The Swimmers is a 2022 movie about real-life sisters Yusra and Sarah Mardini, Syrian refugees who swam alongside a sinking dinghy full of refugees in the Aegean Sea on their way to the island of Lesbos. Eventually they reached Germany and Yusra went on to swim at the 2016 Rio Olympics as part of the Refugee Team.
What does this have to do with feminist fitness? Not much really. I watched the movie with the idea it might be worth reviewing for a blog post. It’s not a bad movie, but not much of a feminist fitness angle.
However, there was some pretty amazing swimming. Yusra Mardini swam butterfly competitively, and there were plenty of sequences showing very fast, efficient butterfly stroke. At every swim practice since I watched the movie I have tried to recreate what I saw on the screen.
Do I look like this?
Not a chance! But for a few moments each length – if I’m lucky – I feel like I look like this, and that’s what matters to me.
I have been thinking a lot lately about how sports perceived as “more for girls” are undervalued, even in sports where they dominate.
In North America, at least, the vast majority of amateur equestrians are girls and women, yet the story is much different at the elite level. Since 1964 women and men have competed together at the Olympics, but no woman has won a gold in show jumping or eventing, though almost as many women as men have won at dressage. Dressage is widely seen as the “girliest” of the disciplines.
A consequence of this may have been the undervaluing of equestrian as a “real” sport. No, the horse doesn’t do all the work; riding is intense and demanding, and it requires strength and bravery as well as athleticism, a good connection with the horse, and many many hours of hauling tack, shoveling manure, and getting 400-600 kg horses to go where you want, even when you aren’t riding. The size of the rider doesn’t seem to be a major factor; the key is how well they can manage their horse.
Other sports have also suffered from male flight (the term for men and boys being less likely to enter a domain once it becomes associated with femininity). They include cheerleading, which was a male sport as valued as football before women took it on during WWI, gymnastics, figure skating, dance and artistic (formerly synchronized) swimming.
These athletes all must all be strong and flexible; most compete in close formation so precision matters, and artistic swimmers do half of their their four-minute routines under water. Concussions and other injuries are common. But because they are women-dominated sports where costumes and make-up have a role, they are routinely mocked as not being true sports. Interestingly, all, including equestrian, are places that have traditionally been more welcoming of LGBTQ+ athletes, as well.
However, the most egregious undervaluing of women’s sport this week was at the men’s World Cup.
Soccer is not gendered at the early stages of learning the game; over 40% of all players in Canada are girls, and boys and girls play together on the same teams. As they age and become more skilled, the girls and women are relegated to a distant second place in the minds of some (check out Wikipedia to see just how little attention the women get). At the same time, the most-watched event of the 2020 Olympics in Canada was the gold medal women’s soccer game won by Canada, led by Christine Sinclair. Sinclair is the world’s all-time leading international play goal scorer among both men and women, and the second player in history to score in five World Cups (after Brazilian legend Marta).
The Canadian women have played in every women’s World Cup since 1995, reaching 4th place in 2003. They scored twice in their very first game in 1995, against England. In total, they have scored 34 goals. So when a TSN sportscaster gushed about the first goal for Canada at the men’s World Cup the “greatest moment in Canadian soccer history” while sitting beside Janine Beckie, a member of gold medal Olympic team, it’s not surprising this was her reaction:
We all need to be more like Janine Beckie, every time we hear such nonsense.
Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She grew up watching or attempting every one of these sports, and still does some of them, so she knows just how hard they are.
Recently the Toronto Star ran an article about women’s hockey at the Olympics, with the conclusion that it shouldn’t be there because only the American and Canadian teams are serious contenders. Not everyone shares this view.
I agree with The Gist. I grew up in the era when girls’ and women’s hockey was in its infancy. I wanted to play, but wasn’t allowed. Instead, I have watched the game grow from the sidelines, cheering on the women every time I knew they were playing.
My biggest thrill when visiting the Hockey Hall of Fame was seeing Hayley Wickenheiser’s jersey on display. When my son played in a league during a Winter Olympics year, the motivational speech was to get out there and play like girls. They knew that meant to skate hard, play as a team, and keep their sticks on the ice. And win the game if at all possible.
Women’s hockey is still growing in other countries, but it is getting increasingly competitive as more girls and women take up the sport. We absolutely should not shut down their opportunity to grow the game. We didn’t do that for men’s hockey in the early days, or basketball, which is now completely dominated by the American NBA players.
The Canadian and American teams will meet on Wednesday in the gold medal game. I’ll be cheering for the Canadians, of course. But I’ll also be keeping an eye on Switzerland and Finland as they face off for the bronze. I’m willing to bet it will be pretty great hockey too.
Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She is still a hockey mom to her grown son, and a recovering Toronto Maple Leafs fan.
I have spent a lot of time being angry about misogynistic decisions in the lead-up to the Olympics. I’m not done, but I need to enjoy some of the good news.
The German women’s gymnastics team and their unitards, chosen to push back against the sexualization of women gymnasts.
