Sports, sexism and sparing our lady parts

This week, Sports Illustrated ran an article about sexism in Olympic sports, using the example of ski jumper Lindsey Van, whose sport, despite her best efforts, is not yet allowed in the Olympics. At least, not for women. This year, men’s ski jumping was an Olympic event, but women’s ski jumping is yet to be recognized by the International Olympic Committee, and like Van, the author of the story believes that its exclusion is a result of sexism on the part of the IOC.
Van is the 2009 women’s world champion in the sport, and as Rachel Maddow has noted in her coverage of this issue, she holds the world record – not just the women’s record, but the world record -in one of the events. In fact, as Maddow pointed out, Van set that world record on the very hill that was used for the Olympic competition in Vancouver last week.
Both Maddow and Phil Taylor, the author of the SI article, suspect that sexism is at play in the decision not to make women’s ski-jumping an Olympic sport, and it’s hard not to agree with that assessment when members of the International Ski Federation say things like, “Don’t forget, it’s like jumping down from, let’s say, about two meters on the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” Two meters? That’s 78.7401inches! A thousand times a year? My ovaries are running away in fright at the very thought!

The Canadian courts sided with Van and the other jumpers who filed a suit against the Vancouver Organizing Committee, but as Community blogger Honeybee noted earlier, the Canadian courts don’t have the authority to order the IOC to change their decision.
Sadly, the situation with women’s ski-jumping is just one example of sexism at work in women’s sport. Taylor puts it beautifully in the SI article:
“Sexism isn’t confined to any sport or country. It’s a universal language, spoken not so much with words as with action, or the lack of it. Female hockey players from many of the European countries competing in the Olympics, for instance, have seen their national federations’ lopsided spending on the men’s programs as a loud and clear message that they are considered mere afterthoughts. In Russia, where hockey is the national pastime, the women couldn’t begin practicing until three weeks before the Games because of budget constraints.”
And of course, it’s not only in Russia that women’s ice hockey gets the short end of the stick; this seems to occur on an international level, too. At Global Comment, Sarah Jaffe observed that she had “heard almost no discussion of women’s ice hockey… The women’s games seem to be held at times that won’t ‘interfere’ with the men’s tournament or other events that need the ice.” It hardly bears mentioning, of course, that the shunting aside of women’s professional sports doesn’t just happen every four years – it’s a year-round phenomenon, especially here in the US.
It’s important to make the distinction, as Jaffe does, between individual sports and team sports. “Think of women athletes you’ve seen on TV recently,” she writes. “Chances are most of them are individuals,” offering Serena Williams as an example. Even when we are presented with women’s sports teams, they’re either sexed up, to minimize their deviance from traditional femininity, or, as Jaffe notes, we’re encouraged to focus our attentions on one or two especially photogenic team members, like Mia Hamm.
In response to our lack of national support for women’s pro sports, and women’s team sports, especially, Veronica Arreola of Viva La Feminista is encouraging people to take this simple pledge: “I pledge to attend one women’s sports event in 2010.” It can be a college game or a pro game, it doesn’t matter – the point is to show your support, with your presence and with your cash, since lack of spectators and lack of money are two common explanations given for the middling success of women’s pro sports in this country. There’s even a Facebook group you can join. It’s so easy, and if you’ve ever played competitive sports, you know how great it feels to have a crowd cheering you on. So go buy one ticket. Go to just one game. And be one more yelling, screaming, women’s sports-supporting person in the crowd. You can even wear facepaint if you really, really want to.

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  1. PS
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Um, well sports , particularly the Olympics and commities, enforce sex segregated activities and reify gender norms for both men and women.
    And really, should Sports Illustrated really be the publication talking about sexism and sports?? The magazine which is most well known for annually featuring dozans of female models in their “swimsuit” edition..? i think not.
    good work and well done highlighting the important issues, but i’m still a little peeved to see SI of all publications featuring “sexism in sports” , talk about mixed messages.

  2. oxygengrrl
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think Lindsay Van holds that record any longer. I believe the men’s gold medalist surpassed it. Of course, given the chance, Van or one of the other women could have surpassed his new record, but as things stand, they won’t get to do it at the Olympics.

  3. Becca Stareyes
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Most of the university sports here are free to grad students, so the women’s teams are already getting my money (from student fees). But they can get my attention, too.

  4. Becca Stareyes
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Um, well sports , particularly the Olympics and commities, enforce sex segregated activities and reify gender norms for both men and women.

