Swimming Records Shatter But Stereotypes Persist

When 16-year old Ye Shiwen won the gold in the 400m individual medley, she split the swimming world in half. Not only had she set a world record, but she completed the final 50m freestyle in 28.93 seconds—faster than American Ryan Lochte, who completed the last 50m of the men’s race in 29.10, earning a gold medal.

Some expressed suspicion. Calling her feat “impossible,” some hinted only by doping could Ye Shiwen have swum so swiftly. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-19058712
Others defended the teenager—who had never tested positive on a drug test—claiming that the accusations sprang from jealousy, poor sportsmanship, and a long-standing and subtle bias western nations held toward the Chinese.
After Ye’s first gold-medal swim on Saturday, arguments volleyed back and forth with precision. John Leonard of the World Swimming Coaches Association, pointed to the history of Chinese swimmers doping in the 1990s. Others countered that China had made substantial changes in training techniques and that Chinese women are slimmer and sleeker which aided them in the water. As the controversy stewed for 2 days, Ye Shiwen maintained her innocence. On Tuesday morning, she was vindicated.

Then, that evening, after Ye won a 2nd gold in the women’s 200-m individual medley swimming final, accusations of doping resurfaced. Comments sent to on-line news sources document the heated reactions and moral outrage surrounding the swimmer’s incredible accomplishment. At the time of this post, CNN tallied over 1600 comments–those supporting the teenager and those accusing her. http://edition.cnn.com/2012/08/01/world/asia/china-ye-shiwen-west-petty/index.html

Ye Shiwen isn’t the first young woman to establish a world record in swimming and face skepticism. She isn’t the first woman athlete—and sadly probably won’t be the last—whose accomplishment was marred by mixed reactions and raised underlying international cultural tensions and gender bias to the surface.

Popular Science Monthly, March 1923.

In 1922, Northwestern student and future (1924) Olympian Sybil Bauer became the first woman (recorded) to surpass a men’s swimming record. Competing at a swim meet at St. George, Bermuda, Bauer established 3 world’s records in backstroke; her time of 6:24.8 in the 440 yard shaved 4 seconds off the previous world record (6:28) held by Harold “Stubby” Krueger of Honolulu. The following year, Popular Science Monthly featured an article written by outspoken swimmer Ethelda Bleibtrey, speculating that women might begin surpassing men in other athletic endeavors. Such reflections made conservatives uneasy.

Political cartoon, Chicago Daily Tribune, August 19, 1925, 1. Courtesy, Chicago Daily Tribune.

When Gertrude Ederle became the first women to swim the English Channel—a feat many believed impossible for women—she established a world record. Swimming at 14:31, she beat the previous record (16:23) set by Argentine swimmer Enrico Tiraboschi in 1923, by nearly 2 full hours. In the years following WWI, the best distance swimmers from several nations raced to become the first woman to successfully swim the straight. At that time, American women had only recently won the long-fought battle for political enfranchisement and gender roles were being, to some degree, challenged. Because of lingering resentments from WWI, nationalist tensions also ran high. The swim provided the opportunity for nations to channel animosity into athletic competition. The first woman to swim the Channel promised to bring honor not just to her gender, but to her nation. After failing in a 1925 attempt, American Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to succeed (August 1926). President Coolidge honored her as a national hero.

Welcome parade for Gertrude Ederle, coming up Broadway, New York City, August, 1926. (Library of Congress)

Upon her return, New York City honored Ederle with a city-wide parade, the then-largest in its history, which attracted fans from across the nation. Hoping to catch a glimpse of “Trudy,” people draped themselves over fire escapes and crowded into office-building windows and rooftops.

The British, however, who had always historically reigned supreme in swimming, reacted less enthusiastically to Ederle’s triumph. At the time, few believed that a woman could withstand the difficult Channel swim at all; most simply couldn’t believe that a woman could outdistance a man by nearly 2 hours. Some trivialized her accomplishment, claiming her swim had been undertaken during unusually good conditions. Others cast aspersions. Skeptical British reporters interviewed local skippers and fishermen who speculated that if Ederle had not swum between two tug boats she would have been carried off course. Some fishermen doubted the authenticity of her swim, claiming that she made no westward drift with the ebb tide which would have been impossible on that day.

In a situation similar to that Ye Shiwen recently faced, the news media throughout the western world reported on the controversy in minute detail. Because of Ederle’s German heritage–her parents were immigrants–the German and Austrian press aligned themselves with America. Outraged by the allegations, Germans accused British critics of ethnic bias and resentment from WWI.

