A Class of Their Own

Have you heard of Jacqueline Freney? The answers I received varied. “Is she a writer?” “Was she the one married to that French diplomat?” “Is she an internet hacker?” While several thought her name sounded familiar, no one–in my admittedly very unscientific poll of a few dozen friends and acquaintances–knew for sure.

My amazing sister, knowing me well enough to intuit that such a pointed question must be related to my research, probably refrained from rolling her eyes as she texted back, “I don’t know, is she a swimmer?”

Jacqueline Freney in the women’s SM7 200m individual medley, Aquatics Centre in East London (World News Australia AAP)

Yes. Jacqueline Freney is a swimmer. The 20-year old Australian won her sixth gold medal in six days, swimming in the Aquatics Centre in East London this summer (and she may very well win an additional medal on the final day).

Why have many Americans not heard of her—besides the fact that she is not an American athlete? Because Jacqueline Freney is swimming in the Paralympic Games and those Games, which started on August 29, 2012, have received scant media attention in America.

In 2008, many criticized the American Olympic Committee for discriminatory actions by providing less financial assistance, smaller training stipends, and fewer free health benefits to Paralympic athletes compared to athletes in other Olympic sports. At the time, New York Times writer Alan Schwarz wrote a thorough and thoughtful exposé on the inequitable treatment of Paralympic athletes. Ironically, four years later, not only do the financial benefits remain uneven, news coverage has fallen off as well. Since the Games began last week, only one article about them has appeared in the Times. Freney’s name appears nowhere in the paper–for either the 2008 or 2012 Paralympic Games. No wonder few Americans have heard of her.

Freney’s story is compelling. Born with cerebral palsy diplegia, which restricts the movement of legs and lower body–making coordination and balance especially challenging–Freney was only two when doctors informed her parents that she would spend her life in a wheelchair.  Undaunted, by physicians’ predictions, Freney’s family taught her to swim. Her father, Michael, and grandfather, Peter, who were themselves competitive swimmers and coaches with access to swimming pools, coached her. Freney credits the two for exerting the most influence in her swimming career.

Freney won her sixth gold medal in women’s S7 50m freestyle. With one more day to go in the 2012 Paralympic swimming competition, she stands poised to surpass the record set by fellow Australian, Siobhan Paton, who won six gold medals at the Sydney Paralympics. Just behind Freney in the women’s S7 100m freestyle final were American swimmer, Cortney Jordan, who won the silver medal and Ukrainian swimmer, Ani Palian, who took bronze.

Unlike athletes in other sports, before competing, all Paralympians undergo a physical assessment by international classifiers who are tasked with ensuring that the athletes are competing at similar ability levels. Swimmers with physical disabilities are classified according to several factors including strength, coordination, range of movement, and limb length. Swimmers have 3 classifications based on visual impairment and 10 classifications based on physical impairment–the latter ranging from S1 to S10. Swimmers in class S1 have the greatest impairment while those at S10 have the least. In S7, the class in which Freney and Jordan compete, paralysis on one side of the body is common.

Cortney Jordan, like Freney, is 20, and was also born with cerebral palsy–a form that prevents her from feeling on her left side. She began swimming as physical therapy and competed in the Paralympics in Bejing in 2008, winning four medals: one gold, two silver, and a bronze. A resident of Nevada, when interviewed by the Nevada Sun about her disability and swimming before the 2008 Games, Jordan explained, “It kind of feels like I’m complete in the water, so it’s nice.”

Swimming, in many ways, is democratizing. Once submerged in water, physical distinctions–from sexual characteristics to hairstyles to impairments–are temporarily obscured. For many, water also helps–temporarily–diminish chronic pain. In this way, swimming is incredibly freeing. If only the equalizing effects provided by water could extend on land and these athletes could receive equal recognition, assistance and treatment.

