Thursday, August 7, 2008

Turner Games '08: Day Three

We're just past the halfway mark, folks, and already we've seen two of the top contenders for "most Olympics coverage about a topic." Today, we let the girls on the field; tomorrow, we cruise to the finish!

Checkin' Out the Ladies

Discussions about female athletes range typically from how much sex appeal they have to the lack thereof. Who designed their uniforms? What kind of shoes have their sponsors provided? Who are they dating? Yet this particular Olympic season has thrown some curveballs to the bloggers and pundits, and suddenly we've all got a lot more to talk about than just clothes.

First off, China's female gymnastic team has come under fire for potentially using underage competitors, and, as Romanian gymnastics coach Bela Kelroyi points out, it's old news.

...[I]it is not likely that anyone could prove that the Chinese gymnasts are under age, Karolyi said.

“It’s literally impossible,” he said. “The paperwork is changed just too good. In a country like that, they’re experts at it. Nothing new."

There's all kinds of cheating that can happen in these international competitions, and it ranges all over the board. We know female gymnasts are typically small and can look young, but when your opponent might still have her baby teeth, you've gotta wonder.

Of course, for women to play at all, we've got to make sure they're really women, right? And, as Broadsheet put so eloquently, a vagina is not enough.
Basically the Olympics has a shady history of trying to verify female athletes gender identity. This ranges from forcing the athletes to strip naked and inspected by judges to other varied tests including chromosomal typing and hormone testing.
Testing for gender is incredibly complex, and the validity of these tests has been called into question since they began in the 1960's. (Body Impolitic has the background info, if you're as interested as I was.) So why must China insist on performing them? And not only is this about shady science; men are not being tested, and the only women who are are those that look "suspicious." Athletes are already subject to countless tests for drug and steroid use; now, even after medial ethicists and critics have raised the alarms, female athletes have to prepare themselves for more than the rest? Only one case of gender cheating has ever actually been uncovered, as the NY Times pointed out:
In 1936, a German athlete named Dora Ratjen finished fourth in the women’s high jump. Twenty years later, Ratjen disclosed that he was in fact Hermann Ratjen, and that the Nazis had forced him to compete as a woman.
This issue can't be ignored, but unfortunately it's a part of the competition. These are female athletes, who train their muscles for hours a day for years. They are not trying to be beauty queens and have no obligation to be.

Yet for female athletes in general, there will always be press about their femininity or lack of it, and it's unfortunate. Jezebel reports that sexualizing women's sports does nothing to increase the fan base, and it's a small comfort. However, as Kate from Huffington Post points out, the media coverage of women in the Olympics and in sports overall can avoid the sexiness issue entirely and instead employ "cute" adjectives about how the women look, versus describing the kind of athletic prowess and power they are capable of. Female athletes are either sexy, adorable or manly; It's probably better for them and us to ignore that kind of coverage and focus on the events.

It's not just the female athletes that are subject to this either. Chinese women are being reconstructed in light of the Beijing games, and Hongmei Li from Huffington Post has an insightful and detailed explanation of the contradictory ways in which this is happening.
One the one hand, hundreds of female volunteers will be medal presenters and attendants for officials and athletes. The medal presenters and attendants, who are called liyi xiaojie (which can be literally translated as etiquette misses), were selected based on strict criteria regarding their height, weight, age, body shape and appearance. Generally speaking, only those who conform to traditional Chinese beauty such as big eyes, oval face and light skin, are selected...

...On the other hand, Chinese women have also been trained to be cheerleaders for beach volleyball, football, basketball and other sports. The cheerleaders are called baobei in Chinese, which literally means babies or babes. These babies are required to show their passion, energy and openness.
So what can we celebrate? Where are the female victories? We can literally start with women's soccer, which has offered the first Olympic action so far: China beat Sweden, Norway beat the US and Germany and Brazil ended with a tie. (For those who caught it online or on the tube, any highlights we should know about? Leave a comment for us!) And how about Muslim female athletes? Buthaina Yaqoubi is the first female Olympic competitor from Oman, and she's only 16.
Even before the Beijing Summer Olympics begin on Friday, Habiba Hinai is tasting victory.

For the first time her country is sending a female Olympian to the games. Buthaina Yaqoubi, 16, will compete in the 100-meter dash and either the long jump or the triple jump.

Hinai, one of three women to represent Oman by bearing the Olympic torch during the relay earlier this year, is vice-chair of Oman's Volleyball Association, the highest position for any woman in the country's sports scene.

Muslim women from a wide variety of countries will be competing, and it's a proud moment for all of us to see, since in 1992 there were 35 countries that only sent men to the Barcelona games. This year so far there are only 4 all-male delegations. And, of course, there are mommies in the mix, who are competing after having children and enjoying all the benefits.

Inclusiveness, athleticism, diversity, respect... these are the things the Olympics should inspire on an international level. We should raise our glasses to these female competitors, who continuously overcoming tests of all kinds. Brava, ladies!

-- Katie Stanton

Up next: Turner Games '08 Day Four -- The Freedom to Play

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