The highs and lows of Olympic fever: “All they have to be tonight is fabulous”

I’m thoroughly enthralled in the Olympics right now.

It’s a guilty pleasure, to be honest, because — despite the endless commercialization of the event and NBC’s increasingly melodramatic story arc for each and every athlete, including Jordyn Wieber’s reaction to not qualifying for the all-around competition tonight (above) — it’s the only time I really allow myself to get into sports.

You see, despite the grumbling I do about university and professional sports (Texas Monthly has a great story this month on the seriously twisted world of college football recruitment) and the crazed fandom they inspire, sports defined me for the first 15 years or so of my life.

From kiddie soccer leagues all the way to traveling club softball and volleyball teams, I had a sport for almost every season. (I even consider myself an above-average racquetball player.) I was a player who could chew and spit sunflower seeds like it was my job, a fan who knew every player on the Bulls’ roster and, at my first newspaper, a sports reporter and photographer. I loved being part of the game. Any game, even with my camera in hand on the sideline.

But at Mizzou, somewhere in between the early years when I was cheering as loudly as everyone else at the football and basketball games and the post-Spain years when I realized how drunk Americans were on their team loyalty and obsession for sports celebrities,  I distanced myself as far as I could from anything that had to do with sports. I didn’t watch them, I didn’t talk about them, I purposefully stopped remembering names or caring about teams that I’d once loved.

My hardened heart loathed (and still does) everything, which was mostly negative, that sports had come to represent, which seems to be summed up pretty well by the recent Penn State scandal.

But every few years, the Olympics comes around, and I let myself indulge. They seem like a safe space, somewhat devoid of the ills of modern sport, but the cynical side of me sees the cracks in those Olympic rings.

“All they have to be tonight is fabulous,” the lead gymnastics commentator said tonight at the beginning of a slick, short set of pre-edited clips and interviews introducing the five young women on the U.S. team. Jordyn, Kyla, Aly, Gabby. The producers didn’t even dignify them by putting their last names on the screen. It looked like an episode of “America’s Next Top Model.”

(That commentator went on to use the word “fabulous” at least three more times during the broadcast. Earlier in the day, another said, I think of front-runner Gabby Douglas’ makeup, “I love the eyes. Matches the leo” — as in leotard. Also, did anyone else notice the cheerleaders at the men’s indoor volleyball game this afternoon? Would love to know if they cheer on the women’s games, too.)

A recent study found that sexism in Olympic coverage isn’t just something that we’re cherry picking for blog posts like this one. Women are more likely to be presented as being lucky, while the male athletes have skill and strength, the researchers found. Women are also nitpicked for being fat or for having “Irish twins” (two children back to back) so as to not miss the opportunity to win a third straight gold medal.

It’s the same weird conversations we keep having about whether or not it’s possible to “have it all” or if it’s a big deal that Yahoo hire a new CEO who happens to be pregnant.

But it’s also worth noting that, in general, the women’s sports (and the female athletes appearing in commercials, ads and post-competition interviews) are getting as much coverage, if not more, than men’s. (Last night, I got caught up in the women’s weightlifting final. Damn, those women are strong, and props to the commentators for their professionalism. No unnecessary comments on hairstyles, children or husbands.)

The disparities in how the athletes are covered in the media are troubling, but I can’t help but be pleased that the Olympics provide the opportunity for us to watch and cheer on seriously talented female athletes. (We’ll go back to thousands of hours of primetime coverage of men’s sports when the Olympics are over.)

I think back to how all those years playing sports made me who I am, and how inspired I was by watching young women not all that older than me compete in the Olympics. Playing sports taught me how to bring a group of individuals together to work seamlessly as a team. How to be a leader on said team. How to do physical and mental exercises that make my body strong and my mind focused. How to perform under pressure and in front of a crowd. How to think quickly and make decisions in a fraction of a second. How to be coached by someone with more experience than me. How to set goals and work tirelessly toward them.

Even though he did have fun at a gymnastics camp this summer and he can swing a whiffle ball bat with the best of them, Julian, my oldest son, has zero interest in sports. He’s even been complaining about the Olympics, basically because they make adults “so captivated” and “distracted.” In the back of my mind, I worry about where else he’ll learn these skills that I’ve found to be so important in both academic and professional life, but the non-jock half of my brain reminds me of what happens when one develops an unmitigated lust for competition and winning.

I’m just crossing my fingers that he’ll still want to play catch with me after art camp.

6 responses to “The highs and lows of Olympic fever: “All they have to be tonight is fabulous”

  1. As a parent, I want to give my son and daughter the option of playing sports, art, drama, or some other activity that encourages them to be themselves. I remember being in gymnastics around 5 years old. Couldn’t do a backwards somersault to save my life, even though the instructor was forcing me to try. I asked Mom to take me out of the class. I don’t want to do that to my kids.

  2. That’s the best thing we can do as parents. I never want to force them to do anything they don’t want to. However, sometime, I should blog about a conversation between my dad and I that I’ll never forget: It was the night before a junior high track meet that I just really did not want to go to. He said something along the lines of, “Sometimes, we have to do things we don’t want to do because following through is as important as starting in the first place.” It brings up a good question: How do we encourage our kids to tackle things that are hard without pushing them to do things they don’t want to do?

  3. I enjoy reading your blog because you help me be more aware of the discrepancies in this world in the treatment of women in media at a more intricate level. Thank you for that!

  4. There wasn’t much available for girls in rural MO in the 60’s. Dance lessons were about the only sport we could take. Unbeknownst to me, my mother told my best friend’s mother to sign me up with her daughter one day. When I found out, I hid under the bed! Upset and humiliated at the thought of putting on a tutu, she promised I didn’t have to take lessons if I didn’t want to! Later on, marching band became the only option for a team experience for girls.

    I am grateful my girls experienced gymnastics, but I can’t imagine being separated from one of them to live the Olympic dream. Our small town school sports taught them many lessons of good character. And for that I am grateful!

  5. I know that the coverage and reporting and commentary around women during the olympics (ahem vball uniforms) is never ideal, but I have to hope that everyone else is marveling the way my daughter and I do as we watch women run 100 meter races in under 11 seconds and lift those weights and dive off those springboards and tuning out the garbage commentary. At least for a few seconds.

  6. Pingback: Diana Nyad: From Havana to Florida in 53 hours on scrambled eggs and pasta | The Feminist Kitchen·

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