Gaining to Win? Open Water Distance Swimmers Lose Media Attention

Over 100,000 spectators lined the banks of the Serpentine in Hyde Park to witness the women’s open water marathon swim on August 9. Representing 34 countries on 5 continents, 25 women plunged into the lake’s murky waters and raced for nearly two hours to complete the 10K (6 mile) course. Astonishing viewers in a highly unexpected and dramatic finish, Hungary’s Eva Ristov and America’s Haley Anderson stretched their strokes to claim the gold and silver medals, respectively.

Official boats monitoring swimmers racing the Serpentine course in Hyde Park, London. Photo by Mike Lewis. http://www.olavistaphotography.com/

Ahead for the majority of the race, 26-year old Ristov finished in 1hr, 57min 38.02sec. Anderson, a 20-year old senior at the University of Southern California, trailed her by a mere .04 seconds. Swimming enthusiasts predicted that Keri-Anne Payne (Britain), Martina Grimaldi (Italy) and Melissa Gorman (Australia) would capture gold, silver, bronze, respectively. Ristov and Anderson–the dark horses–astonished onlookers and made history for their nations.

The dramatic finish of the women’s open water 10K coupled with the unpredictable nature of the sport illustrate why, from 1910-1927, American sportswriters reported avidly on similar races occurring in American waterways annually. Water temperature, unseen obstacles and sheer physical exertion of open water swim marathons lend an exciting element of danger. Undertaken in oceans, lakes, and rivers, the swims present unique challenges. Unlike the pristine aqua of a chlorinated pool, open waters are typically murky and filled with reeds, weeds, and aquatic life that must be navigated. Open water courses are not cordoned into lanes, forcing swimmers to plunge into the water in a chaotic free-for-all. They race closely, body-to-body, heightening intrusive splashes and the chances of kicking and elbowing one another. Interviewed after the 2012 race, Anderson noted that some swimmers intentionally grab at the feet of racers in front hoping to disrupt the leading swimmers’ focus.

Water temperature presents one of the largest and potentially dangerous issues. The Red Cross identifies 78°F as the ideal safe temperature for open water swimming marathons (most pools hover between 80-84°F for comfort). American distance swimmer Fran Crippen died while swimming the in FINA’s 10K open water series in the United Arab Emirates in 2010. High water temperatures (86°F) induced serious heat exhaustion and dehydration that led to the hospitalization of several other swimmers after the race.

In most open water races, fleets of boats trail beside swimmers to monitor safety and ensure that rules are followed. Governing rules prohibit swimmers from touching the vessel at any point. Coaches may administer food and water, provided they do not direct touch the swimmer’s body.

Open water swimming race from the Battery to Coney Island, New York, 1908. (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

In the 2012 women’s Olympic open water marathon, the motorized skiffs monitoring the swimmers were called to action when two women, Jessica Roux (South Africa) and Poliana Okimoto (Brazil), floundered. After completing four of six laps, Okimoto succumbed to hypothermia. Unable to continue in the Serpentine’s 77°F water, she raised her hand to be withdrawn. She lost consciousness after being taken from the water and received medical attention.

The danger and drama of the women’s 10K open water marathon didn’t provoke much attention in America. And, compared to rapid reporting in other swimming events, Anderson’s incredible finish received relatively scant media attention, despite the fact that she was the only woman representing the US in the marathon and became the first American to win an Olympic medal in open water swimming. Perhaps the newness of the event–the open water 10K debuted in the 2008 Olympics–makes it less newsworthy. In general, however, open water swimming fails sustain contemporary American mainstream media interest. Why?

The multifaceted reason involves money, time, convenience, and cultural expectations. By its nature, marathon swimming is at odds with values in modern America. In a society characterized by short attention spans and instant gratification, the news media can’t profitably sustain widespread interest in an athletic event that lasts between two and fifteen hours and may or may not occur due to unpredictable weather. Plus, open water swimming isn’t terribly sexy compared to other sports. Swimmers aren’t clad in bikinis. Instead, they tug on wetsuits or coat their bodies with an odorous mixture of lanolin and grease. In a culture obsessed with counting calories, fat-free foods, and streamlined bodies, open water swimmers run against the grain.

