There’s a really good discussion going on over at Claudia La Rocco’s The Culturist about the Olympic coverage — people are even likening it to porn!
I couldn’t help get off on a tangent about male versus female gymnastics. During the last Olympics I remember going out to dinner with a group of my feminist friends and they were bemoaning how women’s sports are taken so unseriously by the public, giving as an example the prominence of the ‘silly’ ‘girl-child’ sport of female gymnastics over the more ‘real’ sports of women’s softball, etc. — the team sports. I thought the criticism was so unfair given how incredibly hard those gymnasts work, and I couldn’t understand how anyone couldn’t be in absolute awe of them as they did those impossible-looking tumbling passes and balance beam maneouvers and flying-through-the-air vaults. On the other hand, I’d played girls softball when I was young and felt there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do that the women players were doing without practice. So, why were they privileging team sports — so popular in men’s athletics — over individual sports, which women tend toward?
These friends were all lawyers and feminist legal scholars and I thought it was in large part my love of ballet and dance that made me at odds with them over this, so when I read Claudia (NYTimes dance critic, if you don’t know her) liken the female gymnasts to Jean Benet Ramsey, I thought, oh no!
After watching the women’s gymnastics last night in comparison to the men’s the night before, I did see a difference. The men do tend to be older (20-25), the women younger (16-20). And of course for anyone who watched last night, there seems to be a controversy over the actual ages of the Chinese female gymnasts. The cut-off age is 16 in the Olympic year (so you can be 15 now as long as you turn 16 by December 31, 2008), but no younger, and Bela Karolyi, among others, is questioning that some of those Chinese girls are that old. They did look quite young, but Asians are generally smaller-boned than Caucasians, and, as commenter Meg on Claudia’s blog pointed out, intense athletic training can delay the onset of puberty.
Of course the issue with the delayed onset of puberty caused by intense athletic training (which I hadn’t thought of) is an issue in itself. I’d think that’d be the case with any sport though, including Ballet. Maybe that’s one reason why ballerinas tend to be so thin, and not anorexia… And of course you don’t want to discourage female athleticism; wouldn’t that be sexist if you didn’t say the same for males? Does intense athleticism delay puberty for males though?…
And why favor female athletes so young anyway? Because they’re smaller and won’t go out of bounds on the tumbling passes? Because smaller bodies can tumble higher and get around those uneven bars at more astounding speeds, without fear of hitting the floor? Because as Karolyi said last night, youth doesn’t have as much fear of failure? Why isn’t all this the same for the men then?
The Chinese girls did seem to have more makeup on than the Americans, and they did seem to be jutting their hips and pelvises out and making poses on the floor that we might deem too sexy for their young-looking ages. But Jolene pointed out that that may be a cultural bias, and I agree. I went to an African dance performance with a Ballet friend the other night and she couldn’t stop laughing embarrasingly at the hip and pelvic movement; she’d never seen African before and didn’t know what to make of it, other than laugh at it and feel embarrassment for the dancers. Maybe their style just isn’t something we’re used to. Jolene also pointed out that the makeup seems to be an American thing, and I agree. I rarely see Asian women wearing that harsh bright aqua eyeshadow, yet that was a real fashion statement here in prior decades. They know they’re on TV, the Olympics are heavily dominated by the American press, and they’re trying to be like us. Ironically, it’s backfiring.
Finally, we’re also hearing all these stories about how awful the Chinese are to their children — forcing them into the sport, making them stay away from their families when the little girls really just want to come home, in comparison to the American stories, where the families always insist they’ve let their children decide how much dedication they wanted to give to their sport. Let’s just keep in mind that we’re hearing this all from the perspective of the American press. They assume we’ll feel better about ourselves, about our losing gold medals to the Chinese if we believe our society is so much more just. Not that I don’t believe in being critical at all of other governments; I didn’t have time to write about it, but I attended a reading organized by the PEN American Center of works by imprisoned Chinese dissident writers on the night before the Olympics began. But let’s just remember that our press exercises its own form of propaganda.
Okay, I’m done blabbering! Have a look at Claudia’s post and the responses.