Highs and Lows at the Rio Olympics
Even as progress is being made with regard to LGBT and women’s rights, the 2016 Olympics in Rio this year remind us that more progress is sorely needed. One area in desperate need of improvement is media coverage of the games. We’ve witnessed highs and lows in that regard this year. Since I am believer in giving the “bad news first:”
First, the Lows:
Let’s face it; bodies are a huge part of sports. People spend years training their bodies to move, to bend, to run, to swim, to jump in ways that seem superhuman to the rest of us. At some level, watching sports is about judging people’s bodies. We are also judging their minds, their competitiveness, their dedication, and often their privilege, but also their bodies. Maybe this is why the bodies of athletes are seen as ideals. We regularly hear about “the swimmer’s build” or “a runner’s body.” Maybe it’s this worship of these admittedly incredible physiques that makes us feel like we have a right to police those bodies.
The most heinous example is probably women’s gymnastics. This is in part because the competitors are judged on their gracefulness, which opens them up to subjective judgments in a way that an objective measurement like “how fast did you run” doesn’t. The comments about the neatness of Gabrielle Douglas’ hair are perhaps one of the worst examples. This woman is flying through the air and folks have the nerve to complain that her bun isn’t up to par? We celebrate her for being the first black woman to win the all-around gold in gymnastics in the Olympics, but scorn her for her hair. Sorry, her hair has nothing to do with her incredible prowess. Similarly, gold medalist Shawn Johnson was critiqued for, among other things, not being tall enough. Seriously, she was expected to get taller. All of this being said, I love how diverse the U.S. women’s gymnastics team is this year. They are not a single body type and they certainly are not the fairy princesses I grew up watching. Bedazzle the leotards all you want; these are some beautiful and powerful ladies.
There are those who will say that because gymnastics is an artistic sport, these subjective judgments are inevitable. Dressage is another artistic sport. There are many differences (and no it’s not the horse doing all the work), but one major difference is that most horsey events are co-ed. Yes, men and women compete together. My childhood horsey obsession (and my never very advanced dressage riding) have led me to follow this event with some regularity. You do not hear commentators complaining that a human or horse is too short, fat, or even slovenly to be an effective competitor. You hear ridiculous things like that horse moved it’s leg too far out; they were slightly off beat; or a pirouette would have been more appropriate there (seriously go watch some dressage). These are subjective judgments relevant to the athlete’s performance. As soon as you throw a few men into the fray, we are no longer complaining about if they’re pretty enough.
Somehow while these female bodies are being scrutinized for their ability to be “pretty” not just athletic, other policing takes place as well. They are supposed to be polite, they are supposed to be perky, we talk about their families, and the narratives quickly put them into very traditional gender roles. The Chicago Tribune has been appropriately ridiculed for its tweet regarding Corey Cogdell’s bronze medal.
Seriously? Wife of Bears’ Lineman? Not even her name. Her medal, her sport, her name are all irrelevant, the most important thing we can say about her is “wife.”
Even more disturbing: NBC’s Chris Marlowe awkwardly described beach volleyball player Larissa Franca’s wife as her “husband.” Yep, I didn’t make that one up; and don’t get me started on the women’s beach volleyball “uniform.”
Although they may not be subjected to the same rigorous critique of their bodies or appearances, male athletes are still held to absurd standards. Male athletes are meant to represent some kind of “masculine” ideal, and they are judged if they don’t perform that ideal correctly. When synchronized divers Jack Laugher and Chris Mears won gold, The Daily Mail complained that their celebratory hug wasn’t manly enough. They won GOLD and we are worried that their celebration doesn’t stand up to our ideals of masculinity.
LGBT athletes face still more difficulties. The horrifying Daily Beast piece nearly outing athletes via Grindr makes it clear that being LGBT and an Olympian is not simple regardless of gender. The fact that this piece apparently included information from countries with laws “banning homosexuality” makes this even scarier. Sadly, it is important for male athletes to live up to these “straight” “masculine” ideals when much of their income is based on endorsements. Given these circumstances, it’s not surprising that many athletes wait until after they’ve made the team or won the medal to come out.
Now, the Highs:
Even with all the kerfuffles of the last few days in Rio, there are some real bright spots. You may have been hearing about Chris Mosier this Olympic season due to this awesome Nike ad. His event is not actually in the Olympics, so he will not be competing, but he is on the U.S. Men’s National’s Team. He is in fact the first trans man to be on the national team, and he helped to challenge the existing IOC rules regarding gender. The IOC has loosened its rules regarding trans athletes, no longer requiring gender reassignment surgery. It is hoped that these rules will show us more out trans athletes in future games.
It is also worth noting that this year’s Olympic games hosted the largest number of openly LGBT athletes ever. Because an athlete is often automatically deemed “gay or lesbian” when they have a same-sex partner, it is hard to say how many of these competitors are bi (or how many of those in different sex relationships are bi, too, for that matter). Still, Brazilian handball player Mayssa Pessoa and British boxer Nicola Adams both identify openly as bisexual. Nicola Adams was the first LGBT athlete to win an Olympic boxing Gold medal in the 2012 Olympics. Watch her on Thursday in the women’s flyweight semifinals.