Ye Shiwen won two golds racing swimmers from other nations. No one could deny that she won. But some Americans, perhaps embittered by a sluggish domestic economy, were quick to accuse the teen of winning unfairly. Yesterday, she, like Ederle, was vindicated and given credit for her spectacular accomplishment. But it seems striking that 90 years after Sybil Bauer beat the men’s record in 440m backstroke, and 86 years after Gertrude Ederle set a world record in open water swimming, many still react with incredulity that a woman can outperform a man in sport.

How much of the public suspicion over this teenager’s world record stems from gender bias? How much from racial tensions and cultural resentment? It’s undeniable that national tensions still run high and long-established stereotypes about gender and race persist.

Debriefing: Bikinis and Beach Volleyball

Since beach volleyball debuted at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, some have accused that its uniforms for women are unnecessarily skimpy. During a break from the preliminary beach volleyball games last night, an ad featuring Jennifer Kessy, member of the US women’s beach volleyball team, aired. The short commercial for CoverGirl’s Outlast Lipcolor featured Kessy in a bikini. Until recently such short swimsuits were the required uniform worn in competitive women’s beach volleyball, leading some to question its legitimacy as a sport.

Kessy’s endorsement, “I’m going for the gold. And the pink,” may not have sat well with some groups who oppose the objectification of women that the cosmetics industry has promoted. The Australian Sports Commission has long-described the bathing suit uniforms worn in women’s beach volleyball as “sexploitation,” focusing “attention on the athletes’ bodies rather than for any technological, practical or performance-enhancing reasons” http://www.ausport.gov.au/participating/women/resources/issues/sexploitation
As the diagram from the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) handbook illustrates, the official uniforms for men reveal less of their bodies than the women’s.

Diagrams of regulation uniforms for beach volleyball. FIVB, Olympic Beach Volleyball Tournaments, Specific Competition Regulations, 2004.

In cold weather, players have always been permitted to wear long-sleeved shirts and leggings (preferably under swimsuits). This spring the FIVB modified its rules so players whose cultural beliefs prohibit them from wearing revealing bathing suits are permitted to wear shorts and sleeved tops instead.

The ruling, combined with the cool temperature in London (yesterday’s high hovered near 67° F), led some to fearfully speculate that the Olympic women’s beach volleyball players would compete covered, disappointing spectators. When the US /Australia preliminary match occurred at 11:00 pm last night, the chilled air prompted the Australians to wear leggings and long sleeved shirts under their bikini tops (evoking censure from some fans).

But, this morning, Reuters posted an article that headlined, “Olympics-Beach Volleyball-Women Wear Bikinis with Pride.” The interesting article begins by acknowledging that beach volleyball players face a conundrum: “they have to be sexy to get noticed but they are not taken seriously as sportswomen because they are sexy.” http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/29/oly-voll-bvvol-day2-bikinis-idUSL6E8IRM7E20120729

The article commends the women’s teams who continue to compete in bikinis, applauding their confidence in their bodies. It admits that athletes, like American star and bikini-advocate Kerri Walsh, are savvy enough to recognize that their swimsuit-clad bodies fuels media coverage and generates advertising sponsors. In short, they expose themselves to create exposure for their sport.

And what, they ask, is wrong with that? In America, especially, women’s sports are marginalized, taken less seriously, and receive less media coverage than men’s sports. Some feel it’s necessary to adopt any strategy that results in media interest. If the attention they generate by wearing bikinis lures spectators who might not otherwise have watched, and if those viewers develop an appreciation for how hard the athletes work and realize that these women are real athletes, then perhaps the end justifies the means. Continue reading “Debriefing: Bikinis and Beach Volleyball”

Aesthetics or Athletics? Objectifying Olympic Swimmers

Just three days before the swimming competition started at the 2012 Olympics, Leisel Jones, Olympic swimming gold medalist, made news headlines from her native Australia to New York City. The initial article that sparked the international buzz didn’t emphasize that Jones is the first Australian swimmer to compete at four Olympic Games (starting in 2000 at age 15). Instead, critiquing her appearance, the [Melbourne] Herald Sun juxtaposed a photograph of Jones, standing, smiling, in a swimsuit in 2008 with a 2012 photograph of her poised on the diving block.