The Norwegian women’s handball team’s fine for wearing shorts instead of skimpy bikini bottoms will be paid by the Norwegian Handball Federation. The European Handball Federation, which imposed the fine, has acknowledged the media blowback and will be donating the fine amount to a foundation that promotes equality for women and girls in sport. Pink offered to pay the fine and her involvement significantly increased attention to the issue. I anticipate this rule will change, eventually.
Oksana Chusovitina, the 46 year old Uzbek eight-time Olympic gymnast (gold in Barcelona and silver in Beijing, plus eleven world championship medals), retired after she narrowly failed to reach the finals. She was cheered by fellow competitors who rushed to embrace her and acknowledge her impact for breaking stereotypes about the sport.
The Canadian women’s softball team, which won its first medal (bronze). Softball has not been part of the Olympics since 2008, and four of the women were on that team and have continued playing for the past 13 years. That is dedication!
Maude Charron, who trained as an acrobat and then competed in crossfit before taking up weightlifting and competing in her first competition in 2015. Her gold medal in weightlifting is a high-profile demonstration that you can take up different sports, learn new things later in life, and be successful.
Meaghan Benfeito and Caeli McKay, the synchronized divers who barely missed the podium despite McKay’s badly injured foot. Benfeito carried McKay out of the press conference after their last dive. This picture speaks volumes about team spirit to me.
Of the almost 11,000 Olympic athletes in Tokyo almost 49% are women, according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), marking the first “gender-balanced” games in its history. At the Paralympics, at least 40.5% of athletes will be women. New competitions have been added, both mixed gender and specifically for women. There are also new sports, with a requirement that there be equal representation. Women’s sports are being given better timeslots and media coverage. And the head of broadcasting has committed to “sport appeal, not sex appeal”, by avoiding close-ups on on parts of the body.
But there is still a lot to do:
better funding for female athletes from recreational through elite levels;
better marketing of women’s sports;
an end to sexist uniform/pregnancy/maternity policies;
uniform policies that are culturally insensitive and disproportionately affect women (hijabs, modest uniforms, swim caps); and
changes at the IOC itself. That organization has never had anywhere near equal female representation on its board or among its committee members, there has never been a female head, and some of the men on the IOC have undermined its promises of commitment to equality.
Now I’m getting grumpy again, so I am going to close by celebrating the widespread condemnation of the nasty sexist things leading up to the Olympics and remembering that comedy can be a tool for change, starting with The Kloons, and their YouTube video “If Men Had to Wear Women’s Beach Volleyball Uniforms”. You can watch it here:
My slightly longer answer: I might still think there are interesting, critical things to be said about a person’s choices in a society with such thick and strongly enforced gender norms, but ultimately–whatever I may think about another person’s choices–I respect what other women want, especially what they want to wear. I’m a feminist who thinks we need to critically engage with gender norms and socialization but I’m also the kind of feminist who thinks you get to choose what’s right for you.
Sidenote: While I think we all ought to critically and thoughtfully engage with society’s gender norms, I don’t think you have to do that. Even if you just thoughtlessly absorb them, we still have to respect your choices. Also, lots of women make strategic choices. For example, there are some norms of feminine gender presentation I might recognize as personally oppressive but choose to abide by anyway because the costs of not doing so are too high.
Whatever your reasons–thoughtless endorsement of gender norms, reflective engagement and acceptance of the norms, or strategic cost/benefit analysisI think your choices have to be respected.
This comes up because I posted on Monday about the women’s beach volleyball skimpy uniforms (as compared to the men’s loose tanks and long baggy shorts.) Several of you chimed in our Facebook page about choice. The women chose the bikini style uniforms. It’s not like boxing where they were forced to wear skirts.
the women who choose to wear them say they prefer them. They simply don’t want to be sexualized based on their choice of uniform. Let’s not shame them for their decision to wear a uniform that allows them to perform at their best.
Nah, there is no way that playing at that level with a wedgie is preferable. And if less really is more comfortable, why are the men in shorts and a loose fitting tank top? Shouldn’t they be topless in a speedo?
Why not take the women at their word and assume they are telling the truth? *shrug*
Dissecting how socialization and internalized misogyny might contribute to their choice of outfit is not shaming them at all
I have heard/read a few interviews where the women say they love showing the powerful bodies they’ve worked hard for and that the crops/low-hi-cut bottoms are best in the heat. That’s good enough for me!
I think the important thing to remember is WHY they might be choosing less?? If it’s because it’s empowering to them to have their strong body at the focus then cool. If it’s because we constantly sexualize women and that’s the only way for female athletes to get sponsors then I don’t blame them as individuals at all, but it’s more evidence that how we value women still sucks
I have been so bugged by this forever. And yes I was surprised to learn they have a choice. And they choose to wear the bikinis. Apparently not bothered by wedgies or sand in their crotches, they say bikinis enhance their performance because they don’t ‘get in the way’
As a feminist, I support the right of these powerful Olympians to wear the uniform they prefer to wear. Second-guessing choices made by other women (choices that don’t affect you in any way) is not a feminist position.
