I’ll be honest: I’m not really a sports fan. There isn’t a single sport I follow on a regular basis. (Back before the Red Sox won the World Series, I’d get invested whenever they made the playoffs, because I can’t resist an underdog narrative, but that’s about it.)
But between the Super Bowl brouhaha and the relentlessly addictive Olympics broadcasts, I’ve been watching a lot of sports and sports commentary in 2010. And as hard as it is to resist getting sucked into one of those soft-focus tinkly-piano Olympic athlete backstories, it’s equally difficult to avoid noticing how retro our gender and sex politics get when it comes to sports.
It goes almost without saying that the Super Bowl has has a messed up relationship with women and sex. But men’s figure skating? Women’s snowboarding? Ski jumping? Downhill skiing? In 2010? Sadly, yes. To wit, just a few of the nearly infinite offenses from the past week of the Olympics:
-When introducing a profile of the top three female U.S. snowboarders – who happen to be three of the top women’s snowboarders in the world, and were favorites to sweep the medals in halfpipe – NBC Olympics anchor Bob Costas didn’t praise their incredible strength, crazy hard work over so many years, or the daredevil bravery it takes to get to the top of a sport like halfpipe snowboarding. No. Instead, Costas turned them into modern-day Charlie’s Angels:
They are of course rivals, but they’re also friends. Each with a defining aspect to their character. Kelly Clark’s spirit, Hannah Teter’s generosity, and the winning glamor of Gretchen Bleiler.
-At least the female snowboarders get to compete. Women’s ski jumping is still not an Olympic sport, because officials are too concerned that it will hurt our fragile ladyparts! (They claim it’s also because the sport isn’t big enough worldwide, but it’s bigger than ski cross, which got added to the Olympics this year. A sport that looks a LOT more dangerous than ski jumping, but actually allows delicate, fragile ladies to compete. Imagine!)
-The Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition for 2010 features four (white, U.S., and no, I’m not linking to it) female Olympic athletes, including aforementioned snowboard champion Hannah Teter (posing in a bikini for S.I. is evidently still not enough to get you called the glamorous one?), and skiing phenom Lindsey Vonn, who overcame a painful injury to win gold in downhill. But that’s evidently not the most compelling thing about her. Google "Lindsey Vonn skiier," you get 4,560,000 hits. Lindsey Vonn pictures? 5,960,000.
-Lest you think the Olympic men get a free pass, consider men’s figure skating, where bitter silver medalist Evgeni Plushenko has been essentially (and very publicly) questioning the manhood of gold medalist Evan Lysacek, all because he managed to win by focusing on footwork and other less "butch" technical skills, at the expense of landing the uber-masculine (I guess?) quad jump. Is it any wonder that even the most flamboyant skater men’s skating has ever seen – the incomparable Johnny Weir – refuses to discuss his sexuality in any way?
In Slate this week, Hannah Rosin argued that at least Vonn’s bikini-clad romp features an adult woman actively owning her sexuality, as opposed to the more traditional Olympic eye-candy featuring 16-year-old glitter pixies on ice. There’s some truth to that, though I’m not sure that posing doe-eyed for SI is exactly the highest bar for empowered sexuality.
Still, it’s not surprising that sexuality, gender and sports are all tangled up. It’s not even necessarily a bad thing – would we want a culture in which we collectively and intently focus our attention to an activity involving tight clothes, strong, fluid bodies, emotional passion and physical exertion, but we’re not allowed to think about gender and sex? I wouldn’t. But I do want a culture where more than four of the over 5,000 athletes competing at the Olympics this year feel comfortable being out as queer. (And one where any male athletes could be out would also be an improvement.) Where there are more choices than princess or vixen, stud or fag. Where female athletes get more attention for their accomplishments than for their looks, and aren’t prevented from competing in the sport of their choice because we’d rather think of them as delicate sex objects than as world-class athletes.
It would be easy to let the Olympics off the hook, to argue that they just reflect the sexual culture we’re living in. But, according to their own propaganda, the Olympics are supposed to be an aspirational event. A time for the world to come together to transcend our differences and limitations and embody a vision of how we could be. My vision is this: it’s well past time to hold them to that when it comes to sex and gender.