The Olympics have long been an old-boys club, with women taking decades to achieve a measure of equality with their male counterparts. Despite progress, a sexist double standard is still alive and well as illustrated by swimming and beach volleyball.
In swimming, a stir has been created in Australia (where the sport rules) over less-than-flattering photos of Leisel Jones in pre-Olympics training. Jones won three gold medals in 2008, but that didn't stop the Melbourne Herald Sun from running a full-color, two-page spread questioning her fitness level because she looks a bit chunky in her swimsuit compared to four years ago. The paper even ran an online poll asking readers if Jones was Olympics-ready, but took it down after a backlash ensued.
For many women, the underlying message was clear: Jones didn't look hot in a bikini and should spend more time in the pool than the buffet line. U.S. Swimmer Jessica Hardy made the point to Lisa Dillman of the L.A. Times:
"Even leading up to the Games, I’ve noticed all these articles about who the hottest female Olympians are, and it seems like that is almost as important or more important than our actual talent in the pool," Hardy told The Times during a Speedo press event at Forman’s Fish Island in the neighborhood of Hackney Wick.
"It’s more pressure that we have to try to ignore, look past and not self-obsess over. It’s a natural feeling to be insecure when you’re in a suit every day. You’ve got to get over it [that feeling] pretty quick."
Questioning an athlete's fitness is not in itself out of bounds (as this female columnist argues), but it really is a hot-button issue for women, who are far more objectified than men and held to often-impossible physical standards. You don't see male athletes held to the same standard; we even celebrate the rotund male athlete by giving them colorful nicknames like "Big Baby" and the "Hogs." Charles Barkley, pre-Weight Watchers, made a career out of being large. Not so for women. The question is not whether she's talented, but whether she's hot (Exhibit A: Lolo Jones).
This same double standard applies to uniforms, as beach volleyball so clearly illustrates. Here are the uniform requirements for men: "The men's players in Olympic beach volleyball are required to wear a basic tank top and shorts."
That's an odd requirement since male pro beach volleyball players mostly go shirtless and it's the look I see most on Southern California beach courts since it's a comfortable way to play.
For women? Show us some skin, baby: "The women wear a 'tankini'-style top, which is part tank top, part bikini top, with briefs, or a one-piece uniform. The two-piece women's top must be designed with deep, cutaway armholes on the stomach, back and upper chest. The briefs should be cut toward the leg on an upward angle. The maximum side width allowed is 7 cm. The one-piece must consist of an open back and upper chest."
The "tankini" look for women has been relaxed this year in deference to Muslim athletes, and they can cover themselves up even more. This caused the New York Post (in a story written by a man) to complain: "Now competitors can wear what they want — although it could wind up making the Olympics’ sexiest sport look more like a weekend rec league." The writer was thrilled to learn that the U.S. Women will still wear their bikinis.
Women's beach volleyball has always been objectified for its sexiness. At every Olympics, the photo services post copious amounts of shots from the competition, and a staple is the close-up shot from behind of a women bending over ready to serve. Photographers probably arm-wrestle to see who gets to shoot the Brazilian women.
The Jones flap and the beach volleyball uniform double standard show that while women have come a long way, sport is still dominated by a male sensibility.