Column: Women and the Olympics: the good and the bad

The 2014 Winter Olympics bring new sports for women, but still some of the same old problems.

What do you get when you bring the world together to participate in a variety of sporting endeavors, some international in their appeal and others niche hobbies we only recognize every four years? The Olympics, of course.

I’d like to take a moment to muse about what the Olympics mean for women around the world. Since 1900, women have been participating in the international affair, adding sports little by little.

Even today, we’re still adding women’s sports. This year, female ski jumpers will premiere in Sochi, Russia, at the first ever women’s ski jump event. According to the International Olympic Committee, of the 98 events at the 2014 Winter Olympics, 49 are women’s events.

For the first time in the history of the Olympics, women’s events will make up half of Olympic competitions.

But I can’t help but feel that things are not as equal as they appear. Sure, there are equal amounts of men and women’s events, but there are still some events offered for men exclusively. The Nordic combined, a ski-jump and cross-country skiing combination event, is male-only. The four-man bobsleigh is still exclusively for men, despite the two-man bobsleigh becoming an official women’s event in 2002 (and don’t even get me started on the gendered terms used to describe those “manly” bobsleigh races).

And although the women’s ski jump will debut Feb. 11, men still get an additional “large” ski jump event.

When it comes to gendering the Olympics, look no further than the media. Traditionally, the women’s events that get the most coverage are those that involve makeup and glittery costumes. In the winter Olympics, that of course is figure skating. “Ladies’” figure skating is the most talked-about women’s winter Olympic event, while hockey and speed skating are more often covered from the male perspective.

We can expect a lot more interviews with Gracie Gold, the favorite of the U.S. women’s figure skating team, than any of the U.S. women’s hockey team.

While the best American male athletes are lauded for their athletic talents, female athletes don’t always get the same courtesy. NBC has spent most of their pre-Olympic coverage of the U.S. women’s bobsleigh team talking about Lolo Jones, the hurdler-turned-bobsledder and former Summer Olympic darling. Despite the fact that Jones was not a favorite to medal in the 100-meter hurdles, she was a common face on the screen throughout the 2012 Olympic games.

This year, Jones is still getting more media attention than her teammates, despite the fact that Elana Meyers and Jamie Greubel are ranked number two and three in the world, respectively. Why is the media so interested in Lolo Jones? Likely because of her interesting backstory and good looks. Never mind that she probably won’t win a medal, and there are American women that can (and most likely will).

The media may even set the stage for women’s events before the Olympic rosters are set: the U.S. figure skating darling going into the championships was Ashley Wagner, a 22-year-old who just missed qualifying for the 2010 Olympic games. Wagner had a rough free skate and placed fourth at the competition, potentially losing her spot as the third and final member of the team.

But somehow she was placed on the team by the U.S. Figure Skating governing body, which hand-picks each member of the team similar to gymnastics. Suddenly, Mirai Nagasu, who placed third at the championship and finished fourth at the 2010 Olympics, was off the team. It seems Wagner’s comeback-kid story trumped Nagasu’s performance.

So what have I learned through all of this? That the Olympics, despite being a sporting spectacle, still come with their own gendered politics. I’ll follow their coverage with a critical eye, noticing bias in coverage between men and women’s sports. At least this year, women can ski jump without fear of their uteruses falling out.

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