To withstand the cold water temperatures and store energy required for the race, most athletes intentionally gain weight before long distance open water swims. Keri-Anne Payne (Britain), silver medalist in the 2008 Games, reportedly gains two kg (4 lbs, 10 oz) three days prior to intense competitions. Few women today can relate to intentionally gaining weight or wanting to sustain physical bulk.

From 1910-1927, Americans followed open water swimming marathons as faithfully as they do football games today. At the time, standards of beauty differed greatly. The larger frame of open water swimmers was applauded as healthy–an ideal to which women should aspire. Annette Kellerman, considered “a paragon of physical perfection” stood 5’4¼” tall, with a 33.1-inch bust, 26.2-inch waist, and 37.8-inch hips.

Ad for Daughter of the Gods, promoting Kellerman as the perfect woman by showing measurements, Nov. 1916.

Compare that to figures idealized today. Elle McPherson stands 6’ tall, with a 36-inch bust, 25-inch waist and 35-inch hips. If Barbie–who introduces young girls to impossible beauty standards–were a real woman, she would stand 5’9″ tall, sport a 39-inch bust, 18-inch waist, and 33-inch hips. Women open water marathon swimmers exhibit muscular strength, impressive stamina, and discipline unfathomable to most. Their builds defy the skinny ideal which monopolizes popular culture in American. Is it any wonder that open water swimmers aren’t favored by the press?

Split Decisions: Synchronized Swimming and Cultural Bias

Attitudes toward synchronized swimming suffer from a sort of schizophrenia. Americans love to follow synchronized swimmers during the Olympics—the topic trended hours before the event started in the 2012 Games.

U.S. 2012 Olympic Synchronized Swim Team, April 2012. AP Photo/Matt Dunham. http://www.klewtv.com/sports/Photos-Olympic-synchronized-swimming-quals-148116795.html?tab=gallery&c=y&img=5

The grace, glamor and style on which synchronized swimmers are judged have captivated viewers since the sport debuted at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Even sports purists don’t deny the strength, flexibility and stamina that synchronized swimming requires–Olympic routines are four minutes long, three minutes of which are spent underwater.

Yet the smiling poise, precision, and theatrics that audiences love make the sport an easy target for mockery and ridicule. On the surface, synchronized swimming may not resemble sport in the traditional sense: televised coverage of the Olympics captures athletes in most sports perspiring, their muscles bulging with strain and faces contorting with effort. Their grimaces and grunts offer tangible proof of exertion.

In contrast, media coverage of synchronized swimmers reveals long limbs, pointed toes, and ever-smiling, theatrically made-up faces. Judged, in part, on the appearance of effortlessness, they mask exertion and exhaustion in unnaturally perpetual grins.

Preliminaries of the freestyle duet technical routine, day 1 synchronized swimming, 2012 Olympics. CNN website: http://www.latestcnnnews.net/2012/08/london-2012-synchronized-swimming-photos/

The sleek hairstyles and colorful cosmetics required of the swimmers make it easy for viewers to confuse the athletes with beauty pageant contestants and pave the way for ridicule. The fact that synchronized swimming is considered by FINA an exclusively female sport further undermines its legitimacy as a “real” sport.

Some critics, like the Facebook page “Synchronized-Swimming-is-NOT-a-Sport” carry little authority. Others hold more influence. During the 2008 Games, Hannah Beech, writing for Time magazine’s World section, advocated removing synchronized swimming from the Olympics. Acknowledging the arduous effort required of the swimmers, she concluded, “But effort — and a discreet set of nose-clips — doesn’t make it worthy of being an Olympic sport.” http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1834475,00.html#ixzz22gSjLbsC
Beech complained that in synchronized swimming, the “girly bits overshadow the athletic parts.” Fair enough. But instead of questioning why the sport’s official rules insist on showcasing women as eye-candy—downplaying their athleticism and emphasizing their appearance—she proposed FINA drop synchronized swimming altogether and open a “real” sport, like Olympic boxing, to women.

