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Women and London 2012: Historic? Maddening? Both?

by Meg Heery

July 30, 2012

London 2012 made good on its hype as the Year of the Woman on Sunday. Kim Rhode made Olympic history when she won the gold medal in skeet shooting, becoming the first American to win medals (five now) in five consecutive Games. A woman brought the People’s Republic of Korea its first medal, a gold, when Ae An came out on top of the Judo 52-kilogram class. Women set new world records in weightlifting and swimming. And Great Britain’s Elizabeth Armistead delivered the host country its first medal this Olympics, finishing second in the women’s cycling road race.

While I couldn’t be more thrilled when the media gets it right – as AOL did in its feature on Rhode (seen here in 2007), much of the media coverage dwells on female athletes’ looks, or stirs up drama where none exists. Let’s take a peek down that snake pit for a moment.

First we have Australian swimmer Leisel Jones (seen below after the Beijing Olympics). Last week newspapers from her own country condescendingly and ignorantly questioned whether she was fit enough to defend her gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke based solely on her appearance.

But Jones had the last word Sunday, after those tabloid questions, she said, "I've had nothing but support.” The rally has fueled her preparations: Her teammates and fans raised a tweetstorm in her defense, and the Australian minister of sport has asked for an apology. Jones goes into Monday’s final ranked fifth, with Ruta Meilutyte of Lithuania leading the pack and Russia’s Lullia Efimova and American favorites Rebecca Soni and Breeja Larson in between.

For what, infuriatingly, will not be the last time: Thin does not guarantee fit.

Just ask Leryn Franco. MSNBC might call the Paraguayan javelin thrower a “model athlete” and“the hottest female Olympian,” but Franco harbors no hopes of winning here. That hasn’t stopped anyone from gawking, and she doesn’t seem to mind. In her day job as a model, she expects it.

I’ll just let you sit with that for a moment. The athlete whose physique was criticized swims for a gold medal. The one whose physique is, let’s be generous and say admired, probably won’t compete past qualifiers. This is 2012. Year of the Woman.

We never have conversations like this about men. And yet here I’ve spent another 245 words on media effluvium that to any logical mind makes no sense.

In other news of the absurd: When, in a stunning defeat, world gymnastics champion Jordyn Wieber failed to advance to the all-around final, NBC’s Matthew Kitchen, surely in absentminded haste (because who would calculate such language when discussing the dashed hopes and dreams of a 17-year-old, especially as news is breaking?) offered her a cold slap in the face topped with a headline (“Raisman Flips the Script on Wieber”) that characterized fellow Team USA member Aly Raisman’s ascent to the top of the leader board as a Machiavellian coup de grace.

“It was a stunning upset,” Kitchen wrote, “but it's not her right to win because she's been the best up until now. The Olympics aren't a lifetime achievement award.” (Perhaps these stubbornly team-spirited, intelligent women athletes are just failing to fulfill the requirements for some unwritten media “catfight” story quota.

For some perspective, I give you archery. Even though it received almost no coverage in the U.S. — no feature stories, no correspondents praising or dissing the competitors — more than one billion people, according to NBC data, tuned in Sunday to watch the women’s archery teams from China and South Korea compete for the gold medal. The teenagers from South Korea, Ki Bo-Bae, Choi Hyeon-Ju and Lee Sung-Jin, in plaid-patterned hats reminiscent of school uniforms and arm guards decorated with cute cartoon characters, shot their way to the top spot for their country’s seventh straight title. They and the silver medalists from China displayed grace, nerves of steel, focus and fine-pointed skill -- while a billion people looked on in admiration. Now, that’s progress.

(Photos. Wikimedia Commons)

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Meg Heery is a freelance editor and a regular contributor to the Jersey City Independent and NEW magazine. (On Twitter, check for her more frequent notes on the Games@megheery.)

See also:

Carole Ponchon, "We Came to Play, Not Pose: Dilemma of Women in Sports." On the Issues Cafe, April 26, 2012.

Zerlina Maxell, “Aspiring for Medals: Watching New Gymnastic Generations.” On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2012.

Jane Schonburger, "Olympics' Coverage Still Shortchanges Female Athletes." On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2012.

"Athletes and Magazine Spreads: Does Sexy Mean Selling Out?" On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2012.

Marie Hardin, "Winning the Sports Beat: Female Writers Need Wide Angle Lens." On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2012.


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