Australian swimmer Leisel Jones qualified for her first Olympics when she was fourteen years old. Fourteen. She was in ninth grade. She was a phenom, a prodigy, and she won two silver medals at those Games. She now has three Olympic golds, four Olympic silvers, and a bronze medal just for funsies.
She also owns a few world records. Now, at twenty-six, she’s qualified for her fourth Olympics, the most of any Australian swimmer in Olympic history. She’s arguably one of the best women breaststrokers the world has ever seen.
LET’S ALL TALK ABOUT HOW FAT SHE IS.
Sure, we could talk about her London medal chances, or about how much she’s matured since she was thrust into the limelight when most girls her age were busy picking their favourite Backstreet Boy. We could talk about how hard the life of an Olympic swimmer is, and what an enormous level of commitment it takes to qualify for the Olympics a record four times. Instead, we’re talking about her weight, thanks to Melbourne’s Herald Sun, which decided to publish “then and now” photos suggesting that Jones has gained weight.
Luckily, lots of her teammates have come to her defence, saying that her weight is unchanged, or that it’s fine just the way it is. And people outside the swimming community – other athletes, feminists, mental health advocates, and so on – are rightfully pissed at the Herald Sun’s move.
The Olympics are such a remarkable time for so many reasons. They’re remarkable because for a few short weeks, we put aside politics, or at least pretend to while we express our political animosities and anxieties in different ways. They’re remarkable because every Games, something happens to inspire and awe us: Kerri Strug, Eric Moussambani, the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team. And they’re remarkable because they give us moments like this: powerful reminders that sexism doesn’t suddenly evaporate because we’re all feeling warm and fuzzy and inspired and united by the spirit of competition and all that jazz.
What’s happening to Leisel Jones right now is an important reminder that no matter how accomplished a woman is, no matter how talented, how skilled, how strong, how tenacious, how gutsy, she is not exempt from the rules of modern femininity. Not even during the Olympic Games. She has to be skinny and beautiful before she can be recognized for being any of those other things, and if she isn’t skinny and beautiful, we’ll ignore her guts and tenacity and talent and dedication and waste our time debating whether or not she’s gained weight during the twelve years she’s been in the public eye.
What I’m saying is, the Olympic Games are a remarkable period during which we like to tell ourselves it is not business as usual. And in some ways, I suppose, it isn’t. But this is not one of them. If you’re a woman Olympian, it is entirely business as usual: you’re a sexual object first, and an athlete second. Thanks to the Herald Sun for reminding us of that before any of us gets too swept up in Olympic fever and imagines for a moment that we can suspend sexism for a few short weeks in August.
h/t Claire, the aforementioned sister tipster, herself a gutsy and tenacious swimmer