Falling Bodies, Falling Tears, Rising Hopes: An Olympic Wrap-Up


Track
phenom Lolo Jones clipped her final hurdle, and stumbled, losing her chance for a medal.

The
camera lingered on her prostrate form for endless seconds, before replaying
her tumble over, and over again: in slow motion, from the back, and
from above.

American
gymnast Alicia Sacramone fell on the floor exercises, in the final
tense moments before the team final was decided. The camera showed Alicia
as she fought back tears and then–you guessed it–replayed her fall
again and again and again.

Fifteen
year old diver Haley Ishimatsu stood at the microphone, having been
cornered after she missed her chance at the finals, and broke down.

As
much as we like to watch our female athletes succeed, it wouldn’t
be the Olympics if we weren’t zooming in a couple of women falling
or crying. And yet, harping on the water-works worth moments can’t
obscure the phenomenal athletic heights that women are reaching in an
(almost) equal arena.  

Bodies, positive 

Perhaps
those obsessive replays of women’s falls are a way of counterbalancing
the strong, aggressive female bodies on our screens.

After
all, during the Olympics, we see women’s bodies not for their looks,
but for what they can do. Can they stick a landing, enter the water
smoothly, sprint through the tape?

It’s
amazing to watch so many women in tight clothing and never hear their
appearance mentioned. From tiny, muscular Shawn Johnson tumbling on
the beam at 16 years old to tall, streamlined Dara Torres jack-knifing
through the water at 41, our athletes highlighted the diversity of women’s
bodies achieving mind-blowing feats.

An
athlete from Bahrain, Ruqaya Al Ghasara, who ran in a modest
uniform
garnered
surprisingly little commentary. On the cable news shows, her choice
of religiously sanctioned dress would have been debated endlessly; here,
the attention was on the race itself.

Every
two years, the Olympics also provides a rare chance to get a deeper
look into the world of women in traditional sports. Our US women’s
softball, soccer, water polo, indoor volleyball and basketball teams
all
have or will face off in the gold medal matches for their sports.
Our female track stars have been racking up the medals.

The
amazing duo of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh won the beach volleyball finals without
dropping a single set.

That’s
pretty impressive dominance for American female athletes. And yet commentators
can never just focus on their athletic stories, always going for the
personal. 

Drama, Falls and Crying
Moms
 

Aside
from the triple-replays of the female athletes’ heartbreak, every
major Olympic victory has a crying or screaming woman to punctuate it.
Each Michael Phelps gold medal was accompanied by a second by second
replay of his mom’s demonstrative reaction. We got replays of Johnson’s
weeping mom, sprinter Usain Bolt’s jubilant mom, a shot of May-Treanor
tearing up as she spread a vial of her mother’s ashes on the volleyball court.

We
also get regaled with stories about the personal lives of the female
athletes in breathless succession. I know how Walsh and May-Treanor
met their respective husbands, and when they plan to have children.
I know about Lolo Jones’ childhood in foster homes, and about track
star Sanya Richard’s engagement ring given to her by a New York Giant.
I know about Dara Torres having a baby, and about the Russian gymnast
who moved her son to Germany to receive cancer treatment. I know about
the love rivalry/nude photo scandal involving female French and Italian
swimmers.

With
the exception of super-celeb Phelps, the storyline for men tends to
stick to the sport itself:  Usain Bolt has emerged as the most
decorated sprinter, Jason Lezak saved his team’s relay in the final
leg.

 The
need for drama when women compete explains why we relentlessly hype
gymnastics-and figure skating in the winter-as spotlight women’s
sports when American women are also excelling elsewhere. I think there’s
something about the metaphor of these "grace" sports that resonates
with women’s place in the world. These athletes are supposed to be
elegant, incredibly strong, precise, all while in constant danger of
falling from a precarious perch. Sounds like women’s jobs every day.
(It also must be noted that the gymnasts and skaters are often young,
small, and white or East Asian–so conforming, to an extent, to beauty
ideals.)

Beyond the Olympics: what’s
the reality?
 

The
biggest problem may be not what happens at the Olympics, but what happens
when they are over.  The Olympics create an illusion of gender
equality that does not represent reality, even in the US and in other
powerhouse countries like Russia and China, where women lack access
to health care and equality.

Furthermore,
delegations like the Saudia
Arabian one
, which
refused to send female athletes, are soft-handed by the IOC even though
discriminating against female athletes goes against its rules. 

While
much remains that’s disappointing, every Olympics seems to bring with
it images of female strength that also stay burned in our collective
memory. And hopefully those images have the slow power to change minds.  

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  • invalid-0

    Lolo Jones was not in foster homes, was not a foster child, was not a ward of the state. She stayed with families who helped her. You should correct that.
    Contact me if you need details on that.

  • sarah-seltzer

    I did look into Jones’ history, and was using a general, not legal sense of "foster homes" (as the TV announcers did), to reflect the narrative being relayed to millions of Americans.
    But yes, it was a mutual arrangement set up by Jones herself and many people in her community who cared for her and wanted her to excel.

  • invalid-0

    The last I checked the Saudis did not have any medals at all! Karma sometimes works–yeah!

  • marysia

    Sarah, beautifully said.

    But I don’t think there’s a conscious effort to fool the viewing public into believing that gender equality is real. 

    I’m old enough to remember the (gosh!) 1968 and 1972 Olympics, and it used to be that while female athletes were not ignored, there was a sense that the athletic world was really about the men and the women were kinda subsidiary.  You know, the way a lot of people think about it now, only worse. 

    Though I was a kid, I wondered about that a lot, especially after learning that studies show that women have more sheer endurance than men.

    Fortunately, the US media coverage of the Olympics over the decades has become more gender-balanced, as far as I can see.  Thank you, feminism.  So now there are even more images than ever of women  doing strong, incredible, inspiring things with their bodies, working on new generations of girls who could use the sight of that!.