Olympians can run, but they can’t hide from criticisms and assessments on everything from their preparation and performances to personal proclivities. If this obsessive viewing is true for male athletes, it is hyper-true for female athletes who are socialized and media blitzed into competition well-beyond 12-second races.
While Australian competitor Sally Pearson won the 100-meter hurdles in London, the subsequent firestorm surrounding Dawn Harper, silver medalist, Kellie Wells, bronze medalist and fourth-place runner, Lolo Jones, highlighted a competitive collective space.
That space sought to breed cattiness and scarcity worldviews in women who already outpaced the millions who watched them compete. Chaise lounge philosophers placed American female athletes against each other in a global competition. And marketers and the media respond to that.
New York Times writer, Jere Longman, commented on everything from presumed capitalistic favoritism to supposed sex-appeal profiteering with regard to Jones, who is a virgin.
Longman’s scathing criticism of Jones not only brought her to near-tears on the Today show, but it also illuminated an ugly space in the universal psyche or Mean Girls mindset that teaches women to go against each other by any means necessary.
That space also seeks ownership and authority of female likenesses and places already troubling perspectives on steroids when involving women of color. Then there’s the issue of female athletes inevitably having their performances reduced to beauty contests.
Certainly Jones, her transparency and PR team commanded an audience that rendered her a household name faster than most Olympians.
But, what about journalists and writers who were more concerned with dissecting her perceived loss and genetic wins than celebrating all of the talented, beautiful and worthy women who competed?
While Wells and Harper are also conventionally attractive (not that it should matter) the fact they felt so overshadowed by Jones that they made comments slighting her, showed an elementary likability pursuit.
They didn’t want to be picked last or selected unenthusiastically in light of Jones’ loss, but would take the attention that their wins commanded, even when offered as leftovers.
“I feel I had a pretty good story — knee surgery two months before Olympic trials in 2008, to make the team … not have a contract … working three jobs, living in a frat house, trying to make it work,” Harper said.
Harper said that her story was overshadowed by Jones, the media favorite.
Of her bronze placing, Wells said, “They can’t leave me out because I’ll be in all the pictures on the podium.”
Wells also said, “…The three girls that earned their spot and they got their medals and they worked hard and did what they needed to do, prevailed. And that’s all that really needs to be said.”
Jones’ fourth-place spot broke her heart.
“Obviously, I’m crushed,” Jones said. She later stated, “I guess all the people talking about me can have their night and laugh.”
Jones, Harper and Wells represent modern examples of competition, capital, sexual fixation and skewed beauty ideals. But, the sex and beauty part compounds the already problematic voyeurism surrounding public figures and athletes.
The Root contributor Genetta M. Adams wrote, “The bottom line is, Jones can’t help how she looks. Her parents are to blame for that. And she certainly can’t help that advertisers are willing to throw endorsement dollars her way based on those looks.
“We as a society bear much of the blame for holding a narrow standard of beauty in such high regard. Jones just used her God-given abilities to reap the benefits of a system she neither created nor controls.”
This hostility between and directed toward women prevails as author, feminist and intellectual bell hooks wrote.
“We all knew firsthand that we had been socialized as females by patriarchal thinking to see ourselves as inferior to men, to see ourselves as always and only in competition with one another for patriarchal approval, to look upon each other with jealousy, fear, and hatred,” hooks said.
“Sexist thinking made us judge each other without compassion and punish one another harshly.”
As lucrative deals are inked, theorists wax poetic, and Olympians gear up for 2016, many should address their isms now. Society and its inherent sexist practices teach our sons to try sharing seats during musical chairs, while our daughters snicker and learn to ostracize the girl left standing.