Modern Times: Winning women

Whether they’re taking home more medals than male athletes or petitioning for equality, it's our female Olympians who are the true heroes of the Games

Maybe it’s all about the thighs. Thighs are, for too many women, a source of irritation, tolerated only for their ability to prevent the butt from collapsing into the knees. But the winter Olympics are a smorgasbord of undisguised female thighs shrink-wrapped in Lycra, solid and substantial — the opposite of the knitting needles that pass for legs in the world of fashion. Male Olympians look pretty good, but it’s the women whose bodies fascinate me. I remember speed skater Catriona Le May Doan on her haunches, one arm behind her back, as she burst around those rink corners to a circuit-blowing victory in 2002. She was stunning and formidable, her body at once superhuman and alien.

As one who is generally opposed to any event involving whooping and high-fiving, the Olympics should not be my thing. Nor do I care for the organization’s dodgy politics or the games’ obscene deficits and shameless renting out of every square inch of snow and tricep to banks or soda pop companies. Plus, I’m tragically un-sporty. I’ve napped through a 12th inning and read a book to survive a live Canucks game. (My own Olympic feat: turning pages in gloves).

Yet despite all this, I am a sucker for the winter Olympics. There’s the pleasant nostalgia and lazy nationalism, the communal feeling of watching in a dorm room or a faraway place, wanting the best for Canada. And as the much-mocked siblings of the golden summer Games, the winter Games have a charming, relatable underdog status. But during the past few Olympics, what I’ve loved most is the thrill of witnessing women athletes functioning at absolute capacity, or, as some would say, kicking ass.

This year, I might attempt to corral my four-year-old daughter to the couch to watch a little snowboarding half-pipe. I want to show her, a girl with an affinity for Barbie, what a non-plastic female body is capable of. In the last two winter Olympics, women have won most of Canada’s medals. At the Turin games, women won 16 of 24 medals, or two-thirds of Canada’s total. The twin men-women’s hockey gold of 2002 was a rare moment of united chest-thumping glory in our grumbly country, but it was only the women who took gold again in 2006.

The two weeks of the Olympics undo, just a little, the onslaught of absurd images of women’s bodies that make up the four years in between. In ads and entertainment and at salons, our bodies are pumped with chemicals, peeled and waxed and maintained and worked out, but are they ever really triumphant? Are they driven toward any goal but beauty? Four years ago, 22-year-old Albertan Chandra Crawford sliced across the finish line to gold in the insane, anarchic-looking sport of cross-country ski sprinting — covering 1.2 km in 2 minutes and 12 seconds. We’re living in a moment of fictitious bodies, be they airbrushed or avatars. The Olympics showcase the reality of a female athlete like Crawford, her power the result of those cliché-sounding words, discipline and dedication, the opposite of the bodily quick fix we all hope for.

But women athletes remain largely invisible. Women’s basketball and soccer are mostly buried in the cable universe, if broadcast at all. One study, by the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, found that women’s sports received only 6.3 percent of the American TV sports coverage sampled. When a woman athlete does get press, it’s often preceded by the word “hot.”

Last fall, the Florida State women’s basketball team launched a website, featuring players stiffly posed in low-cut evening gowns stepping out of limos, their muscles draped in pearls and chiffon. Is it still better to be sexy than strong — even in basketball? One wonders why potential Florida state basketball players would require such pathetic reassurance that an athletic body is still a feminine one, but perhaps even top athletes are not inured to narrow definitions of female beauty. In January, Australian track star Jana Rawlinson admitted that her flat-chested, medal-winning body never made her “feel like an attractive woman,” and so she got breast implants. But the plastic body didn’t serve her — she felt slower, held back — and to be truly competitive in the 2012 summer Olympics, she had the implants removed. 

In The Girl and the Game, a book about the history of women in sports in Canada, Margaret Ann Hall writes that too often, sports are regarded as a masculinizing project, a place where men get together with men, watched by men, for men. Hall writes that the first sport Canadian women participated in en masse was bicycling in the mid 1880s. The first sighting of a “lady bicyclist” would warrant a mention in local newspapers. As women began hiking up their skirts and peddling away, a nervous editorial in a medical journal warned of “pelvic mischief.” Doctors were also concerned that some women were intentionally riding for what could be called “immoral benefits”, as if women might replace their husbands with bicycle seats.

How far have we come? In 2005 the president of the International Ski Federation, Gian-Franco Kasper, made a similarly dubious medical claim: “[Ski jumping] seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” I’m not entirely sure what medical point of view he subscribes to, but I’m thinking his medicine cabinet may contain blood-letting leeches and mustard-garlic cures for the plague.

And voila, in 2010, there is no women’s ski jumping at the Olympics, despite the noble efforts of a group of women ski jumpers. After unsuccessfully lobbying the International Olympic Committee to be included in the games, they posed two court challenges in B.C. on the grounds that their exclusion violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They lost and went to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case, despite the fact that even boxing — the only other sport that excluded women — will finally be open to both sexes in the 2012 summer Olympics (beware pelvic, and possibly wrist, mischief).

By not including those ski jumpers, a door closes a little for every girl who might have seen a woman propelled into the sky, sparking her own potential. As girls age, they participate even less in organized athletics: A 2005 Statistics Canada study indicates that 52 percent of females aged 15 to 18 take part in sports, compared to 66 percent of males. But by the time women hit the 19 to 24 range, only 34 percent participate in sport, compared to 52 percent of men.

I know that I’ve lost something by only ever exercising alone. I hope that during these Olympics, on that couch (and in the yard and at the park), I can get my daughter inspired to push her body, to really and truly live in it. A girl — and a woman — should know the possibility of physical greatness and how there’s grace in losing if she has tried. And sometimes, gloriously and against all odds, she should know what it’s like to win.