Thursday, 14 August 2008

The Olympics

I haven’t posted for a while, and while I would like to say I’ve been doing something productive like, say, keeping up with current affairs, I have sadly been snowed under with the “day job”, and so the furore surrounding what’s currently occurring in Beijing has gone completely unnoticed. Until a few days ago, when a British cyclist called Nicole Cooke started making headlines. Followed shortly by swimmers Rebecca Adlington and Joanne Jackson, Cooke was the first British sportsperson to win a medal in the 2008 summer games, and a gold to boot. Adlington’s admittedly awe-inspiring victory - made all the more heart-warming by her teammate scooping the bronze - added to the media frenzy that seems to have reached fever pitch already this year, and the athletics are still weeks away. These three previously unknown women have been catapulted from the obscure ranks of female sport and into the media fray – apparently. An interesting article by Kira Cochrane in the Guardian on Tuesday hoped this was a potential new dawn of sporting journalism. The headline read “Making a splash: Sportswomen finally getting the attention [note "attention" not "recognition" being the word of choice here] they deserve.” The sentiment is nice, but the suggestion that these women are winning medals in a jovial ‘girls showing the boys how it’s done’ way is something that doesn’t sit right. Yes, it’s true that these three are the only medal winners so far and so they are the only figureheads “Team GB” have right now. I can’t help thinking that had a male swimmer swiped a gold or 14-year-old Tom Daley had performed better in his synchronised diving event, these women’s successes would have been less lauded. That’s not to say that I don’t think Britain would have recognised their achievements, I still think that they would have been elevated from podium to pedestal had men achieved something alongside them. But I think we’d be naïve to think that this has that much to do with people recognising sportswomen as the equals of their male counterparts. As Cochrane makes heavy work of, women’s sports account for a dismal percentage of coverage in almost all sports events (the Olympics is actually unique in its almost equal devotion to men and women’s events) and by all but specialist media channels. One only has to look at the sports pages of our most widely read internet sites to discover the extent of our perceived disinterest in women’s sporting events and those who participate in them. She makes mention also of the disparate tennis coverage (“leg shots” for the women, panoramic court action for the men) and pitches this enduring and somewhat subconscious misogyny against the idealistic notion of the Olympic games as an arena for equality. This is dangerous ground because while there are equal amounts of events for men and women, and they are generally covered in the same way by the media/press - the glory associated with a man's medal is still elevated above the woman's. I’m not convinced we’re looking at TV coverage that is actively attempting to make a point about sportswomen. There is a bigger societal force at work here, that of the international competition. In precisely the same way as a Liverpool supporter will cheer on a Manchester United striker if it means winning the World Cup and socking one to the Germans, these three women have been shoved onto the world stage as they are the only ones who have – as yet – got what they came for, medals. Let’s not forget that the Olympics are really about politics and international power, and with this entails a hefty measure of fakery. Its emerged that a little girl who sang for the opening ceremony was considered “not pretty enough” by the organisers and replaced with a more attractive child who mimed along instead and there’ve been other reports of people being paid to fill up any sparse looking stands. All this so China can feel better about their image whilst completely brushing the Tibet situation under the beautifully embroidered rug. Are we seriously expecting any serious feminist progress within constraints such as these? Let’s face it, international sporting events – at least those that are widely followed – inevitably perpetuate an atmosphere at best patriotic and at worst nationalistic. It’s a romantic notion to think that we are all unified under a common cause: to represent our country and be proud of its achievements but I’m not sure that’s what motivates us. Perhaps it’s the legacy of our empirical history in this country that we just care so much about beating other countries that all other more minor disputes are set aside in the pursuit of this realisation. All internal battles are temporarily pacified because there’s nothing more important than our country beating another country. Maybe I’m being paranoid, but I do feel that the only time the media is (or at least attempts to be) uncharacteristically inclusive of all genders, races and religions is when we need to appear as a solidified, peaceful and above all powerful nation. This isn’t a case of survival of the fittest sportspeople – who incidentally, if the Olympic medal tally is anything to go by, are women – this is a contest between two co-existing desires to control. The desire to control women takes a backseat on this occasion, as it always will when the men are fighting it out on the global battlefield.

2 comments:

word_fashionista said...

This is an echo of my own anger when, watching Wimbledon, the match of Ana Ivanovic, the number 1 seed, was preceded by a 5 minute montage of her smiling, looking pretty at black tie events and other celebrities waxing lyrical about her. The jaw-dropping moment was showing Richard Branson saying that there was not a "lovelier, more attractive or successful sportswoman in the world". Why does the BBC force me to consider her attractiveness, is this is any way relevant to the sports match being played? Can you imagine Federer or Nadal being introduced in this "isn't he clever AND pretty" way?
Wimbledon is notoriously backward, as any international event is bound to be, since it has to cater for the entire world's sensibilities, which unfortunately do not always put men and women on an equal level. All we can hope is that the media make some effort to remove this distinction, although the BBC and newspaper articles such as the one you mention seem determined not to.

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