    To be fair, some of that would probably exist in a theoretically gender-neutral society, based on something similar to weight classes in wrestling or weightlifting. Maybe in a modified form, based on a different parameter than sex that only meant statistically some classes were more women-dominated and some were more man-dominated.
    I don’t know what — something to correct for the fact men and women have physical differences (on average), so that, say, any sport requiring upper-body strength would not become totally dominated by men, but would still be interesting to watch and competitive.

  5. Steveo
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    The comment quoted from Sarah Jaffe about the woman’s ice hockey being held at different times is completely and utterly false.
    The start times were the same for both the men’s and women’s round robin games, but there were not any of the 8:00pm pacific starts because the women’s tournament had 8 teams instead of 12. And, in Canada, our women’s team’s games were always at the dinner hour (well, dinner hour for the eastern time zone) and always televised nationally, on the same station that the men’s hockey was.

  6. Honeybee
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    This was a big deal in Canada for awhile because the case went to the supreme court to decide if women ski jumpers should be included. The court in the end ruled that it’s outside of their jurisdiction, that the IOC sets the rules, and that they have no legal means to force the IOC to do anything.
    But at the time the argument the IOC was using against it was that there were not enough female athletes and countries with female athletes who compete in the sport to justify an olympic event. I have NO IDEA if this is accurate or not but would be really interested to see some stats on this.
    Thanks for posting this.

  7. supremepizza
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    It would’ve been nice to see women’s ski jump featured in Vancouver. Its unfortunate that Canada’s Supreme Court didn’t have the spine to force the issue on the IOC. In fact, given that the distances jumped by women are so consistent with those jumped by men, they could even have 1 big event…a 2010 Battle of the Sexes as it were…but, nah, why make the guys feel inferior??? Seriously, crazy…

  8. LSG
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Then there would no doubt have been lots of protests about how it’s unfair to the men because women are naturally smaller and lighter.

  9. Mike Crichton
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    I’m assuming that women are actually restricted from competing in the mens’ events. Wouldn’t it be a better strategy to demand that they be allowed to do so, at least if there isn’t an equivalent womens’ event?

  10. Attagrrrl
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    “Don’t forget, it’s like jumping down from, let’s say, about two meters on the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”
    Did someone actually say this? In the 21st century? I mean, I can see them using some other BS reasons for not allowing the sport for women, but … someone in authority really said that?

  11. Comrade Kevin
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I have absolutely no objections to women’s sports, but I suppose like lots of people it just wasn’t something that anyone around me really cared about so I never incorporated it into my own life.
    As much as a groundswell of support would be nice, I wonder if there could be a way to introduce women’s sports to grow an audience without resorting to the same old tired tricks of seeking to appeal to the libidos of men.

  12. Posted March 5, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    I don’t actually agree with this notion that sex segregated sports and activities highlighting and requiring physical activity and skill are in place because men and women are “have physical differences “. For example, men and men have physical differences and women and women have physical differences. There are some men that are not of the physical stature to be football linemen, just as there are women who are and are not of the physical stature to be football linemen. Likewise, there are women who are of the physical stature to be olympic gymnasts and there are women who are not.
    Somehow our society have deemed women physically incapable to compete against men in sports and although they are allowed to be athletes thanks to things like TitleIX , there is the continued notion that female athletes are not as “good” as men based on some “scientific fact that men and women are physically different”.
    So fine, we’ll just assume for the sake of argument that men may have historically greater, on average, upper body strength than women but this still doesnt mean that women and men can’t compete in the same sport, either in all women class or all male class or even * gasP * against eachother in a non segregated activity.
    Case in point, Lyndsay Von is clearly physically equal and able to perform the same functions that men are required in order to compete in the ski jump, yet women aren’t allowed to compete.
    It isn’t a matter of physical differece, it’s a matter of social norms that clearly still prevail.

  13. R. Dave
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    That’s true, actually, but there’s already an existing rule in ski-jumping that accounts for differences in bodyweight. If you’re below a certain minimum weight, your ski length is reduced (which worsens your aerodynamic profile) to compensate. Of course, if women and men compete in the same field, the question of what the minimum weigh should be will inevitably come up.
    And that’s why I think separate gender categories make sense in some sports, but not in others. There are times when average and maximum physical characteristics strongly influence the outcome of a competition, and times when they don’t. There’s no reason to have gendered curling, for instance, but gendered weightlifting is obviously necessary if you want any women to have a shot at a medal in that sport.
    Sports like hockey, soccer, etc. are a tougher call, though, since raw size/strength/speed are important, but so are skill, finesse, dexterity, etc., so it’s hard to predict how the best female players would fare in a mixed-gender competition at the Olympic level.