Of course they choose to wear less… Who gets more sponsors? A “sexy” Olympian woman or one that is properly dressed
Love the diversity of opinion and the respectful discussion. Feminists are not a monolithic group. You should go like our page if you don’t already!
Some of you sent me this image, showing the contrast between the usual women’s beach volleyball uniform and what the Egyptian players were wearing:
I shared it. Thanks friends! Again, an interesting discussion ensued. Pretty much every comment thread after this image mentioned the difference in melanoma risk. There was also more lively debate about choice. And one commentator thought that neither outfit looked like what’s comfortable for playing beach volleyball and that both “represent opposite outcomes of the male gaze dictating how women dress, though.” Pretty much everyone seemed to think the mens’ uniform, somewhere in the middle in terms of exposed skin, gets it right–baggy shorts and loose fitting tank tops.
What’s true is that the rules governing beach volleyball uniforms for women have evolved to accommodate women who for religious or cultural reasons want to show less skin. What seems to be the case though–and correct me if I’m wrong–is that it’s a team choice. What if you’re a dissenting team member if a team who chose the standard women’s beach volleyball uniform? What if your grounds for not wanting to play in the bikini aren’t religious at all? What if you’d simply rather play in a tank and baggy shorts?
In Beach Volleyball, the default clothing is indeed strikingly different and far more revealing for women. Women may wear more modest clothing citing religious or cultural reasons, but have to request permission for these. Men are not allowed not wear more revealing (or more modest) clothing.
In Gymnastics, the laws are really complicated, because there is a multitude of disciplines. Generally, women seem to have more options.
In Swimming, men must wear more revealing clothing.
When Patrick Chan got the silver medal for men’s figure skating in the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, he apologized to Canadians for not getting the gold. And when Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir skated to silver, Canadians cried foul! How is it possible that their free skate was that much “worse” than the American team’s?
When the Canadian women’s and men’s hockey teams won gold, Canadians celebrated and cheered in a way that they would not have had “we” lost that gold medal game.
But the thing about a gold medal game is this: the worst you can do is get the silver medal! Silver is pretty darn good. I’m always struck by the reaction of athletes and spectators, especially when it comes to the gold medal game.
I get that in the gold medal game, you win for gold and lose for silver. And in the scheme of a hockey game, for example, there’s no getting around the fact that if you end up with the silver, you’ve lost that game. But you’ve still come out pretty well, and don’t we all forget that?
There is such tremendous pressure on the athletes to get gold. Suddenly, during the Olympics, so many people lose sight of the sheer joy of watching elite athletes compete at their chosen sports. The pressure is so great that I actually feel bad for athletes who don’t win (which is a lot of athletes!).
I’d read somewhere that the Sochi Games would be considered a failure (by Russians?) if the Russian men’s hockey team didn’t win the gold medal. If that’s true, it’s sad. I felt a real pang of disappointment on their behalf when they got eliminated (they didn’t even make it to the bronze medal game). I recalled the time in World Cup soccer when the Columbian player who scored on his own net was murdered for his mistake. Is winning the big prize really so important?
And yet, I sat on the edge of my seat during both hockey games, cheering for the Canadian teams, knowing full well that the worst they could do was get a silver medal. And though I didn’t think Patrick Chan owed us an apology, I felt disappointed that he didn’t manage to nail a couple of parts of his beautiful program that would have earned him the gold medal.
Besides the thrill of Canadian victory in the hockey games (we’re kind of serious about our hockey!), I have two Olympics moments that will be forever etched in my memory. The first is the overflowing joy of the Swiss women’s hockey team as they received their bronze medals. They beamed with pride. I felt more moved watching their reactions than the Canadians, equally beaming. In contrast, the US team stood in shock. Few smiled when they received their silver medals. They were still feeling the sting of having just lost a game (that it looked as if they had in the bag).
I don’t blame the US women for their reaction. I’m sure “our” team would have been similarly devastated to lose the gold medal game.
The second image came right at the end, when in the closing ceremony they awarded the medals for the men’s 50K cross country ski event. Three Russian athletes stood on the podium while the three Russian flags ascended to their rousing national anthem (what is it about their national anthem? I love it!). I could feel the pride of the athletes at that moment. Pleased that we Canadians didn’t have to sacrifice hockey, it seemed fitting to me that the final medal ceremony should be a Russian sweep.
I can get as caught up as anyone in medal counts and pining for gold, but the fact is, all of the athletes are amazing to watch. All of them, medalists and non-medalists, the athletes who get the gold, the athletes who surprise themselves with bronze, the athletes who come in seventh but are thrilled at their personal record, they’re all world class at their chosen sport. What an amazing thing to get to watch them every day for a couple of weeks every four years!
I’m one of those people who likes races where everyone gets a medal. See my post Why It’s a Good Thing That Everyone Gets a Medal. I don’t actually think that this should extend to the Olympics. It wouldn’t be nearly as exciting. So I’m not saying that everyone who competes at the Olympics is a winner. Of course not. But for sure everyone who gets a medal at the Olympics, whether it be gold, silver, or bronze, is a winner.