The accompanying text reads, “as these pictures show, she resembles none of her previous incarnations and appears heavier than at previous meets.” http://www.heraldsun.com.au/sport/london-olympics/leave-leisel-jones-alone-says-giaan-rooney/story-fn9dheyx-1226434277862

The short clip below, which shows Jones recently, encapsulates the outraged comments the article provoked for its scrutiny of the swimmer’s appearance and support for Jones focusing (as the paper failed to do) on her athletic record.

Jones isn’t the only Olympic athlete to have her athleticism downplayed and her appearance scrutinized by the news media. Sometimes, the media believes it is positively showcasing an athlete’s body.

Photo from “Unflagging,” by Jack McCallum, Sports Illustrated, 93, no. 6 (August 14, 2000): 52.

Just prior to the 2000 Olympic Games, Sports Illustrated featured an article on American swimmer Jenny Thompson. One photo that accompanied “Unflagging” depicted Thompson standing on the beach, with legs spread, wearing only short swimming trunks patterned with American stars and stripes and shiny red boots. Her fists shield her breasts as she smiles boldly into the camera.

Her agreement to be photographed wearing an outfit imitative of “Wonder Woman” provoked mixed reactions. Many, including the Women’s Sports Foundation, criticized her choice. Others, including members of the 1999 Australia women’s soccer team, championed Thompson’s right to display and profit from the body she worked so hard to attain. Opinions sparred on-line and in print for two weeks.
Continue reading “Aesthetics or Athletics? Objectifying Olympic Swimmers”

Sink or Swim: Race and Drowning

Cullen Jones, teaching children to swim, 2012. Threads: University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Multicultural Student Center.

70 percent of African-American children don’t know how to swim and are three times more likely to drown than other children, according to recent studies. In recent months, the  media has shocked America with news features describing the disproportionate deaths of nonwhite children–merely because they don’t know how to swim. Cullen Jones, Olympic gold medalist in 2008 and freestyle sprinter on the 2012 US Olympic swim team captured headlines this summer promoting the safety initiative, “Make a Splash,” which endeavors to save lives by providing swimming instruction to children in need.

Curiously, drowning has always affected groups of Americans disproportionately–but not as today’s statistics might suggest. Slightly more than 100 years ago, thousands of deaths from drownings occurred annually and public safety campaigns–called “Learn to Swim”–similar to “Make a Splash” were launched in cities across America. They targeted not African Americans but women—particularly white middle-class women. At the time, sportswriters described swimming as a masculine sport, as evidenced by the stamina and endurance it required.

Just as African Americans drown in shockingly high numbers today, hundreds of women drowned annually 100 years ago–largely because their heavy, woolen skirted bathing suits immobilized them in the water. But many at the time concluded that women were biologically inferior or incapable of swimming and that cultural stereotype rooted until early 20th century “Learn to Swim” campaigns taught hundreds of women to swim.

Today, the idea that gender could inhibit swimming seem ludicrous–a cultural stereotypes that society outgrew. But the early “Learn to Swim” campaigns, emphasizing as they did, the need for women to learn to swim, may have accidentally created other cultural stereotype: that water sports were most suitably undertaken by whites and women or slender men who seemed less stereotypically masculine than other athletes, like football players.

Publicity photo of Esther Williams at the Beverly Hills Hotel, 1941. Courtesy International Swimming Hall of Fame.

The idea that race affected performance in sport gained prominence in the interwar years beginning, perhaps, when Jesse Owens captured the world’s attention with his spectacular performance at the 1936 Olympics. The media reported eagerly on black men and women athletes’ natural excellence at track and field athletics; at roughly the same time, the media associated water sports with whites. Streamlined swimmers and divers like Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams appeared in Hollywood films.

Their widespread popularity as actors and the proliferation of swimming films helped cement the cultural association of swimming as a white activity. Williams, winner of three national championships, would likely have become a world champion had World War II not preempted the 1940 Olympic games. The media downplayed her strength, using images that emphasized her sex appeal and ornamental beauty, subtly reinforcing the idea that swimming and diving were “white” sports, and perhaps increasingly, female sports.

Did Americans always perceive swimming as a “white” sport?

No. And Africans and African Americans were historically regarded as strong swimmers. The pioneering work of historian Kevin Dawson illustrates that swimming once held great cultural significance to Africans and enslaved Africans who were once regarded as exceptionally strong, natural swimmers—much more adept at swimming than whites. Evidence suggests that swimming retained at least some cultural significance to black communities in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Chicago Defender provides an alternative history of black men and women swimmers. Its pages describe the champion swims of women such as Louise O. Wilson, graduate of the Hampton Institute, and Pauline Jackson, neither of whom were recognized by the white sportswriters of mainstream newspapers. In addition to its column about swimming instruction, it included articles about swimming  from other magazines.