That solution would solve little and underscores a larger issue: sports historically associated with masculinity—boxing, football, and baseball—are commonly perceived as more authentic. Yet most athletes acknowledge that synchronized swimmers train exceptionally long and hard. After sweeping the duet preliminary freestyle routine on Monday, the Russian gold medalists Natalia Ishchenko and Svetlana Romashin told interviewers that they train often for ten hours, nonstop. Despite the cosmetics and costumes, they epitomize hardcore athletes.

Yet in America, sports associated with or dominated by women—swimming and gymnastics—are trivialized. Why? Male team sports generate more revenue. And today in America, sport is defined not only by athleticism but by the ability to fill a stadium with paying spectators.

Aware of this basic fact, some—like the owners of women’s beach volleyball teams—take the approach of sexualizing women athletes. Needing to make a profit, why wouldn’t they? Simply put, sex sells. While emphasizing women’s bodies will, in the short term, generate spectator interest in a sport, it’s akin to wrapping a severed artery with a Band-Aid. At best it offers a temporary solution at worst it exacerbates the cultural problem of gender bias.

Cultural associations of “real” sport with masculinity and money hurt promising athletes. The US excelled in synchronized swimming in the 1980s, winning nine Olympics medals, five of which were gold, in 1984 alone. But the American team didn’t qualify to compete in London.  Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva are the only synchronized swimmers representing America in the London Games. As of Monday they stood 10th in the duet competition. America should be proud that they qualified but where might they stand if the sport were taken more seriously here?

Gender bias in sport has other detrimental effects. Since FINA classifies synchronized swimming as exclusively female, men cannot compete in those Olympic events. And yes, despite the gender bias, men do compete in synchronized swimming—even in America where they are taken even less seriously than women.

Out to Swim Angels practicing, 2012. http://www.outtoswim.org/index.php/synchro

How, in the 21st century, can a decision to exclude athletes from participating based solely on gender by justified? Some answer with numbers, claiming that there simply are not enough male synchronized swimmers in the world to hold a male event. Perhaps.

But others question this rationale. In London, prior to the Games, “Out To Swim,” an aquatic club for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people and straight people, protested  FINA’s exclusion of men from synchronized swimming. The Out to Swim Angels—the group’s synchronized swim team—sent a letter to FINA protesting men’s exclusion and politely demanding that the rules need be changed prior to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

We’ll find out what happens in four years.

Synchronized Swimming: History Behind the Smiles

Promotional photo of Esther Williams performing underwater, circa 1944. Courtesy International Swimming Hall of Fame.

It happens every four years. The world’s best women synchronized swimmers enthrall Olympic audiences with their perfectly timed twists, turns, thrusts and flips. Where other sports, like swimming races, are perceived as athletic competitions, synchronized swimming retains an association with entertainment and pageantry.

Perhaps more than any other sport, women’s appearance matters as much as their athletic performance. While swimmers may practice with goggles and swim caps, during competitions most forgo such aids. Long-time synchronized swimmer, Yassi Jahanmir, explained that USA Synchro–the sport’s governing body in America–doesn’t formally forbid swimmers from wearing goggles and caps but, in synchro culture, serious swimmers regard them as amateurish. Perhaps this attitude stems from FINA’s official rules which permit swimmers to wear an unobtrusive nose clip but other equipment–like goggles or swim caps–are forbidden during the routine session of Olympic competition, unless required by medical reasons. As loose hair swirling in the water would obstruct visibility and get in the way, swimmers must coat their hair with unflavored gelatin to cement it in place. Would athletes in any other sport agree to this–while wearing a smile?

The association between synchronized swimming, pageantry and femininity harkens back to its inception. The modern sport evolved from underwater ballet which was performed in Europe in the 1890s. Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman whet America’s appetite for synchronized swimming when she began demonstrating swimming and diving techniques in a 14-foot aquatic tank at London’s Hippodrome (1906). Wild success in England led to vaudeville contracts in America. Because vaudeville still held associations with burlesque and the swimsuit Kellerman wore to perform was considered risque, she took great pains to exaggerate her femininity–respectably–in her swimming acts. Within six years, she transitioned to the silver screen, becoming one of the most popular silent film stars of her era. Because her films featured her swimming underwater or diving, the press dubbed her the “Million Dollar Mermaid.” The underwater ballet movements Kellerman performed in later films were direct precursors to synchronized swimming, but that term did not yet exist.

