Despite a lifetime antipathy to sports - or at least the beatification of sports-stars - I was one of the millions watching the opening ceremony of Olympics 2012. From the man with the jet-pack zooming round the stadium in Los Angeles way back in 1984, to the footprint fireworks in Beijing 2008, the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics have offered even the most sports-phobic something to ‘ooh’, ‘aah’, and ‘tsk’ at.
London 2012 didn’t disappoint on that score. Despite wondering when Gandalf would turn up during the bucolic opening scenes and feeling gobsmacked when the giant phalluses emerged from the earth during the homage (?) to the industrial revolution, there was plenty to smile at. Not least the slightly bonkers but nonetheless fabulous tribute to the National Health Service, the selective romp through British history - we got industrialisation, but imperialism clearly forgot the way to the stadium - and British music. You know it’s got to be doing something right when a Tory MP dismisses it as ‘leftie, multi-cultural crap’.
There was even plenty to cheer about from a feminist perspective: as Guardian columnist Caitlin Moran exclaimed ‘it's all Mary Poppins, suffragettes, JK Rowling and THE QUEEN IN A PARACHUTE.’ And there was more. During his opening remarks, the big boss of the Olympics Jacques Rogge announced that this was the first Olympics in which every one of the more than 200 countries taking part fielded female athletes. Rogge called it a ‘major boost for gender equality.’
A boost, perhaps, but not necessarily a boon.
Because, elsewhere, female Olympic athletes were being criticised for their physical appearance and lack of sex appeal. Australian swimmer Liesel Jones, for example, who is taking part in her fourth Olympics after collecting a fair number of medals and breaking records in the last three, has been called out for her weight. Melbourne newspaper, the Herald Sun, published pictures of Liesel ‘then and now’ and speculated on the cause of her weight gain between her first Olympics in Sydney (aged 14) and 2012. Never mind the fact that Liesel is an athlete at the peak of fitness and performance and ... um ... that’s kind of what you need to do well at the Olympics. Never mind that a 14-year old is still a developing adolescent and a 26-year old is a grown woman and looking the same might be a cause for concern rather than celebration. Never mind any of that ... because Liesel is a woman, and no matter how talented she is, she’s still not exempt from sexist scrutiny of her appearance.
At least Liesel is allowed to be a woman. British weightlifter 18-year old Zoe Smith has been criticised for being too masculine i.e. being too strong and having too many muscles (because that’s what all men are like, right?) Disappointingly, Smith and her colleagues have received such criticisms from both men and women. Not one to let such sexism go unchallenged, Smith hit back saying, amongst other things, “apparently we’re ‘weird’ for not constantly eating crap, binge drinking regularly and wearing the shortest, tightest dresses that the high street has to offer. Sigh…”
All of this takes place mere weeks after Wimbledon commentators angsted yet again over women tennis players daring to push for equal pay ... not to mention daring to vocalise while playing. Clearly when women do something with their bodies other than constantly beautifying them or having babies, the gender police start pounding the beat.
But what about the mothers?
I’ve tried to find statistics on how many of the female athletes at the Games are mothers too. So far, my extremely sketchy research hasn’t found the numbers. There have, however, been profiles of some of the mum-athletes, including tennis player Kim Clijsters, beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh, and hurdler Tiffany M. Williams.
Apparently, they’re a growing breed (pardon the pun), so much so that there’s now even a dedicated marketing campaign centred around ‘Olympic moms’. With undisguised capitalist glee, advertisers such as Pampers, McDonald’s and others have snapped up these new cash-cows. Ker-ching!
‘Olympic moms’ are also harder to stereotype as sexless, unattractive - perhaps, gasp, even lesbian - women, because they’ve at least partially fulfilled the cultural script set down for women. But their specific challenges as working mothers are often airbrushed out of the advertising copy: regaining peak physical condition after giving birth, and training to be a world-class athlete while balancing school-runs and ‘quality time’.
Much easier, of course, for mothers to just cheer from the sidelines. As this 2012 Proctor & Gamble advertisement shows, a mother’s conventional role in the Olympics is to bear the athletes, ferry them to and from practice, wash their clothes, feed them, and support them in every possible way (apparently all Olympians have deadbeat dads - who knew?). P&G describe themselves as ‘proud sponsor of moms’ - specifically through their laundry detergents and nappies. Why? Because ‘the hardest job in the world is the best job in the word. Thank you, mom’.
If sentimentality was an Olympic event, they’d win the gold.