  14. Steveo
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Sophia, I have to respectfully disagree that the differences are just notions. You can look at track and field for an example. In the 100m sprint the top men in the world consistently run in under 10s. The top women run it in under 11s. The world records between the men and women are almost a full second apart. The results in men’s vs women’s in track and field are similarly different. If we through everyone together then the women would never get to compete at all.
    If you want to look at team sports, (or at least hockey) the top women in the world can not compete with men. Hailey Wickenheiser has played professionally with men, but she played in the third highest divisions in the European leagues she played in. The Canadian Women’s national hockey team played against 16-18 year old boys hockey teams to train for the Olympics, where they were relatively even.
    Under your idea of having sports gender neutral, the reality is at most only a handful of the most amazing female athletes would get to compete, and over all it would be a blow to women participating in sports.
    I feel that women should be allowed to compete against the men if they are good enough. There will be some, but on average they won’t be able to compete. And since, top level athletes fall into the larger topic of people participating in sport, there should be more opportunities for everyone, and gender neutral sports will not facilitate this.
    There are clear biological differences in size and strength between men and women (on average) and they are still, in general reflected in high level sports.

  15. DAS
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    This confused me too. If anything, aren’t man-parts more fragile than lady-parts? For example, my daughter went through a stage where she liked to climb over people with little regard for where she stuck her feet as she climbed. My wife survived that stage just fine, but I regularly ended up in grave pain (with an ice pack) depending on where my daughter inadvertently stuck her feet.

  16. oxygengrrl
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    The Canadian women’s hockey team, like almost all of the women’s hockey teams at the Olympics, were composed of college players, still in college. The men’s teams, by contrast were professionals. That’s because there are multiple men’s professional leagues and it was decided they could play in the Olympics (even if the NHL is thinking of not taking part next time around). So, duh, there’s a capability differential that’s huge. But it’s not entirely about gender; it’s about experience, time to devote to the sport, and, hugely important, funding. Could a women’s team beat a men’s team of similar experience? Dunno. But we’re nowhere near having the evidence to know.
    That said, I believe I heard in the coverage that the Slovak women’s goalie filled in for her male counterparts in some of the practices.

  17. oxygengrrl
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    oh, and before we go back to the old “men are, on average, just bigger than women, etc. etc. so we do too know that a men’s team would always beat a women’s team,” I submit two things: 1) averages aren’t everyone, and hockey can certainly select for the bulkier amongst us and 2) women’s sports is so undersupported and has been for so long, and yet in sports that are getting the funding, such as running, women are closing the gap with men.

  18. oxygengrrl
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Ya know, it’s sexism that has kept you from paying attention to women’s sports, and it’s sexism that keeps people thinking that sexualizing the players to appeal to hetero men is what will make it sell. The way to grow the audience is to diminish sexism. And in the meantime, it would help if feminists and allies recognized that it’s sexism keeping them from watching and following the sports.
    You want to see a good game? Women’s sports can provide some very good games. Even some of the less lopsided women’s hockey games in the Olympics this year were good games. Women’s football (soccer hereabouts) has provided the world some awesome games. Women’s basketball, too. The point is to pay attention, even if ESPN isn’t helping. In this case, YOU, the audience, are the affirmative action program.

  19. Sex Toy James
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    I think that it’s very constructive of a softcore porn magazine like Sports Illustrated to take on a serious issue like sexism. I don’t imagine that they have an audience who routinely considers things like that, so I’m glad to see them standing up and showing their readership where sexism is blatantly a problem. I’m heartened rather than peeved.

  20. Steveo
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    To your comment about experience. You are still mistaken. Plenty of the women’s players are college players, correct. But you didn’t address the point that they played boys hockey teams to get prepared. ( 15-18 year old Midget AAA are not even the top level of competition at that age group. The top level boys are playing in the Canadian Hockey League starting at 16. And with experience, most of the women grew up playing on boys hockey teams until around the age of 14. They have the same level of experience in general as men of comparable ages.
    Also, like I mentioned before, Hayley Wickenheiser, who is generally regarded as the best female player in the world can not compete with the best male players. (
    And since you seem to not like the hockey comparison because of experience, please discuss the differences in track and field results. Female track and field receives excellent coaching, training and the athletes get lots of experience! I think women should have the same opportunity as men to participate in sports, but the evidence suggests that there is a difference in abilities.
    I just re-read your second part that “averages aren’t everyone”. I understand that, and if you reread my post you will see that I said that women should be allowed to compete against men, because there will be some that can, but it will be the exception, not the rule. And because of that it is good that there are men’s and women’s sports.

