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By Chia E.

The modern Olympic Games began in 1896, and like the ancient Greek festival they sought to recreate, they excluded women from the playing fields. Beginning in 1900, however, women participated in an increasing number of events; by 2012, every Olympic sport was open to female athletes. (International Olympic Committee; Saporito) Not only have these women been competitive with each other, they have also been competitive against male athletes. In 1924, Sybil Bauer held the overall world record for the 440-yard backstroke, and in 2012, Ye Shiwen swam the last freestyle leg of the women’s 400-meter individual medley faster than Ryan Lochte swam the same leg of his 400-meter medley. (Dyreson; Saporito) Despite their athletic achievements, though, female Olympians have often been described in terms of their physical beauty and feminine characteristics, and articles pertaining to their accomplishments regularly utilize language that draws attention to their gender, rather than their skill.

In his 2012 article “Wonder Women,” Bill Saporito wrote, “The color scheme of the London Olympics includes bubble-gum pink, but there’s nothing pink or fluffy about these women’s performances. London has provided a joyous parade of amazons.” He noted that the 2012 Olympic Games were the first in which women were allowed to participate in boxing, following the observation with a gender-specific aside—“hey, knock yourself out, girls.” He also commented on the particular skill of the U.S. beach volleyball team, stating that “the U.S. was guaranteed gold and silver in bikini sports.”     Saporito’s tone, which expresses admiration for the accomplishments of female Olympians while making it clear that they are, in fact, female Olympians, is part of a long tradition of “encouraging traditional femininity at the expense of competitive athletic involvement,” as Don Morrow put it in “Sweetheart Sport: Barbara Ann Scott and the Post World War II Image of the Female Athlete in Canada.” (cited in Vertinsky) In the 1920s and 1930s, Paul Gallico wrote frankly about the use of female images in the sports pages as a “sales stimulus,” saying he thought it was “pretty much of an even swap. The newspapers got their exciting pictures. The girls got their necessary publicity.” (Dyreson)

Roberta J. Park once wrote that “Bodies are used to convey a host of deep-seated cultural beliefs and values.” For more than 100 years, the bodies of female Olympians have been used to encourage women’s participation in sports while simultaneously reinforcing heteronormative notions of Western femininity. (Curry et al.) From 1924, when American female swimmers were hailed as the epitome of “human grace in its perfection”; to 2000, when Marion Jones’ smile and “running suit[s]” became an indelible part of her athletic image; to 2012, when “luminous” British heptathlete Jessica Ennis won a gold medal in the 800-meter race, the gender of women in the Olympics has been as important to the media discourse surrounding the Games as their athletic performance. (Dyreson; Mayeda; Saporito) This has allowed audiences and the media to rest assured that women’s participation in Olympic and other sporting events will not result in “either the feminization of sport or the masculinization of women.” (Curry)    


Works Cited

Curry, Jane and Marjorie Bingham. "American Women and Sport." OAH Magazine of History 7.1 (1992): 39-49. JSTOR. Web. 07 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25162855>

Dyreson, Mark. "Icons of Liberty or Objects of Desire? American Women Olympians and the Politics of Consumption." Journal of Contemporary History 38.3 (2003): 435-60. JSTOR. Web. 07 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3180646>.

International Olympic Committee. "Factsheet: Women in the Olympic Movement." Olympic.org. Mar. 2013. Web. 7 Apr. 2013. <http://www.olympic.org/Documents/Reference_documents_Factsheets/Women_in_Olympic_Movement.pdf>

Mayeda, David. “Characterizing Gender and Race in the 2000 Summer Olympics: NBC’s Coverage of Maurice Greene, Michael Tohnson, Marion Tones, and Cathy Freeman.” Social Thought & Research 24.1/2  (2001): 145-186. JSTORY. Web. 07 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/23250078>

Park, Roberta J. “Physiology and Anatomy are Destiny!? Brains, Bodies and Exercise in Nineteenth Century American Thought.” Journal of Sport History 18.1 (1991): 31-63. LA84 Foundation. Web. 06 Apr. 2013. <http://www.la84foundation.org/SportsLibrary/JSH/JSH1991/JSH1801/jsh1801d.pdf>

Saporito, Bill. "Wonder Women." TIME.com. TIME, 09 Aug. 2012. Web. 05 Apr. 2013. <http://olympics.time.com/2012/08/09/olympic-wonder-women/>

Vertinsky, Patricia A. "Gender Relations, Women’s History and Sport History: A Decade of Changing Enquiry, 1983-1993." Journal of Sport History 21.1 (1994): 1-24. LA84 Foundation. Web. 06 Apr. 2013. <http://www.la84foundation.org/SportsLibrary/JSH/JSH1994/JSH2101/jsh2101b.pdf>.