FEATURES | summer 2004
Our August Amazons
Women's Sports Reach Olympian Heights
How about this Olympic women’s program: The hunting goddess, Artemis, competing in archery. Athena throwing the javelin. The sea nymph Sirens splashing about in water polo. Terpsichore, muse of dance, busting a move in rhythmic gymnastics. Amazons dominating equestrian events. And who else but the goddess of victory — Nike — taking gold in the track sprints. Among those distaff Greek immortals on Mount Olympus, there were definitely some strong Olympic hopefuls. But once mortals started their own Games in ancient Olympia, Greek women weren’t even allowed to watch, let alone compete. And when the Games became a modern event in 1896, founder Pierre de Coubertin declared that women competing in “men’s” sports “would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and improper.”
What fools some mortals be. This summer in Athens, with the Olympics back in Greece for the first time in more than 100 years, women athletes will come the closest they’ve ever been to parity with men. They’ll compete in 26 sports and 135 events, and 44 percent of all Olympic athletes will be female.
A quarter century ago, at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, only 21 percent of the competitors were women. Since then women have lobbied for and won the chance to run the marathon, toss each other around on judo mats, punch and kick each other in tae kwon do, throw the hammer, pole vault, triple jump, and play softball, soccer and water polo. This year, women’s wrestling enters the program, and it has nothing to do with mud or bikinis (see sidebar). The old shibboleths about what women can’t do in sports just won’t stick any more.
Grappling With Women’s Wrestling
No mud in these Olympic games
Mark Campell/EPA Photo
Type the words “women” and “wrestling” into Google and you’ll come across so-called divas in bikinis and thongs. Keep going, if you dare, and you’ll learn about “private wrestling and domination sessions,” naked wrestling videos, erotic foot and muscle worship, and men who pay women to lift, trample, pin, smother and spank them. Dig deeper and you’ll sink into Jello and mud.
“We just laugh at that stuff,” says Sara McMann, 23, an athlete who will likely represent the United States this summer in Athens, Greece, where women’s wrestling will be an Olympic sport for the first time. “But people who meet us are shocked. They expect a wrestler to be a big, ogre kind of girl with two teeth — or else the opposite, a WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment] blond goddess. They don’t expect normal everyday-looking girls who love the sport.”
McMann and her teammates love a sport that does not quite love them back—at least not yet. Ever since the ancient Olympic Games, the sport has symbolized male toughness and bravery. Theodore Roosevelt called wrestling one of the “true sports for a manly race.” And many still see it that way.
Only six colleges offer women’s wrestling. High school girls who participate (about 3,800 of them now do, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations) usually have to grapple against guys. Some college men’s wrestling coaches have created an adversarial relationship with female athletes, lobbying against Title IX — which they blame for the widespread cuts in their programs. (In order to comply with the federal gender equity law, wrestling programs have too often been axed in favor of new women’s sports, but women’s advocates have argued that football squads should instead be cut.)
Even the national women’s team coach harbored prejudices that he says are typical of male wrestlers, and hesitated before accepting the job. “I had reservations because I’d never been involved with women wrestlers before, never paid attention,” admits Terry Steiner, a national champion at the University of Iowa and a former college coach. “I saw what I wanted to see. I had a lot of ignorance and stereotypes.”
Steiner’s wife gave him a history lesson by relating a scene from her own high school gym in the ’60s. Fans were booing the female athletes, she said, because they were playing basketball.
“She helped me realize that we’re at the start of something new,” says Steiner. “If I really believe that wrestling can help shape who we are — and I do — then why limit those lessons to half the population?”
In April 2002, a hesitant Steiner accepted the job. That winter, 22 elite female wrestlers established residence at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. At the world championships that year, the team finished 11th. The next year, they finished second. This summer, McMann or competitor Kristie Marano will probably be joined on the U.S. team by Patricia Miranda, Tina George and Toccara Montgomery.