  21. PS
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    well said , i couldn’t have responded any better.

  22. Attagrrrl
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Seriously, guys need a cup when dealing with children. :)
    I looked up the quote and apparently it was said in 2005 by International Ski Federation president Gian-Franco Kasper. I guess he must think “ladies” are in a constant state of pregnancy? I also googled him to see if he was like 112 years old in 2005, but no, only 61.

  23. kandela
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    1) It’s not the averages that are important when we are talking about elite competition, it’s the tail of the distribution. With equal training, this is where biological differences are most pronounced.
    If we think about sprinting, I would humbly submit that the differences between men and women, even with equal training and development, are greater than between white men and black men. Yet, the last white male sprinter to win an Olympic gold medal in a 100m final was 1980. In fact, that was the last time a white male athlete made an Olympic 100m final.
    2) What you are seeing is referred to as The Law of Diminishing Returns: the advances made reduce with increased effort.
    You are right to suggest that lack of development means that we much less know the full athletic potential of women than we do of men. Better training and an improved athletic tradition mean that women are catching up, but that doesn’t mean they will catch the men. We can’t fit a straight line to men’s and women’s 100m times and extrapolate to find out when women will out-run men, it doesn’t work that way.
    Men have a biological advantage in some sports. Women have an advantage in others (long distance swimming, free diving), though not as many. And in others they compete on a nearly even footing (motor racing, equestrian events).
    At the elite level I like the idea of having open competition, but in many sports categories for each sex are necessary to encourage more people to pursue sports they might enjoy. After all, just because you can’t be the best at something doesn’t mean you can’t be good at it nor that you won’t enjoy it.

  24. cattrack2
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, back in the Dark Ages when I was in high school I remember being shocked that the times of our boys’ high school sprinters were neck & neck with those of Olympian female sprinters. Conversely, the difference between the high school boys’ times and the Olympic mens’ times were vast. In the many years since that I’ve followed track & field this has remained consistent. If you take a look at 400m sprint times for instance, the times of the best women to ever run the event are in the same range as the merely above average high school boy runners( ).
    Since female Olympians are training at a much higher level of discipline, intensity, and rigor than high school boys runners, you can only ascribe this to differences in musco-skeletal structure. This is not a blow to women; just an acknowledgement of bio-physics.

  25. Evelyn
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    By Gian-Franco Kasper’s logic, no women should ever participate in high-impact sports. “From a medical point of view,” women’s gymnastics should be banned for eternity!
    As a side note: after a 14-year-long gymnastics career, my ovaries are doing a-ok.

  26. loshc
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    “The way to grow the audience is to diminish sexism.”
    I am not saying this is necessarily wrong, but where is the evidence to support it? Tennis, the only professional sport where purse money, TV ratings and attendance at events is nearly equal between the sexes, flies in the face of what you’re saying.
    Where is the example of a sport where diminishing sexism has increased the audience?

  27. Sex Toy James
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Usually I’m skeptical of things getting labeled sexism or patriarchy on here, but I think that you might be right. The question is, why do people watch sports? A lot of people associate themselves with “their” sports teams. They derive self esteem from the victories of “their” teams or the people that they are fans of. If they can’t identify with women then they can’t attach the same kind of fandom to female athletes. If they see there as being an us/them line between men and women then they could be less likely to associate themselves with them. Those us/them lines are really hard to overcome if you can get people to identify them in the first place. They’re so often taken for granted and reinforced.
    I’m still not going to watch women’s sports, but I don’t tend to watch men’s sports either. I will however sing both the male and female parts of duets while driving in the car.

  28. jdv1984
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with law, but I have to respectfully disagree that it’s a matter of the SCC not having the spine. The fact of the matter is that one of the first issues a court must look to is jurisdiction. If the court doesn’t have jurisdiction, it can’t enforce anything, period. If it were the Canadian Olympic Committee that was refusing to let their women compete in the event, the court could have done something, but it can’t interfere in the operations of an international body.

  29. veronica
    Posted March 5, 2010 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for highlighting the campaign!
    For those of you who haven’t grown up going to sporting events, let me tell you a little secret…there’s a lot more socializing that happens than you think. Outside of Chicago Cubs games, I like to attend sportings event with non-sports folks. I love chatting about the game or just using sports as entertainment, a gathering place.
    For those of kids (moms, dads, aunties, etc.) women sporting events are usually way family friendly. I think it’s the cost that helps.
    I also have this pipe dream that if we support women’s sports because they are athletes, we might get to see women’s sports marketed without all the sexiness we see now. Ya know what I mean?
    OK, I’m done! See ya at Facebook.

