper, said in 2005 that ski jumping “seems not to be appropriate for the ladies from a medical point of view.” You won’t see women’s ski jumping in this year’s Olympics.

Men’s sports aren’t immune from gender-based bluster—take the fabulous Johnny Weir, U.S. figure skater, subject of his own Sundance Channel documentary/reality series, and how fans think he’s been robbed of medals he deserved because of his flamboyance.

Weir skated to Lady Gaga’s Poker Face, wore a pink-laced corset top, and says things like:

“I love my glitter, I love my prettiness, I love getting my hair done before the events, I love putting on makeup because I’m going to be on TV.”

Yet when asked about his sexuality, Weir denies that it’s anybody’s business. “It’s not like anyone goes up to Michael Jordan asking, ’Hey, are you black?’”

Weir’s refusal to grant an answer on his sexuality is possibly the most challenging thing about him. After all, if he were gay, then he could be pigeonholed and set aside. Is it even more threatening to straight audiences that this man might not be an easy stereotype?

Richard Lawson at Gawker wrote of Weir’s style:

And shouldn’t we respect and welcome that — let it represent Us Americans as much as we let other individual Olympic phenoms (Michael Phelps, e.g.) be our avatars — rather than constantly snicker about something that these dudes clearly aren’t ashamed of?

As we saw this summer with runner Caster Semenya’s brutal experience of “sex testing,” the sports world still relies on rigid gender policing under the guise of “fairness.” GlobalComment’s own Sylvia Peay noted, “We learned that in the sports world it is impossible to be anything beyond a binary cookie cutter version of a man or a woman.” And Canadian sportscaster Alain Goldberg referenced Semenya in commenting on Weir’s performance, saying, “We should make him (Weir) pass a gender test at this point.”

The Olympics are supposed to be a time for people to come together, for the world to bond over healthy, friendly competition. They shouldn’t be yet another time when the world gets together to reinforce outdated, conservative ideas of what men and women are and can be. The ideal that sports are supposed to bring us is that we can all be more than we think, and team sports (and even country-specific teams) tell us that we do that by working together. These are progressive goals—it’s time for some progressive thought on gender in the Olympics.

4 thoughts on “Vancouver Games & gender: Lindsay Vonn to Johnny Weir

  1. RE: Vancouver Games & gender: Lindsay Vonn to Johnny Weir. I liked Sarah’s article, but I wanted to correct one thing. Johhny Weir did not skate to Lady Gaga at the Olympics. He only skates to “Poker Face” for non-judged exhibition programs. I don’t know if Johhny was robbed of a medal, but his low scores were not deserving. He should have been 4th place overall, maybe third, but definitely not sixth. There has been a Canadian edge in all four of the figure skating events. Johhny placed behind a Canadian who fell repeatedly in his short program and didn’t perform well in the long program. How is it then that he would rank higher than JW who skated two clean, lyrical, technical, artistic, beautiful programs. He delivered. Yes, we have a homophobes and people who are threatened by Johhny’s outspoken nature. It’s too bad they can’t see his good heart and soul, intelligence (he speaks Russian and French!), integrity, commitment to training, and spirituality. I’d take him as my son’s role model over Tiger Woods any day!

  2. Never mind. The women in this Olympics are kicking ass and taking names. When I looked at the medal count this afternoon, Canadian women had taken 14 of 17 medals for Canada; US women 12 of 32 for the USA, German women 17 of 26 for their country. We have to be three times better to be thought half as good. Fortunately, this is not difficult!

  3. Tips for news/sports casters and freshman sports spectators. When talking with female hockey athletes or fans, don’t immediately inject a question or comment about men’s hockey. Why would a fan of Team USA, getting psyched for our Women to win Gold, all of a sudden want to talk about the Canadian men’s chances in the Semifinal? Go blow. And AFTER the Gold was lost to Canada, newscasters should remember that we just lost to Canada. We don’t want to hear about the silly champagne party they had where they tried to steal the Zamboni. I’d like to see Bob Costas try that on the men’s team if they lose! “Hey Guys, did you hear that after Canada won gold they drank beer out of their crotch cups? hahahaha” Punch. Boom. The Women’s Hockey players are Olympians! They aren’t there to cheerlead the Men’s team, or dance the maypole with their opponents. They are there, in all their non-NHL glory, to play, hard, and win, big. One more week of the American press’ undercutting and you start to wonder if you want us to win a Gold medal. That Hockey Rink, during Gold medal game, was electric with Canadian support, a sea of red. What the hell side are you on, American press corps? Ten minutes on ice with the Olympic women, and maybe you’ll learn some respect.

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