About 80 countries sanction women’s wrestling for international competition. Women wrestle freestyle, originally known as “catch as catch can,” which means you can grab any part of your competitor’s body. Men wrestle both freestyle and the older Greco-Roman style, in which athletes can only grab the opponent’s torso and arms.
What’s the appeal? “It’s the toughest sport,” says McMann, who talked with Ms. while driving 13 hours from Colorado Springs to St. Louis to watch the men’s NCAA wrestling championship. “The work ethic and discipline have really changed me. Before, I was just going through the motions in life. Now I believe I can do anything.”
Steiner hopes the Olympics will produce a Mia Hamm or Mary Lou Retton who will send millions of girls scrambling toward mats. He also wants the team to win gold medals in all four weight classes. “But if the only thing I do is help win medals, I have failed,” he says. “This sport can teach you so much. You have to face your fears, then come back from adversity. You get humbled. There’s nowhere to hide.”
Along with the non-Olympic contact sports rugby and football, and the two martial arts sports on the Olympic program, judo and tae kwon do, wrestling helps redefine women. “In wrestling, you subdue opponents through physical force,” notes Mary Jo Kane, a sport sociology professor and director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “It’s a radical departure from our traditional definitions of femininity.”
— Mariah Burton Nelson
What’s changed? in America, at least, the rewards of Title IX continue to be harvested. Girls now grow up with an expectation that they’ll be able to participate in pretty much the same caliber of sports programs as their male peers — from coaching to competitive schedule to scholarship opportunities. The U.S. Olympic Committee, over the past decades, has increasingly boosted women’s Olympic sports so that Americans can match up with their mighty (and mightily supported) German, Russian and Chinese rivals.
Globally, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) wrote into its charter the notion that women should be equal players on the Olympic stage (you hear that, de Coubertin?). It has certainly helped to have women members, including a number of former Olympians, on the IOC, which for nearly a century was an all-male body. America’s own woman on the IOC, Anita DeFrantz (see Ms. interview with DeFrantz here), has been a prime mover for improving women’s representation, not just in the Games or on the IOC but within international sports federations and on national Olympic committees.
During the Athens Games, which run from August 13- 29, two other women will be unusually prominent: Athens mayor Dora Bakoyianni and the chief organizer of the Athens Games, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki.
Bakoyianni, elected in 2002, is the first woman to serve as mayor of any city hosting an Olympics. She’s Athens’ first-ever woman mayor as well, and after 3,000 years of cityhood it’s about time. The Olympics helped propel her to power, because Greece’s right-of-center New Democracy party, to which she belongs, criticized the longtime Socialist government for, among other things, mistakes in Olympic preparation.
Because of her personal history, Bakoyianni, 50, must be particularly sensitive to terrorism issues, which hang ominously over these Games. Her late husband Pavlos, a deputy in the Greek parliament, was assassinated by terrorists in 1989, and she herself narrowly missed an assassin’s bullet fired into her car in 2002. Her current husband is head of the Hellenic Equestrian Federation — another Olympic connection.
Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, a 49-year-old former member of Parliament and wife of a steel and shipping tycoon, spearheaded her country’s winning bid for the Games. She bowed out after Athens was picked in 1997 to host, but was called back in 2000 to head the beleaguered organizing committee again. Imagine that: The Greeks couldn’t pull it off without a woman in charge.
Another encouraging statistic about the 2004 Games is that very few countries will bring no women athletes to the Games. That sounds like a perverse achievement, but only 12 years ago, 35 countries didn’t send a single female to compete. In 1996, that figure dropped to 26 all-male delegations, and by 2000 just 12 countries — including the Arab nations of Brunei, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — failed to bring any women competitors.
In Athens, however, only four or five countries won’t have a female contingent. Even those few angered a group of Paris-based activists calling themselves Atlanta, Sydney, Athens Plus (ASAP), who in January urged an Olympic boycott against countries that do not allow females to compete in the Games. If they don’t yet have Olympiccaliber competitors, activists suggested, then women from those nations should at least participate in the opening ceremonies.
