The Rebel Girl: The Real Threat to Life

Against the Current, No. 62, May/June 1996

Catherine Sameh

IF YOU’RE NOT a sports fan, and thus fairly well-adjusted, you’re probably still basking in the quiet relief from Olympic hysteria. But if you’re a fellow fanatic you won’t mind obsessing about it with me just a bit more. How can I indulge you? Let me count the ways.

For weeks before the Games, numerous popular publications proclaimed this The Year of the Woman in sports. Indeed it really was, and continues to be.

Nearly 4000 women participated in the 1996 Olympics, a record number–and close to half of all the athletes. The U.S. women’s basketball, gymnastics, soccer and softball teams took the gold, while numerous individual competitions had strong, if not always medal, performances by women.

At the end of October the American Basketball League, a women’s professional league, will begin its season in eight cities, including Portland, led by Olympians Katy Steding and Ruthie Bolton. The 1997 women’s collegiate Final Fours in soccer and basketball are already sold out.

Although interest and participation in women’s sports is at an all-time high, NBC in its exclusive Olympic Games coverage failed dismally at riding this wave of enthusiasm. The network virtually blacked out many of the most notable Olympic performances by women athletes.

What they did, and did not, saturate our screens with both signaled the clear message: No matter how far women athletes have come, in sports it’s still a man’s world.

Perhaps the most notable injustice was the near-complete absence of coverage of women’s soccer. My rough guess puts total televised time at less than one half hour throughout the entire women’s soccer competitions–while attendance at the semifinal and final games was over 80,000.

Women’s soccer, though new this year as an Olympic sport, has been gaining momentum in recent years. In this country it is, perhaps, the only team sport where women reign in both skill and popularity.

Yet men’s soccer, where the U.S. team wasn’t even a factor, received much more air time. And it can’t be the newness factor, since another new Olympic sport, men’s beach volleyball, was given tons of air time. I’m sorry, but even most men I know would rather have watched the highly skilled women’s soccer teams that gotten sentimental about Karch Kiraly.

An equally maddening example, not only of sexism but crazed nationalism, was the Michael Johnson obsession. There’s no question he’s an exceptional athlete, at the highest level of skill and performance–but his air time, at the expense of the French woman sprinter Perec who also won both the 200 and 400 meter sprints, borders on the pathological.

Johnson already displays an air of narcissism much like those boys on the Dream Team.

Where we did see women athletes we sometimes saw too much of them–in gymnastics. Gymnasts are other-worldly in their skill and strength, and gymnastics is a sport magical and beautiful unlike any other; but it’s common knowledge that girl gymnasts from a very young age undergo a training regimen that is quite brutal, physically and psychologically, in order to compete professionally when they’ve barely entered adolescence.

I found it very painful to watch these girls–and they are girls–and a society that celebrates them instead of the healthy-looking and more mature women basketball, soccer, softball and volleyball players sends me straight to the bar.

There are plenty of other gripes about sexism at the Olympics: the scrutiny Gwen Torrence underwent as a mother whose athletic career makes her unavailable to her son; Bobby Kersey’s display of patriarchal control over Jackie Joyner-Kersey, and how NBC touted it as a husband’s love.

But I’m stating the obvious, and you get the point, which is that no matter how much the commentators want us to believe that women have achieved equality in all spheres of life, and that there’s really no need for and interest in a feminist movement, in fact feminism is as relevant and crucial as ever.

ATC 62, May-June 1996