Laurie Toby Edison

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Gender and the Olympics: Some Retrospective Comments

Laurie and Debbie say:

The Olympics (summer and winter) are, of course, gender-essentialist events, with virtually every sport and competition being men-only or women-only. And yes, there are some good reasons for sports events to be gendered, though the truths of different abilities are a lot more subtle and complex than they are generally presented … and of course, not everyone is straightforwardly male or female.

At the same time, the Olympics are special to young people who either are or want to be athletes: a chance to project yourself into that gold medal winner who might be from your country, or look like you, or be winning in a sport you’re good at, or just be someone you can imagine being.

In the Vancouver Olympics, two things happened outside of the actual competitions, both of which underscore the insidious effects of judging people’s behavior by their gender … and both of which brought out really strong responses from athletes.

Johnny Weir at the Vancouver Olympics

Johnny Weir, a U.S. figure skater, is known for his fabulous routines and gender transgressive presentation. After he skated in Vancouver, a couple of Francophone sportscasters made fun of his routines and questioned his gender. Weir responded brilliantly:

He’s not asking for an apology. He says he believes in free speech and wouldn’t want these men fired for expressing their opinion. (“I’ve heard worse in bathrooms and whatnot about me,” he quipped.) He just wants them to think before they speak — and to imagine the damage they could do to people like him and to generations of children whose parents may not give them the same freedom and support his did if they think their child will only be ridiculed for being who he or she is. “I would challenge anyone to question my upbringing and question my parents’ ideals and feelings about bringing up me and my brother, who’s completely different from me but taught very much the same way that I was,” Weir said.

He also said that only his closest intimates know what makes him tick … and it’s no one else’s business.

Special kudos to Weir for saying he doesn’t want an apology: the apology is due to the dreaming kids who were hurt by the sportscaster remarks.

Elsewhere in the Olympics, the Canadian women’s hockey team came in for some criticism after their exciting gold-medal win against the U.S. team. In the grand tradition of sports success everywhere, they had a celebration: beer, champagne, and cigars. They chose to celebrate on the ice they won on.

Canadian women hockey players celebrate

Apparently, one slightly underage team member had some champagne. (The horror!) The International Olympic Committee originally said it would “investigate their behaviour,” but eventually decided to leave the issue alone.

Captain Hayley Wickenheiser said … there was a double standard at work.

Wickenheiser said if it were a men’s team, there wouldn’t be a hint of controversy.

“I don’t brush it off, the underage [part] and being on the ice,” said Wickenheiser. “Those things maybe could have been done different. But at the same time, it’s celebrating, it’s hockey, it’s a tradition we do. When we see a Stanley Cup winner, we see them spraying champagne all over the dressing room, you see 18-year-old kids there and nobody says a thing.”

Wickenheiser didn’t specifically reference the girls watching at home and imagining their own victories, but those girls are still part of the story.

Both of these events have received a lot of coverage, but we haven’t seen anybody putting them together. Despite the huge forces out there who want men to behave “like men” and women “like women,” and will work hard to enforce gender policing, the Johnny Weirs and Hayley Wickenheisers are getting more power and more voice. And that is the best thing that can happen for children with dreams.

2 Responses to “Gender and the Olympics: Some Retrospective Comments”

  1. liz Says:

    Thanks for the Johnny Weir tip! We just watched a bunch of videos of him and M. totally adored the swan one!

  2. aquaeri Says:

    There was another significant gendered event sort-of associated with the Vancouver Olympics – but it was the fact that it didn’t happen at the Olympics that makes it noteworthy, in my opinion.

    Women do not have an Olympic ski jumping competition. Nevertheless, the record on one of the ski jumps built for the Olympics was held by a woman, Lindsay Van. She would, of course, have liked to have participated in the Olympics.

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