On the positive side, the Games will welcome back a country that was previously banned from the Games because of its outright exclusion of women: Afghanistan. The Taliban had prohibited women from playing sports — among other things — but this year the reinstated nation’s flag-bearer will be a woman and three Afghan women are expected to compete in running events. One should be Lima Azimi, who thrilled the crowd at the 2003 track and field world championships when she raced in modestly baggy pants and scarcely knew how to set up her starting blocks. Azimi finished last, but her presence seemed a victory for all those who had been imprisoned in their houses and burkas. The restored Iraqi Olympic team will also send a woman competitor, sprinter Ala'a Hekmet.
The Olympics always court controversy, before, during and after the Games. This time, the anticipatory fears center around Athens’ ability to complete its new sports venues before athletes arrive — will the main stadium have a roof? — and the fact that Greece’s long coastline makes the country seem that much more accessible to potential terrorists. The multinational security plan will cost nearly a billion dollars, twice as much as what was spent at the pre-9/11 Games in Salt Lake City. The world audience can only hold its breath that, as in ancient days, nations will stop warring at least long enough to come together for friendly, if ferocious, competition.
On the local level, one of the biggest brouhahas has involved women of a different repute: prostitutes. A year ago, Athens limited the number of its legal brothels to 230, enforcing a usually ignored 1999 law that strictly regulates prostitution to government-approved houses with no more than three employees and that aren’t too close to churches or schools. Advocates of fully legalizing prostitution criticized the action, claiming that it would drive prostitutes onto the streets and thus feed the busy illegal sex trade in the city, which is dominated by Eastern European immigrants.
And, wouldn’t you know it, while preparing the sites for the Games, construction crews turned up a number of archaeological treasure troves — including a temple to Aphrodite at the Markopoulo Equestrian Center, which experts say may have doubled as an ancient bordello. Turns out that Athens installed state-owned brothels as early as the sixth century B.C., where most employees were slaves, but the city also supported higher-class “hetaerae,” who were sexual entertainers with intellectual training and artistic skills. Being a hetaera, in fact, was one of the few ways Athenian women could gain financial success and ownership rights.
Some women-centered Olympic controversies of the past have been suddenly forgotten: gender testing, for example. That received a lot of play in the 1960s, after rumors spread that certain Eastern bloc athletes — particularly the dominant Russian track-and-field sisters Tamara and Irina Press — might not be biologically female. As writer Patricia Nell Warren has pointed out, the concern emerged out of Cold War competition and was more about sexist fears of “masculine” women than about actual gender identity. Nonetheless, for 30 years, every woman competitor had to subject herself to a swipe test inside her cheek to check for unacceptable Y chromosomes. “I still have my card from 1976 saying I’m a woman,” says Anita DeFrantz with mock pride.
But that testing ended in 1999. Now, ironically, the IOC has suggested it will, in the future, allow transsexual athletes into the Games. They’re still working out the details with medical experts, but post-op athletes may become eligible to compete a certain time after they’ve completed their gender transition. Although it’s just a hypothetical situation at this point, it will be interesting to see whether a male-to-female athlete rises to Olympic heights — and whether born-female athletes will feel that person brings an unfair physical advantage to competition. Gender transition also involves the use of hormones, which could severely conflict with Olympic drug rules.
Once the Olympic torch is lighted, all is forgotten and forgiven. Sport takes us out of the humdrum and into the realm of the divine. It remains the great metaphor for aspiration in life: Hard work and discipline, focus and commitment, can be rewarded with intense personal satisfaction — and gold medals — whatever the contest may be. The fleet, mighty, untiring women on the Olympic stage are our surrogates, their victories ours. Every four years the goddesses come down from Olympus, and thrill us once again.
Discuss the Olympics and Women's Sports
Michele Kort is senior editor of Ms. As a Ms. freelancer, she covered the 1984 Summer Olympics.