  30. MsM
    Posted March 6, 2010 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    It might be, but it would be nice if the IOC would be consistent in applying that argument. Ski cross was added despite being a very young sport. I can’t image there were that many professional ski cross athletes before the Games. But now, because of the addition, it will grow in importance and popularity, and probably funding.
    World wide appeal is won by competing in the public eye. It’s a vicious cycle, and the IOC is 100% responsible for willingly not breaking the cycle for female ski jumpers.
    I’m of the opinion that any Olympic sport should be Olympic for all. That is fair play too.

  31. MsM
    Posted March 6, 2010 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    “Don’t forget, it’s sitting on a small hard surface, squashing the reproductive organs, for let’s say, hours on end almost daily. That doesn’t seem appropriate for males from a medical point of view.”
    Gian-Franco Kasper’s argument against cycling for men.

  32. Honeybee
    Posted March 6, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    But we are talking about elite athletes here. If the best woman in the world, with the best training ever, can excel well beyond the average woman, then so can the best trained, best physically fit man excel way beyond the average man. So we aren’t comparing averages to elites, we’re comparing elites to elites.
    I think it’s a huge insult to women and sports and feminism to try and argue against biological facts like physical differences. This is exactly why people think feminism is irrelevant. Anyone versed in sports and physical strength knows that in most sports if you put the men and women together you will get zero or almost zero participation from women. And doing this will only lead more women to become discouraged which will only weaken their abilities even more.

  33. Honeybee
    Posted March 6, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Ok I take offense to the shot at the supreme court. Fact is – it’s not the court’s fault. They have stated quite clearly that they simply don’t have the jurisdiction to force the IOC on this issue. The IOC is an international body not bound by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The supreme court has no power to change regardless of if they want to.
    The anger here should not be directed at the court but at the IOC. Thank the court that they even agreed to hear the case in the first place.

  34. supremepizza
    Posted March 6, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Well, I’m American, so yes I’m familiar with the basis of the Canadian Supreme Court’s decision. From a US perspective, tho, its inconceivable that the US Supreme Court would rule that the IOC was immune to US law while operating within our borders. We’ve extended US law to include US companies operating in foreign countries even. Hence, why I think this is more a question of spine (and commitment to anti-discrimination law). People have to stand up to end discrimination. In the US, sure, we had a 100 years of ‘separate but equal’ Supreme Court precedent before the the Justices overturned it. The Warner Court certainly could have hidden behind precedent, but it didn’t. I would have liked the Canadian Court to do the same. After all, whats to stop them?

  35. timothy_nakayama
    Posted March 7, 2010 at 2:45 am | Permalink

    I think as a society, no one really cares about men getting their genitals hurt. Usually, videos of men getting their genitals hurt are met with laughter or a smile, ie. America’s Funniest Home Video style.
    Heck, a man getting his penis caught in his zipper made the whole theater laugh when it happened in There’s Something About Mary.

  36. timothy_nakayama
    Posted March 7, 2010 at 2:49 am | Permalink

    I think as a society, no one really cares about men getting their genitals hurt. Usually, videos of men getting their genitals hurt are met with laughter or a smile, ie. America’s Funniest Home Video style.
    Heck, a man getting his penis caught in his zipper made the whole theater laugh when it happened in There’s Something About Mary.

  37. PatriarchySlayer
    Posted March 7, 2010 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    My male sports-inclined friends have always said that women’s sports just aren’t as exciting as the men’s. I wonder sometimes if they see these women as athletes. I think that is part of the issue. And coming back to that whole portrayal of our female athletes (cough, Sports Illustrated) as sexual objects…I don’t think that helps the cause at all.

  38. Toongrrl
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    You know you are a sexist when SPORTS ILLUSTRATED points out your sexism

  39. aznemesis
    Posted March 10, 2010 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    The imposition of U.S. law on U.S. companies operating overseas has to do with where those companies are headquartered. That is an entirely different question than this Olympic issue with the Canadian Supreme Court. After all, I haven’t seen the US Supreme Court stand up and take on the IOC, despite the fact that we have either the Summer or the Winter Olympics in the U.S. at least once every 12 years or so (and far more often than Canada does). When the U.S. government takes a stand, maybe we can start pointing fingers at others, huh?

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