Sexism in the Olympics: a retrospective

There’s a photo going around the web:

The caption reads: What if every sport was photographed like beach volleyball?

I’m glad the post is circulating.  I was blown away by the sexism in the Olympics twelve years ago when I wrote about it for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Did you read that part about 12 years ago? I thought things would be better by now.

So has anything changed?

Honestly, the rampant sexism seems even worse to me now than it did then.

I suppose in 2012 more people are actually talking about the sexism, acknowledging it, possibly due to social media. Awareness has to come before change, right? Maybe we’re moving into the awareness phase. That’s the best spin I can come with, because otherwise, things look pretty bad to me.

Here’s what I wrote for The Chronicle in 2000. Tell me if you think things are any different.

In the photo she’s wearing a tight two-piece suit. Legs parted, head thrown back, eyes closed, she smiles.

The woman is not a Playmate of the Month but Olympic high jumper Amy Acuff in Esquire magazine’s cover story/pictorial entitled “America’s Ten Sexiest Athletes.” But on closer examination, Amy is not lying down; she is jumping.

A perusal of recent issues of men’s magazines reveals the latest sex symbol is the female athlete.

Sports Illustrated features Olympic swimmer Jenny Thompson topless with her hands covering her breasts. And Gear has a photo of the Australian women’s soccer team, all players completely naked with their arms and legs placed strategically.

It’s no coincidence that this fascination with women athletes as soft-core porn stars comes right as women are making enormous strides in achieving parity with men in the Olympics. One step forward, two long jumps back.

At the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, more women will compete in more sports with more media coverage than ever before. With 4,400 participants, women will represent a record 42 percent of the competitors. Most exciting, women will be competing in what were once exclusively male domains. New categories for women include weightlifting, pole vaulting, water polo, tae kwon do and the triathlon.

But the slew of wet T-shirt pictorials reveals a powerful cultural bias. The American public is still uncomfortable seeing women as successful athletes and celebrating them for embodying the qualities that athletes possess. Magazines like Maxim are undermining hard-won progress by reducing all female competition to just another beauty contest.

Athletes are valued for what their bodies can do, not how they look.

Athletes are competitive, ambitious and they know how to win, but those attributes just aren’t ladylike. Photographing sports superstars in lace panties and sheer camisoles keeps them safely inside the parameters of womanhood.

While girls learn early on they will be judged for their looks, boys learn that athleticism equals attractiveness. Ever since high school, the jocks were the big men on campus, a guy’s skill made him hot and the best player sealed his status by getting the prettiest girl.

The grown-up world isn’t much better. Male athletes are worshipped for their achievements. Joe DiMaggio won Marilyn Monroe, and that wasn’t because he looked good in his uniform.

For women, athletic skill doesn’t equal desirability. In a capitalist world, the girl with the most money wins. Blond and buxom tennis star Anna Kournikova makes $11 million to $15 million in endorsements, though she has never won a professional tournament. Her earnings equal those of Martina Hingis, who has earned her money by winning 26 career titles, and are much more than 43-time winner Monica Seles’ $7.5 million or defending U.S. Open champ Serena Williams’ $6 million.

Even a pretty female player isn’t valued like a male player. Tiger Woods gets $47 million; Michael Jordan, $40 million, and 70-year-old Arnold Palmer makes $19 million.

The excuse is that men make big money because their sports make more money from television contracts, but it’s all a vicious circle. When women aren’t valued for their skills, aren’t trained properly and aren’t celebrated the way male athletes are, they’re at a severe disadvantage.

While many call this just bad luck, the law calls it illegal. More than 20 years ago, Title IX, which demanded gender equity in sports funding, began to be enforced. A generation of women growing up under it is a major reason why female athletes have been able to make the advances they have.

Even with this law, females make up only one third of interscholastic and intercollegiate athletes.

Summer 2000′s gold medal favorite, Stacy Dragila, was once told women don’t have the upper body strength to pole vault. Today, pole vaulting is the most popular new women’s event, with Dragila holding the world record.

For reaching that record last summer, Dragila got only half the $60,000 prize money that men get for the same competition. But, she was able to generate more income and media coverage for her sport by posing with other track and field women for a sexy calendar.

Athletics should be the one place where there truly is a meritocracy, where women are rewarded for how high they can jump, how fast they can run or how much they can lift. But once again, the rules are different for women.

This summer, along with their shotputs and discuses, female Olympic competitors will need lipstick, good lighting and lingerie if they want to get the gold.

2 thoughts on “Sexism in the Olympics: a retrospective

  1. In fairness you might have to say that if the beach volleyball ladies didn’t want every man in the world lusting after their bottoms they might want to wear some slightly larger shorts! There’s no athletic reason they have to compete in what looks like a bikini to me.

    Sexual attraction is not wrong, it’s entirely natural. If I showed my husband that photo I don’t think he’d be thinking “wow what an athlete”, he’d be thinking “wow she’s hot” and he’s a pretty fair thinking chap who completely supports my hatred of the pinkification of girls toys.

    • Hi Fiona,

      Agree I would prefer female athletes did not wear bikinies, but lets not just blame the women here, without examining the context in which they wear them. For the same reason girls “want” to grow up to be supermodels.

      Female athletes are operating within institutionalized sexism. Humans are ambitious, they want acclaim and power. The way our world is structured, women are promised rewards– safety, love, attention– through how they look.

      Did you read my piece from 2000? Women are rewarded for looking a certain way more than for acting a certain way.

      There is nothing wrong with thinking a woman is hot, but limiting “hotness” in the way we do is disempowering to women which is the very reason we do it.

      MM