Games of the Girls? Not really
You will be tucked into bed, dreamily sleeping, when Saudi Arabian runner Sarah Attar runs 800 meters in a preliminary heat at the Olympics. You almost certainly will wake up to gushing Olympic dispatches of how this young woman from Pepperdine is a trailblazer and hero for being a part of The Kingdom’s first delegation to include female athletes.
And a few of my sports column-izing friends, undoubtedly, will tout Attar as further proof that London unofficially is “The Games of the Girls.”
What a crock of . . .
Anybody who believes this is girl power needs to take a closer look at what it means to be truly powerful. Because at this Olympics, women are winning medals and losing battles, participating in record numbers and being judged by different standards, given trails to blaze and then called whores for doing so.
Yes, Attar and fellow Saudi national Wojdan Shaherkani were Twitter sensations before even competing — hashtag #prostituteoftheOlympics.
How exactly is this a win for them?
As far as I can tell, they allow Saudi Arabia to say, “Look, see how progressive we are,” when that is totally false. They allow IOC president Jacques Rogge to brag, “Look, every country has female participants,” when that is misleading.
What did they get? To run races they cannot win and called names they do not deserve.
I am inspired by their courage to step into the arena, anyway, knowing they cannot win. I am also torn. What I know for sure is no power is better than fake power.
Fake power allows us to pretend, to avoid hard conversations, to ignore that these Olympics really have been mostly a statistical victory of female participation and medals, and a step backward for real progress.
I am not simply talking about Saudi Arabia. I am talking about us, too.
American hurdler Lolo Jones was ripped for being too sexy, gold medalist swimmer Allison Schmitt for not being sexy enough. Attacks on Gabby Douglas’ hairstyle overshadowed her gymnastics dominance, just as criticism of Serena Williams’ celebratory dance at Wimbledon did hers. This is not girl power. This is bordering on a backlash.
Hey, girls, you can play, but only under these rules:
• Be pretty but not too pretty.
• Celebrate but only in approved ways.
• And by all means, when breaking down huge color barriers, make sure your hair is styled in a way that is pleasing to everybody.
No, this is no longer a participation issue, or about equality. Women are playing and winning. The danger is that we confuse this with power, girl or otherwise. Real power is not being allowed to compete. It is being allowed to compete without conditions.
What these Olympics have proved is that whatever some women do, it is not going to be good enough. The New York Times dedicated a lot of dead-tree space to ripping Lolo for, what I can best tell, is the crime of being only a really good Olympic athlete and people being interested in her story and looks and talent and that interest providing money-making opportunities she had the gall to accept.
What we are left to assume is that this is a first in athletics, that Lolo Jones is the first athlete to benefit from being overhyped, that Linsanity did not exist in NYC just months ago, that an athlete somehow has an ability to control such interest or would even feel it necessary to do so.
The easy columnist call would be to blame sexism, except that is intellectually dishonest. The people who came after Douglas and her hair were mostly women. It is really difficult to send a message of “don’t judge female athletes on their looks” when we judge them on their looks.
“I do wish us women we could be more supportive of one another,” Olympic gold medal gymnast and FOXSports.com analyst Dominique Dawes said.
“I wish we could do away with cattiness and competing and realize we all can be achievers and be successful. There is enough room for us to all be on to be on top of the podium together.”
That is powerful. That is real girl power.
That does not play as well as stories about how much better the women are doing than the men, and how there are more women here representing the United States than men.
We love those kinds of tales because they are sweet and syrupy and they make us feel good about the progress we made. We love them because they are fairy tales, and fairy tales have happy endings and do not make us think or let us question and ask what message does it really send when we win medals and lose battles, participate in record numbers and allow ourselves to be judged by different standards, blaze trails to a soundtrack of guys calling us whores.
Because this also will be true when you wake up this morning: Shaherkani, just 16, ultimately is returning to Saudi Arabia, where she is unable to drive or leave the house without a male escort, and where her unmistakable courage in London has earned her the title of #prostituteoftheOlympics. To celebrate that as a victory is the height of hypocrisy.
If we allow her to be called a prostitute, we all are. Just like if we allow Douglas to be judged on her hair or Lolo on her sex appeal or Schmitt on her lack thereof, then we open those avenues of criticism for ourselves, our daughters, our wives.
This is not girl power at all, and the real power starts with admitting as much.