Dara Torres v. Tom Watson: One for the Ages

20 07 2009

With the near win of Tom Watson at this year’s British Open, much talk arose around his age (59!) and his potential to win his 6th title at Turnberry. It reminded me of similar age x performance dialogue around then 41 year-old Dara Torres in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Both athletes have accomplished much in their respective sports: Watson (8 major championships, 6th on the list of total major championship victories, and the oldest male golfer to almost win the British Open or any other major championship), Torres (first-ever 5 time US female Olympic swimmer, 10 medals- 4 gold, oldest female swimmer to make the Olympic Team after an 8-year hiatus). Both have accomplished feats when most opine them “too old”. Kudos!

Torres v. WatsonBut what I find interesting is how differently the media constructs the gender x age x performance narrative of Watson and Torres. Here are a few thoughts:

1. The media portrayed that fans WANTED Watson to win and were sad when he didn’t. For Torres the message was people would be surprised if Torres won, and could claim “I knew it” when she didn’t.

2. There was nary a mention that Watson was a father (he has two biological children, and three stepchildren) during the British Open, but we heard NON-STOP that Torres was a mother of one.

3. Also missing from Watson’s British Open run was talk of if he was “competing fairly” or on performance enhancing drugs (although we did hear this drum beat about Lance Armstrong in the past, not for the 2009 Tour de France…yet. Wait until/if he wins then we can discuss.). Torres had to endure (and still does) constant questions about this issue.

4. The media was all-over Watson’s fairy tale near-win, but barely covered Torres’ 50 Free win earlier in the month at the US Swimming National Championships. With that win Torres will compete with the U.S. World Championship Team in Rome in late July-early August.

5. I did not see one picture of Tom Watson posed “sexily” and showing off his AARP body, while we did see picture after picture of Dara Torres in sexy, glammed up poses. Just type ‘Dara Torres’ into Google and hit “images” if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

The take-home messages for these common patterns in the media’s portrayals of female athletes….a near win for a man is valued more than a win for a woman; motherhood defines female athletes but fatherhood is seldom mentioned for male athletes; “old” competitive, winning female athletes are under suspicion as “cheaters” while when “old” men are in the hunt because they are hard working, talented and wily; the bodies of even “old” female athletes can be exploited and sexualized…and regardless, a male athlete’s performance will always be more media worthy than his female counterpart regardless of age. Come to think of it there are even gendered differences about how “old” is defined and constructed. “Old” for a male athlete is ~60 years while “old” for a female athlete is 40…

But don’t give up all hope…Dara Torres does have Tom Watson on one thing….she’s Got Milk?.

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Thoughts on Bras, (Soccer) Balls, & Bikes

10 07 2009

A few random things to think about over the weekend:

SICover_1999 world cup team1. As the 10th Anniversary of the 1999 Women’s World Cup in upon us, pay attention to how the media constructs this historic event. Will the focus be on a) the US win and competitive achievement, b) Brandi Chastain’s offing-the-soccer jersey to expose her Nike sports-bra (see the NCAA Double-A Zone), c) the “girls of summer” (i.e., the wholesome, attractive, All-American darlings that everyone fell in love with) many of whom are now mothers, d) how the historic event gave notice that people DO like to watch women’s sports (especially when it is promoted in the media and marketed) (see Christine Brennan’s USA Today column, e) how the team provided role models for young boys and girls, or f) spawned two women’s professional soccer leagues (see WPS) …..or perhaps some of all of the above? I’ll be curious to see what dominant messages arise.

women cycling2. The Tour de France is underway! Will Lance Armstrong really win it yet again? It got me thinking…why don’t women ride in the Tour de France? I did a little sleuthing and found no real answers but there IS a race called Le Grand Boucle (“the great loop”) which is been held off and on roughly over the last 15 years. The women’s race is shorter, has varied in the number of stages (the men’s race has 21), and the 2009 race will be just four days long “due to organizational difficulties” (according to Wikipedia..take it for what you will). If you know French, you can see the official website of Le Grand Boucle…je parlez un peu francais. It makes me think that the exclusion of women in the Tour de France is arbitrary, and the shorter “lesser than” women’s race, serves to perpetuate existing and historical gender hierarchies in sport that privilege male athletes.