Tag Archives: sports

Serena Williams: The Change

Laurie says:

This blog is a huge fan of the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, as athletes and as world changers. I saw Serena winning the US Open and then found this poem in a post on A Philosopher’s Life.



The Change by Tony Hoagland

The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.
In the park the daffodils came up
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.

Sometimes I think that nothing really changes –

The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
and the new president proves that he’s a dummy.

but remember the tennis match we watched that year?
Right before our eyes

some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite –

We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,

putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,

and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
and I,
I couldn’t help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,
because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips

and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
so unintimidated,

hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,
like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.

There are moments when history
passes you so close
you can smell its breath,
you can reach your hand out
and touch it on its flank,

and I don’t watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre,
but I could feel the end of an era there

in front of those bleachers full of people
in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes

as that black girl wore down her opponent
then kicked her ass good
then thumped her once more for good measure

and stood up on the red clay court
holding her racket over her head like a guitar.

And the little pink judge
had to climb up on a box
to put the ribbon on her neck,
still managing to smile into the camera flash,
even though everything was changing

and in fact, everything had already changed –

Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,

and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.

from What Narcissism Means to Me © Graywolf Press.

Disabled Bodies in Able-Bodied Contexts

Laurie and Debbie say:

Sarah Wanenchak, guest-posting for Sociological Images, did a fascinating post on “Disabled Bodies and Ableist Acceptance”. Wanenchak uses runners Aimee Mullins


Aimee Mullins on her hands and prostheses


and Oscar Pistorius



Mullins and Pistorius present interesting examples. They are both known for being both accomplished athletes and for being physically attractive – Mullins has done modeling work. They present inspiring stories that have generated a fair amount of sports media coverage. And yet things have not been altogether smooth – there has been some controversy regarding the degree to which the carbon fiber prostheses they use for running confer any form of advantage on the runners who use them. Questions over the effect of the prostheses have threatened Pistorius’s bids to compete in the Olympics alongside able-bodied athletes.

I think the combination of positive and negative reactions is worth noting, in light of [Fiona Kumari] Campbell’s writing on culture and disability. Mullins and Pistorius are admired for “overcoming” a perceived disability, and this admiration feels especially safe for people embedded in able-bodied culture because they are conventionally attractive in every other respect. But this is a story with which we only feel comfortable provided that it doesn’t present any kind of threat to our conventional categories of abled and disabled bodies. It is unacceptable for a disabled body to be better at what it does than an abled body. It is even slightly uncomfortable when a disabled body manages to be “just as good”.

We also blogged about Pistorius back in 2007, when we said:

We’re guessing that he won’t be allowed to run all the way to the Olympics, because athletes with “perfect bodies” are terrified being shown up by someone whose natural body is imperfect, and whose prosthetics make him cybernetic.

If the trend to keep visible disabilities as normalcy continues, converting them into assets is an inevitable result. … And if someone competing against Oscar Pistorius needs medication to have the courage to leave the house, and then runs like the wind, would anyone say that he was relying on “something that provides advantages”?

Underlying both Wanenchak’s post and our old one is the cultural conviction that the only way to react to disability is with pity. No one wants to be pitied, but many people are comfortable having others to pity. And it’s easy, if you haven’t thought it out, to pity someone in a wheelchair, or someone who walks tapping her way with a white cane. It’s much more complicated to think about that wheelchair, or that cane as something that opens up the person’s life … and would open it up much more if buildings and streets were more accommodating to a variety of needs. It’s not only complicated, but potentially deeply disturbing, to think about high-tech prostheses, maximized for the needs of a particular person with particular skills at a particular time in his or her life, to think that a “disabled” person perhaps has something that works better than what “normal people” are issued with.

As Wanenchak is deeply aware, many athletic enhancements don’t make people nervous. She talks about skater Johnny Ohno, who is

“as able-bodied as one can get. But … he manages this on the back of technology – on specially designed skates, in special aerodynamic suits, with the help of carefully balanced exercise and nutrition plans; almost no athlete is really “natural” anymore. But at least in part because of the closeness of his body to an able-bodied ideal, this presents no explicit threat to our categories. Ohno fits the accepted model of “human.”

You can say the same of any world-class athlete. The distinction seems to be between what we perceive as “compensations”–replacements for body parts that don’t work or aren’t there–and what we perceive as “enhancements,” physical aids or practices that we put on top of what is “supposed to be there.” Ohno skates on the legs he was born with, in his special skates, in his special suit. Mullins and Pistorius run on legs they weren’t born with, and manage to be successful, conventionally attractive, and enviable. Since we don’t have any cultural slots open for disabled, successful, conventionally attractive, and enviable, people get confused, disturbed, and sometimes threatened.