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The 'Women's Games' Have a Few Meters to Go

October 02, 2000|HELENE ELLIOTT

SYDNEY, Australia — The Sydney Games started with the stirring spectacle of the Olympic flame being passed from hand to hand by some of Australia's greatest female athletes. The caldron that would burn throughout the Games was lighted by runner Cathy Freeman, an Aborigine, an Australian, a woman. Heavy symbolism on all counts.

These were to be the women's Games, celebrating 100 years of women's participation in the Olympics. Women competed in half a dozen new sports and in greater numbers than ever before. You've come a long way, baby.

But not nearly far enough.

Female athletes, it seems, are still judged as much on their appearance as on their achievements. When they lose, words such as "tears" or "tragedy" are inevitably used to describe their defeats. Accounts of their competitions inevitably center on their emotion, not strategy. It's disrespectful, patronizing and myopic.

Women's water polo became a popular sport in Sydney as soon as it became known that sometimes, in the heat of battle, a player will grab a rival's suit and tear it. Ohmigawd, naked women in the pool! We gotta write about that!

Water polo players are among the world's best-conditioned athletes. The members of the U.S. women's team are intelligent, articulate and devoted to a sport that is largely ignored for 3 11/12 out of every four years. Their sport is demanding and their personal stories are interesting. They represented themselves and their country with grace and dignity.

But too often, reporters' questions after their matches centered on the roughness of the sport, as if these women were delicate flowers from the Victorian Age who should retreat behind lace hankies and avoid unfeminine exertion. They asked for no special treatment. They wanted none. They were annoyed by such questions, and so was I. There was so much that was being ignored because it was easier for the predominantly male journalist pack to glance at the surface and not look for the depths beneath.

The absurdity reached its height after Australia beat the U.S. in the gold-medal game. Australia scored with 1.3 seconds to play, after the U.S. defense was confused by a foul call and left an Australian player unguarded. The game had all the best elements of sport: It was for a gold medal, it was a closely contested match between teams that played hard but fair, and it had a sudden and dramatic ending. Great theater.

Not for everyone, though.

The story disseminated around the world by the Reuters news service began something like, "They may be women, but they're no ladies."

Does that mean ladies don't play sports? That it's unseemly for "ladies" to sweat and strain, to scratch and claw and do whatever necessary to win? How is it that qualities that would be admired in a male athlete elicit criticism when displayed by female athletes?

Then there was the U.S. reporter who turned to me one day while writing a tennis story and said, "Which is the Williams sister with the killer body?"

I said Venus and Serena are both superb athletes with superbly muscled bodies. "No," he said. "I mean the one with, you know," and he cupped his hands in a semicircle in front of his chest.

He's the same guy who observed that U.S. softball pitcher Lisa Fernandez had become much more attractive since she lost weight. He said nothing about Fernandez's pitching ability or durability, only that she was now closer to his standard of beauty. He may have noticed her weight loss, but he missed a lot about her--and probably about most other female athletes.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with noticing an athlete's face or physique. We who give in to the temptations of chocolate and caffeine and get less exercise than we should can only dream of being as fit as volleyball or water polo players or sprinters. But to let appearance become the story is to cheat those athletes and every reader, and that happened too often here.

Was this a wonderful Olympics? Yes. Australians opened their hearts and made us at home in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. No worries there, mate.

But this was no more the year of the woman than any other, not so long as female athletes continue to be treated as window dressing and women remain scarce among the poobahs of the Olympic hierarchy. Call me back when female athletes and administrators are treated with respect, not curiosity.

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