Vonn isn’t “heavy” she’s a great athlete!

14 01 2010

In the last week Austrian coaches claimed downhill skier and USA Olympian (and fellow Minnesotan!) Lindsay Vonn was heavy, which they said gives her a competitive advantage. Really? Are you sure she isn’t one of the best skiers because she is an amazing athlete who trains hard?

I was called by local WCCO TV reporter Heather Brown to comment on this issue. I didn’t know where to start, there were just so many angles of this story. Here are my thoughts:

1. From a sport psychology perspective, the Austrian coaches could of purposely leaked the comment to the media to distract Vonn’s attention away from optimal performance. That appears to have backfired, as Vonn responded as a mentally tough athlete would by choosing not to comment much and use it for fuel to further motivate her. Vonn’s response was that of a champion. She couldn’t control what was said, but the did control how she responded. Point Vonn!

2. From a sport media perspective, the comment about Vonn’s weight is yet another example of how the focus on female athlete’s appearance seems to be more important than her performance. Serena Williams is constantly being criticized for being “too big and muscular” and people seem confused as to how a woman so “big” can be so good. Yes we do hear comments about male athlete’s bodies, but it is rarely about appearance…it is about strength, power, speed. I doubt we will hear an Austrian coach discuss Bode Miller’s weight. When a female athlete dominates her sport and her body doesn’t conform to the traditional feminine norm,  she comes under surveillance. Think of South African sprinter Caster Semenya from this summer.

The Vonn comment is a bit unique because the coach said her “extra weight” gives her a competitive advantage. It reminded me of similar comments made about Danica Patrick, when opponents claimed she had a unfair competitive advantage because she weighed less than the males drivers.  The point is, comments about a female athlete’s weight is a way to minimize her performances, and “explain” why she excels rather than attributing winning to athleticism.

3. Lastly, the weight comment conveys to young girls and female athletes that emphasis is placed on what the body looks like, than what it can do. Constant media messages like the Vonn comment socializes girls and women into becoming obsessed on physical appearance, rather than on health, well-being, and optimal performance.

As head into the Vancouver Olympics keep a close eye on how the media constructs Lindsey Vonn as the poster girl for the team.

Note: to read the transcript from Brown’s piece click here

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Speechless Over Serena

30 11 2009

I just got word via the BBC that “Serena Williams has been fined and given a suspended three-year ban from the US Open for her tirade at a line judge”

I really hope this is a bad joke. Three years? That seems a bit harsh doesn’t it? Would a male players be fined and suspended the same amount? I think players who have tested positive for an illegal substance, say steroids, have been banned for less time!

What does this say about the intersections of class, race and gender in the game of tennis in the 21st century? Who plays and under what conditions? Who is punished (or not) and for what transgressions? Who decides, under what conditions, using what criteria to determine “major offence of aggravated behaviour”. I’m speechless.





A Pattern Has Emerged

8 10 2009

I’m not a big fan of ESPN The Magazine, as I’ve written about their cover photos and coverage of women’s sport in a previous blog….or should I say LACK of coverage that focuses on athleticism, rather than being feminine and sexy.

Serena ESPN mag_Oct 2009

Their latest series of 6 covers for the October 19, 2009  “The Body Issue” has Serena Williams posing naked (thanks for the head’s up EH). It seems to me a recent pattern has emerged.

Here is the pattern:

1) A Black female athlete performs well and dominates opponents,

2) During the course of competition she acts outside prescribed gender norms (i.e., looks like a man, yells and argues with a referee),

3) Subsequently she is grilled and sanctioned by the public and the media,

4) Therefore she has to recover by performing versions of the female athlete apologetic by literally apologizing like S. Williams, and/or highlighting heterosexy femininity on the cover of  magazines. I’m talking about first, Caster Semenya and now Serena Williams (see picture here).

Underlying sport media portrayals of highly talented Black female athletes are racism and sexism. I suppose my blog title should really read…A Pattern Has REemerged.

NOTE: If you want to see the making of The Body Issue and gain insight to the ‘issue’ (and see a whole lot naked) click here.





Who Knew Tampons Could Be So Funny?

30 09 2009

About a month ago I was watching TV and saw a strange commercial for Always, a feminine pad hygiene product, with the tag line “Have a happy period” with a woman dressed in white pulling a pristine pad out of a box, like as in a magic trick. I couldn’t find that ad but did find a French counterpart in which…well just watch it.

happy period
The themes in the Always ad campaign connote freshness, cleanliness, and relaxation. All words that women think of while menstruating (not).According to a New York Times piece women who use pads versus tampons have a different attitude about their periods. Which leads me to….

Yesterday I was alerted by @mhueter to a TV ad for Tampax in which Serena Williams takes on Mother Nature in a tennis match. When I first saw it, I wasn’t sure if it was hysterically funny and clever or super sexist. After watching it a few times, I’m going with the former. I love this ad! I love it because it uses humor to connect with women, rather than try to sell the idea of sanitary freshness regarding the process of menstruation (a rather mythical idea).

The Tampax ad uses strength, athleticism, physical activity, trash talking, and female athletes to promote a very different message to girls and women, than do the Always ads. The Always ad closely mirrors outdated gender stereotypes which were packaged and sold to women in the 1950’s, while the Tampax ad is a contemporary re-brand that females can do anything…and are not slowed down or marginalized by menstruation. I’m sure others out there find the video offensive, or as one colleague said “insipid”, but I’m sticking with funny. Sometimes one must put her critical lens aside and lighten up. Excuse me while I go watch it again. Game, Set and Match to Tampax 6-0, 6-0.





Social Media & Sport Apologies

14 09 2009

Discussion in the Tucker Center this morning was very lively around the topic of Serena Williams’ U.S. Open semifinal outburst, fine, and subsequent apology via her blog and Twitter account (also see picture here).

serena apology

I have a few other thoughts on Williams’ ill-timed and ill-fated outburst.
1. From a sport psychology perspective one cannot control the calls made by the umpire or referee, regardless of if a “bad” call occurs on match point or the first point of the match. Let it go. An athlete can only control his/her reaction to the call. This particular reaction showed a lack of mental toughness. In her blog Williams wrote, “We all learn from experiences both good and bad. I will learn and grow from this, and be a better person as a result.” I’m sure it will also make her an even better competitor than she already is.

2. How has social media changed the way athletes interact with fans and the media? Even though Serena lost control of her emotions on the court, she took control of her “brand” off the court by quickly posting apologies using social media tools. It left us wondering if these tools existed when John McEnroe was in the heyday of his outbursts (which were much more frequent, prolonged and arguably egregious), would he of used social media to apologize? (NOTE: In a Google search for “John McEnroe apologizes” I found one result for apologizing for bad behavior, and one story of an apology for bad play.)

3. Then it got me thinking how race and gender intersect with the outburst issue. Do we expect female athletes to apologize more frequently than we do male athletes? We certainly expect female athletes to act “ladylike”, refrain from grunting loudly, not throw tantrums or have outbursts. How much of the criticism leveled against Serena Williams has to do with the fact she is African American? Would the public react similarly if the outburst came from a White female tennis player–for example Maria Sharapova? After perusing one of my favorite blogs–After Atalanta–it seems I am not the only one who noticed or is thinking about these issues. What do you think?