“Synchronized swimming” made its way into common parlance in 1938. The description was first used, reportedly, by American Olympic swimmer Norman Ross who earned three gold medals in the 1920 Games. Asked to comment on a group of women performing water acrobatics to music at the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago (1934), Ross remarked on the impressive “synchronized swimming” of the performers. The phrase stuck.

Broadway celebrity Billy Rose further promoted synchronized swim performances in his wildly popular “Aquacade” which was staged at the World’s Fair in 1939. Five million people flooded New York’s 11,000-seat marine amphitheatre to watch the dramatic performances that combined dancing, swimming and water acrobatics–the same elements of modern synchronized swimming–and featured former Olympians including Gertrude Ederle and Johnny Weissmuller.

Swimmers in Billy Rose’s Aquacade, Golden Gate International Exposition, Treasure Island, 1940. (San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

Based on its success in New York, in 1940 Billy Rose’s Aquacade opened in San Francisco where Rose discovered California swimmer Esther Williams. Winner of three national swim championships (breaststroke and freestyle) Williams had earned a place on the 1940 U.S. Olympic team. When WWII preempted the Games, Rose persuaded Williams to join his Aquacade and she shifted from athletic swimmer to celebrity swimmer.

Esther Williams posed underwater circa 1948. Courtesy International Swimming Hall of Fame.

After seeing Williams in the Aquacade, MGM signed her to star in a series of swimming movies. Audiences flocked to theaters to see popular films in which Williams performed breathtaking dives and underwater acrobatic scenes. In 1952, she played the lead in the elaborate biopic musical film about Annette Kellerman’s life, Million Dollar Mermaid. More than any other person, Williams deserves credit for popularizing modern synchronized swimming in America.

Like today’s synchronized swimmers, the acrobatic moves Williams performed underwater required rigorous training, agility, and advanced skill. When executing a dive from a 50-ft tower during the filming of Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams broke her neck. She remained in a body cast for over six months before completing the film. But the press habitually downplayed her athleticism and emphasized her svelte figure and beauty. Williams became a favorite pinup girl, further cementing the link between swimming, beauty, and pageantry.

Do the elements of pageantry–having to coat your hair with gelatin, wear cosmetics, and smile–make synchronized swimming any easier? Of course not. In fact, having to maintain an ear-to-ear smile while pumping leg muscles vigorously must present an added challenge. Yet most people subscribe, consciously or not, to the bias that because the swimmers are smiling and look attractive, they are performing not competing in a sport.  The Olympic Games provides an opportunity, every four years, to rethink perceptions of what constitutes sport. The 2008 documentary, Sync or Swim, by filmmaker Cheryl Furjanic addresses some of those concerns as it traces a group of young women swimmers competing for spots on the 2004 U.S. synchronized swim team.

Disempowering the Powerful: Gender, Popularity and Profit

With arms slicing through water like hot blades through soft butter, Michael Phelps won the 100 m Butterfly on Day 7 of the Olympics. The swim earned him a 17th gold medal and 21 Olympic medals. This expanded the record he set a day prior when he became the first man to win the same individual medley (200 m) at three consecutive Olympics. He did it all wearing a Speedo.

The company may profit from Phelp’s gold—surely more than he will. Because of Rule 40, Speedo’s visibility is limited and Phelps, a world-record breaker, cannot capitalize on his achievement by endorsing products right away.

US Olympian Dawn Harper protesting restrictions against sponsorship at the Olympics. (Self-posted on Twitter)

During week one of the Games, several American athletes used social media to call attention to the rule. Tweeting with #WeDemandChange, athletes, including Sanya Richards-Ross and Dawn Harper, protested the unfairness of Rule 40. Some dramatized the protest by taking stark photos of themselves with mouths covered with duct tape on which they wrote “Rule 40.″

The photographs, implying as they do, that these athletes are hostages performing at the world’s most prestigious sporting event are unsettling. Women and African-Americans comprise a core of the most outspoken protesters. Why? The rule affects them disproportionately.

