Female Olympic Athletes Still Not Taken Seriously

Sexualized Olympic uniforms take away from the legitimacy of women as athletes.

By + More
April Ross of US dives for a ball during the Beach Volleyball match against Argentina at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, July 29, 2012, in London.

Female athletes outnumber the men on the U.S. Olympic team this year for the first time in history. The first two days of competition, U.S. women slightly out-medaled the U.S. men, and while superstar swimmer Michael Phelps somewhat disappointed, Dana Vollmer not only won a gold medal in the 100 meter butterfly, but set a world record to boot. Saudi Arabia sent two women to compete for the first time in history.

[Read: Saudi Women's Olympics Debut Means 'Very Little' for Gender Equality]

So why are women still battling to get taken seriously in sports?

Female boxers had to fight back an effort to force them to wear skirts while they are competing. The idea, the Amateur International Boxing Association argued, was to help viewers distinguish between male and female boxers. Most of us can do that by simply looking at the differently-shape bodies of the athletes. Or, one can just take notice of how much coverage is given to the performances, since women's sports are covered so much less. But of course, that wasn't the idea at all behind the skirt dress code (which the athletes successfully stymied). It was to diminish female sportswomen and sexualize their competitions to attract male viewers—who, the boxing association presumes, don't really think of women as actual athletes and just want to watch their breasts and behinds bop up and down in a ring or an arena.

[See Photos of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials.]

That also explains why, until this year, female beach volleyball players were required to wear tiny bikinis when they played. This is not sensible gear for any sport, and really served no other purpose other than to make the athletic effort look frivolous (especially compared to the male beach volleyball players, who wear shirts as well as shorts). And perhaps, men who don't take women seriously enjoyed watching women jump up and down in little two-pieces. I don't begrudge them, but there's plenty of Internet porn available to satisfy that desire. There's no reason to insult women who could probably kick the butts of most male viewers in any kind of sport.

Doesn't it make the most sense for male and female athletes to wear what will help them perform better? It's not as though the men wear garb to attract female viewers (Speedos or trunks? No contest, on the beach, for most women, but trunks would obviously slow down Olympic swimmers). And while the men's water polo players present stunning athletic physiques in their small bathing suits, those helmets they wear for safety look like baby bonnets. They look a little ridiculous, but so what? It's for the sport, not the fashion statement.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Sports Betting Be Legal?]

More disturbing is the fact that the eroding rules appear aimed more at getting men to watch women's sports, when what's needed is to encourage more young girls to participate in sports. Athletic competition makes girls more confident, better able to win and lose gracefully in all areas of life, and healthier. Sending a signal that the primary reason women should compete in sports is to look sexy for men is counterproductive. I myself for years skipped watching beach volleyball, since the uniforms indicated it was not a serious sport. Then I watched stellar U.S. players Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh compete, and I was gripped, in awe of their power, focus and sheer athleticism. The fact that they are wearing a bit more clothing this year doesn't detract from their value.

Is it so threatening to the world gender order that women are staking their claims in what were once male arenas, that they are rejecting efforts to keep them in a subservient state? Female executives are derisively called "ambitious" and "strident,"' and sexually active women—or even just those who use birth control—are called "sluts" and "prostitutes." Women, aided by Title IX, are getting more involved in sports, but there's a pushback from elements that want to dismiss it as sexy or just adorable. Is it a coincidence that Sports Illustrated's yearly "Swimsuit Issue" gets more offensive and the bathing suit worn by its female cover model gets smaller and smaller as women succeed more in sports?

The performances of the female athletes at the Olympics have been breathtaking. Wearing skirts and bikinis is not a sport.

  • Read Ford O'Connell: Mitt Romney Should Use the London Olympics to Showcase Himself
  • Follow the Thomas Jefferson Street blog on Twitter at @TJSBlog.
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.