Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Winter Olympics: Women still deserve wider opportunities

The figure skating is not my favorite part of the Winter games.

I'm not fond of any judged sports. It seems to me better to let competitors, within the rules of their discipline, do their thing in head to head competition and the one who could best the others on that day wins. Naturally I prefer watching events like the cross country races or the downhill skiing to judged skating. Moguls was an interesting mix of judged and straight competition -- an under-informed viewer could be a little mystified to see that the fastest competitor to arrive at the bottom of the hill still standing didn't necessarily prevail.

In the judged sports like figure skating (and gymnastics in the Summer games), the aim becomes to measure how closely a competitor can match his/her arduously honed gifts to whatever ideal image is lodged in the judges' heads. This needn't be completely arbitrary, but it is also not necessarily as athletically interesting as what these extraordinary talents might come up with if their creativity weren't so constrained by their discipline's conventions.

Elvis Stojko, a Canadian three-time world champion during the 90s, has riled some folks by insisting that skating's conventions leads to "effeminate" programs. As reported in Salon:

People tiptoe around the topic, and I was like, "You know, I'm just going to say it: Effeminate men's skating is not my style of skating. In men’s skating I like to see power and strength."

... It's not the skaters' fault. It's the way the system has been rewarding them. You have to have a program that’s dynamic. If it's the same from beginning to end, and it's soft and doesn’t have dynamic strength and power and quickness, the routines become very much the same, and it becomes very boring.

...It doesn’t have anything to do with gayness.... It's the way you carry yourself. There’s a certain strength to it when a masculine skater steps onto the ice and attacks a program. With the feminine skaters, the use of the hands becomes very soft, down to the fingertips. There's a lot of little details, but essentially you can pick up on it in the first few movements. ..As a male skater I don't want to be considered a beautiful skater. I want to be a strong skater.

Okay, I could easily decide this guy just doesn't like women and doesn't want to be identified with us.

But, you see, I share his wish to see power and strength on the ice: from the women skaters! Why are they constrained to be soft, feathery, weepy? They are obviously remarkable athletes, possessed of extraordinary agility and balance -- and rock strong in order to skate these long programs. But the latter quality is something they are required to hide.

The twosome pictured didn't come close to winning the pairs; they placed 8th. But I loved their short program. Ukrainians Tatiana Andreëvna Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov skated in what looked like Star Trek uniforms (she got to wear pants!) with power and zeal. That suited this viewer fine. I'd love to see what a solo woman skater who added visible power to grace could do in the solo competition. But we all know the sport's conventions would never allow that.
Then there's women's ski jumping. Or rather, there isn't women's ski jumping in the Olympics. San Francisco sports columnist Gwen Knapp hazards a guess at why this exclusion remains:

At the start of these Winter Olympics, American Lindsey Van held the record for the longest jump at the so-called normal hill (the smaller one) at the Whistler venue. Not the record for women, but for anyone, male or female.

At the time, no elite men's event had been held there. In the first round of the Olympic normal-hill competition, the maximum jump was 105 meters, half a meter less than Van's distance. In the final round, the longest jump broke Van's record, at 108 meters. The bronze medalist had the second-longest at 106.5 meters.

Ski-jumping results combine distance and judges' style scores, so Van's 105.5 meters don't translate to guaranteed success among the men. But low body weight allows extra loft, to the extent that the men have developed eating disorders and the sport has regulated their weight as if they were jockeys, adjusting ski lengths according to body mass. The physical advantages most men have over women, particularly upper-body strength, don't play a big role here.

To modern thinkers, the prospect that a woman might be able to outperform a male medalist in the Olympic Games seems pretty fascinating. To stodgy IOC members, the thought must be terrifying.

As Knapp points out, the women jumpers don't actually want to jump against men; they want their own event in which to compete with each other. Knapp hopes that the Olympic Committee can correct this injustice by 2014.

I also hope so; I have a 16-year old friend who would be just about ready to make that team ... You can read about women's jumping and this aspiring athlete in this article from the Rutland Vermont Herald.

1 comment:

Betty Johanna said...

I recall Elvis Stojko being viewed as a peculiarity because he took marital arts training, as opposed to ballet training as many of the male skaters take. I assume women skaters take ballet training as well.

Much easier to comment on your Olympics postings as opposed to the Lent posting.

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