What’s the fuss about Rule 40? Established many years ago to prevent ambush marketing—any unofficial promotion—Rule 40 is an IOC by-law forbidding athletes from promoting personal sponsors 10 days before, during, and 3 days after the Olympics, unless those sponsors are official Olympic partners. http://www.london2012.com/mm/Document/Publications/General/01/25/29/32/rule-40-guidelines_Neutral.pdf
Official partners and supporters hold the potential to profit substantially thus sponsorship rights are extremely valuable. But athletes don’t reap the benefits generated by these partnerships—profits pay for the cost related to the Games themselves. Still, athletes are forbidden from endorsing the sponsors who support them during the Games.

In essence, during the Olympics, athletes are paid not in currency but in honor. That might not seem unfair, at first glance, but the training these athletes undertake for years before qualifying for the Olympics can be unfathomably expensive. Until they attract attention of a sponsor, they (and often their families and communities), foot the bills themselves. Rule 40 lacks uniformity; it affects athletes of smaller, less-revenue-generating sports—especially women’s sports and sports like swimming—far more than sports like basketball or baseball.

When interviewed, Peter Carlisle, who represents Michael Phelps, compared Rule 40 to bullying. Other agents have pointed out that, prior to the Olympics, swimwear manufacturers were required to significantly reduce their logos on swimsuit and caps—greatly reducing brand visibility and prompting them to question the return on their investment. In other more lucrative sports brand logos are more visible.
If sponsors for Phelps, a record-setting gold medal earner and media magnet, worry about the return on their investment, what hope do athletes in smaller sports have that draw less revenue? What impact does this have on women athletes?

Commercialization of sports is a key factor in the marginalization of women’s sports and the reason why some, like women’s beach volleyball, have relied on accentuating sex appeal to attract spectators.

After perusing Getty photos—a primary photo source for images of athletes, Nate Jones wrote the cheeky photo essay, “What if every Olympic sport was photographed like beach volleyball?”  The essay pokes fun at the unquestionably sexist professional sports photos of women’s beach volleyball players by following a selection of those photos with pictures male athletes cropped to mimic the photos of women volleyball players. The essay underscores the trivialization of women athletes’ bodies. Presented as faceless torsos wearing bikini bottoms—sometimes labeled  “unidentified athlete”—their bodies become eroticized objects for viewers to visually consume. http://www.metro.us/newyork/sports/article/1148979–what-if-every-olympic-sport-was-photographed-like-beach-volleyball

Wearing bikinis—which until this year were the sport’s mandatory uniform—downplays the athleticism of these women, presents them as objects for consumption and obscures the hard training they undertake. Yet, if athletes don’t concede to sponsors who seek to generate profit by presenting them as objects first, and athletes second, they risk losing financial backing.

Men in sports that generate less revenue face a similar issue. Before the 2008 Olympics, Speedo used Phelps to promote its swimsuit Fastskin Pro. Mimicking the quick pace and flashing lights of a dance club, the minimalist, artistic commercials presented brief flashes of Phelp’s body to the beat of dance music.

The provocative ad appealed to both men and women–judging from comments left on various sites–exactly what any brand would hope. On the one hand, the glimpses of Phelps are awe-inspiring, celebrating his impressive physical body. On the other hand, sexuality seeps through the commercial as quick flashes of Phelps’s streamlined body are timed perfectly with the lyrics, “Hold me back, ‘Cuz I’m about to blow.” The ad is incredibly effective, treading the line between showcasing the human body as a work of art and presenting it as a sexually-charged object.

Today, some athletes are affected by measures, like Rule 40, which are meant to protect against blatant commercialization but in effect actually disempower them to capitalize at their most profitable time. What choice do they have but to acquiesce to being treated like objects if that will generate revenue?

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”