Gender, Girls, Women, and That Olympic Stadium

by Intern Stephanie

The London Olympics will perhaps always be remembered for its record-breaking feats and for its historically –based opening ceremony (give Britain a break for its industrial revolution skit, it’s really hard to be the following act to Beijing).  We saw Michael Phelps become the most decorated Olympian of all time; we saw Gabby Douglas become the first African-American woman to win Gold in the gymnastics all-around; we saw Usain Bolt grace the world with his victory dance; and of course, arguably the most important event of the 2012 international soiree, we bore witness to the reunion of the Spice Girls. 

However, the Olympics were also a watershed event for female athletes and for women worldwide.  For the first time, there were more women than men on the U.S. team (and women scored more medals!), there were more women participating from conservative Islamic countries than ever before, and for the first time in history every participating country had women on its roster.  And so, one must wonder, do girls rule and boys drool?  Did we close the ceremonies with the Spice Girls because “girl power” really did reign throughout London?  Can we accurately dub the U.S. team, “Team Title IX” as some are nicknaming it?

I’d like to think so.  But these questions are not so simply answered.   The overlap between gender and sport is incredibly complex; I wish we could calculate women’s empowerment through tallying Gold vs. Silver medals, but that yardstick overlooks the nuanced minutiae of gender relations and the varied obstacles that many women still face when attempting to break into the world of professional sports.  Come on, we’ve all heard the adage, “you throw like a girl”.  So harmless right? Totally.  

One of the ways in which gender stole the spotlight this year is via the Saudi Arabian athletes.  The International Olympic Committee (IOC) required Saudi Arabia to include women on its team if it wanted to participate in the London games, paving the way for women contenders, such as Sarah Attar and Wojdan Shaherkani, runner and judoka respectively.  These two women received widespread attention because they competed in their hijabs.  This prompted the media, human rights activists, feminists, and everyone in between to take note and to vocalize opinions.  As Minky Worder, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, explains, “Sarah Attar and Wodjan Shaherkani really are trailblazers in many respects…But, as much as we cheer these athletes for breaking barriers in Saudi Arabia, I think for Saudi women, I think we always have to remember the millions of women back in Saudi Arabia who cannot participate meaningfully in sport.” 

And so, it is important to distinguish between participation and substantive participation.  Whether or not you think allowing these fantastic women, and those like them, to participate is simply an act of tokenism, or an important first step, is open for conversation.  But regardless, these brave athletes have managed through their sport to raise questions about women’s human rights, about cultural relativism versus universalism, about what it is exactly to be a woman quite literally competing in a man’s world, hell, even about body image, women in the media, global feminism, and so many other issues that are relevant, pertinent, and ever-shifting (yet never fading!).

The Democracy Now! video presents these arguments with interviews by experts on the matter.

I will say that women athletes, as proven by the London Olympics, and through plenty of other examples, are badass.  It is about time that people start respecting them as professionals, as sports(wo)men, and start appreciating their sheer determination, their sheer strength, and the beautiful wonderfulness of their physicality and their prowess.  You go girls.  (Olympic) Games well played.  Well played indeed.


Photo courtesy of: A Celebration of Women 

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