I originally wrote this for I Fry Mine in Butter in 2010.
This week the Chinese women’s gymnastics team that competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics was stripped of its bronze all-around team medal for having a member under the minimum age of 16. That so much evidence existed and was in the public for years before this move by the International Olympic Commission—including the athlete’s personal blog and inconsistent birth certificates—is compelling, especially given the furor during the Beijing Olympics in which the same rumors swirled around the 2008 team. Several sports writers and experts have written that the IOC caved in and refused to call China on its willful doctoring of documentation because it was the host country that year and heck, for various other potential reasons that run the gamut from probable to a conspiracy theorist’s dream.
What I want to know is, what is the advantage of the too-young gymnast? Well, when it comes to women’s gymnastics, smaller is better. A shorter length from head to foot increases the likelihood of balance, which is important for pretty much all of the exercises; smaller bodies don’t receive as much stress on their joints from the whipping through the air and hard landings and dismounts; and pre-pubescent bodies still have flexible cartilage at the ends of the bones that make the body slightly more flexible and presumably, a modicum lighter.
So why does a “women’s” sport require pre-woman physiology? Especially as men’s gymnastics stress and require full adult physiques? When was the last time we heard of a scandal involving male gymnasts who didn’t meet the age minimum?
To make things even more confusing, not all sports set up such a mis-alignment between adult bodies and the goals of the sport. Usually the controversy is on the other end of the spectrum, that women can be too overpowering. When this happens, there is ridicule, outrage, and public shaming. All anyone needs to do is ask Caster Semenya. Coaches from other countries were so upset at Semenya’s runaway [sic] wins in the track and field world championships that they insisted on “gender testing” for the athlete, and shockingly, the results were made public, without so much as any early notice before the headlines were splashed all over the globe: Semenya Is Intersex. Only they didn’t use the term intersex. Without so much as one breath about how difficult it must be for a person to have the world discussing news of their genitals and reproductive organs, Semenya’s career went into limbo, with sport officials unsure where she could race—men’s or women’s events?
Before I am accused of picking on easy targets, let me mention a few other names:
- Martina Navratilova
- Venus and Serena Williams
- Dara Torres
- Britney Griner
What do they have in common? Well, several things, come to think of it. They’re all now or were in their prime dominant in their sport. No woman has won more Wimbledon singles titles than Navratilova. Serena Williams was the 2009 AP Female Athlete of the year and named the top female athlete of the decade. She has swapped the top ranking in the women’s tennis circuit with her sister, Venus, for years, who herself has earned 43 career titles. Dana Torres has won 9 Olympic medals as a swimmer. Britney Griner, still in college, is dominating other teams.
Also, each one of them has been accused of doping or of being a lesbian, or even, gasp, a man. On more than one occasion. They’re playing some unknown, secret sport, they’ve had to spend countless hours in the public eye, and their results are immediately made public around the world, chewed on by sports enthusiasts and pontificators and garden-variety viewers alike. And then they are asked to get glamor shots and pose provocatively for “Hottest Female Athletes” lists.
The female body in sport is a contradiction for a culture used to plopping gender into neat, tight boxes. It is sweating and contorting in the way that any body does when exposed to physical stress. Looking at muscles up close—and these women have them some muscles—one wouldn’t know what kind of body is doing what action. That’s the contradiction: we’re supposed to believe that there is divine purpose to sex, that women are good only at certain things and not others, which is the purview of men. And while we could argue until the cows come home (I really just wanted to be able to get that in a post someday, so there it is) about why men run faster or hit tennis balls harder, the point is that those differences are inconsequentially small in consideration of the entirety of a sport, and that they only matter to people who have an investment in the sexes being different entities.
Successful female athletes are going to continue to be under the microscope because culture can’t handle the truth—that women can be powerful and still be women, can have different kinds of bodies and still succeed, and can eschew femininity if they want to and not desire to be men. Sport, a male-dominated, big money-making industry, collided a long time ago with gender roles and popular culture, and it’s a collision that is still creating fallout. The trouble is, it’s creating fallout on women’s bodies, and very often, on women of color. It’s Dorothy and Golliath, and I have seen very few women who found themselves in the crosshairs make it out unscathed.
Every time Serena pounds the ball in return of a big serve, I cheer my ass off, not just because she’s not Anna Kournakova (whose dog I admire greatly), but because she’s a contradiction calling dusty ideas about sex and race into question. Plus, she’s so damn good and fun to watch, 2009 tantrum aside. And she has turned a deaf ear to the body fascists who have repeatedly told her to change her body (read, lose weight) for the game. Girl’s got game, okay?
It is possible that the 2008 Chinese women’s gymnastics team will have to forfeit their medals at some point, for the same reason as the 200o team. If people were cheating or outside the bounds of the rules, I concur they shouldn’t be allowed to keep their medals. But I also want to know when the negative affects of cheating will reach the male coaching staff.