Lack of access to swimming instruction today undeniably contributes to the serious problem of drowning among African American children. Economics as well as race affects  the community accessibility of swimming pools and and available instruction. While it would be naïve and shortsighted to attribute drowning solely to cultural stereotypes, it is important to consider how gender and racial stereotypes can cause communities to disassociate from certain sports. It is imperative to understand the power the media has in shaping not only our present perceptions, but our understanding of the past. Hopefully the “Make a Splash” initiative will succeed and not only save lives but eradicate any lingering beliefs that race predisposes or disinclines swimming.


Using girls in bikinis to sell . . . what?

“Beautiful Bikini Girls bathing in bath of Chocolate” describes a video posted to youtube last March. The only information posted reads: “To promote the opening of the IXCACAO Cafe, these two stunners jump in a bath of liquid chocolate. YES – this is real chocolate!” As the video starts, the crowd watches as two young women dressed in bikinis lower themselves into the chocolate-filled trough.

The video captures the random responses of the crowd, including catcalls, whistles, laughter, squeals of co-mingled delight and horror. One can hear various men encouraging, “go lower.” “Splash each other.” “I want to lick it.” Indeed, one man steps up to the trough to sample the arm one girl proffers.

The voice of one woman can be distinguished. Speaking with an Australian accent, she repeatedly extolls the virtues of the chocolate bath, and invites onlookers to feel the chocolate themselves, suggesting that she has orchestrated the promotion. She repeats, “Come and put your hand in. All this chocolate is here for you to try.” And, since the bikini-clad girls are sitting in the middle of the trough, the implication is that they are to be sampled as well.

Continue reading “Using girls in bikinis to sell . . . what?”

Sustainable, sexy, and socially responsible

Aqua Green, a small, family-owned company in Easton, Pennsylvania, created Eco Swim swimwear. Priding itself on sustainability and upcycling, it manufactures swimsuits made with Repreve, a brand of high-quality yarn engineered from 100% recycled materials, primarily consumer waste products (like plastic bottles), factory fabric waste (cotton, nylon, military parachutes), or a hybrid of the two.

Eco Babe Bikini.

Aqua Green not only makes its swimsuits from Repreve, the company sponsors cleanups of beaches and waterways. And in an age when the manufacturing of most clothing, even the uniforms of the US Olympic team, is outsourced, Eco Swim suits are made in the USA. That in itself should be a high selling point to conscientious consumers. Yet if the company expects to sell swimsuits to the general consumer market in America today, it has to showcase sustainability in the context of sexuality and glamor.

In an interview last year, designer Jenni Saylor, explained, “If it doesn’t look good, they’re not going to buy it just because it’s sustainable material.”

Continue reading “Sustainable, sexy, and socially responsible”

A day at the beach 100 years ago

It’s mid-July. To escape the steamy, humid, sticky heat thousands of Americans make a pilgrimage to beaches and pools each weekend.

Dorothea and Maryal Knox in the surf at Rye, NY, ca.1900. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University.

Today, you could slip into your suit of choice, slather on the sunscreen and enjoy the waves. If you were a woman living a hundred years ago, it wouldn’t have been quite that simple.

First, bathing suits weren’t widely manufactured like they are today. Most women typically sewed their own swimsuits. Popular magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar reported on the latest swimwear fashions and published fashionable patterns.

Page from Newcomb Endicott & Co. spring catalog, circa 1902. Courtesy of Peggy, Iva Rose Vintage Reproductions.

Bathing suits at the time resembled all-encompassing body suits more than bikinis. At the turn of the century, seven to ten yards were required to make one woman’s bathing suit, depending on the type of fabric chosen and the style. Wool and flannel were recommended as the best choices as they were thought to insulate the body against cold.

The photo of the Knox sisters shows a highly popular swimsuit style which included dark wool tights,  pantaloons, swimming shoes or boots, a sailor-style blouse with balloon sleeves, sash, and full over-skirt. Since the suits were made from such heavy, water-absorbing fabrics, the long voluminous skirts often became tangled around women’s legs in the water. Each week, newspaper headlines described a series of deaths from drowning.