There's been a lot of discussion around these Olympics as a "women's Games," and there certainly have been plenty of good storylines for women. This is the first Olympics where every country represented has sent at least one female athlete, and it's the first Games where women will compete in all the same sports as men (thanks to the addition of women's boxing). There will be 4,847 women taking part in the Olympics, more than ever before, and both the Canadian and American teams will have more women than men competing (155-122 for Canada, where this has happened before, 268-261 for the U.S., where this is the first time they've sent more women than men). Women will be crucial to Canada's medal hopes, too, and female athletes' performances will likely have a substantial impact on the final medal standings. Australia even overcame a potential gender controversy by naming women's basketball player Lauren Jackson to carry their flag in Friday's Opening Ceremonies, the first female flag bearer they've had at a Summer Games since 1992. Despite all that, though, not all the attention female athletes are getting is positive.
While progress has been made on a wide variety of fronts related to women's sports in these Games, there's been a lot of blowback and negativity as well. One substantial story comes from a protest held by leaders from a variety of European women's rights groups, who met in London Wednesday and symbolically buried the Olympic Charter. They were complaining about there are 30 fewer events for women than men in these Games, meaning that women only have 132 gold medals available to the 162 available for men. That's a fair complaint on many fronts, and it shows just how even adding a sport to the Olympics doesn't necessarily make everything equal. For example, women may be able to compete in boxing for the first time at these Games, but there are only three weight categories for them as compared to the 10 for men.
[Slideshow: Candid shots of Canadian athletes in London]
Another notable example of how imperfect the progress is came Friday during the Opening Ceremonies. It was remarkable to see women from countries like Saudi Arabia in the Olympics for the first time, but some of the reaction from that country has included tweets about them being "Olympic whores" and women who "want to run so that they intentionally fall down and reveal (their figures)." (It is notable that others from Saudi Arabia are trying to "name and shame" the anonymous Twitter user behind that campaign, though.) Meanwhile, Saudi Arabian judoka Wojdan Shaherkani may not be able to compete thanks to the International Judo Federation's decision to prohibit wearing a hijab in competition, which has the Saudis threatening to pul out of the Games.
The negative stories aren't limited just to the Saudi women. The Globe and Mail's Elizabeth Renzetti took aim at the ongoing preoccupation with female athletes' apparearance in a piece headlined "For female Olympians, it's 1960 all over again," and she made some interesting points. She made them rather fervently, too:
In many ways, it feels like we've time-travelled to the Summer Games of 1960, with Rock Hudson and Doris Day as our bickering guides through the wormhole. It's not just the fact that the Japanese and Australian men's basketball teams got to fly business class while their female counterparts were back among the sardines, with their knees around their ears and some delicious enigma meat for consolation. Oh, no. It's the way that the female athletes' appearance continues to be such a bizarre and unpleasant distraction. ...
The last time I checked, the London 2012 motto was "Inspire a generation," not "Inspire a generation to stick a finger down its throat and start saving for a boob job." Girls are not going to be drawn into the world of elite sports if they think they're being set up as targets. British triathlete Hollie Avil, who competed in the Beijing Olympics, quit high-level sports in May after she suffered a recurrence of an eating disorder brought on by a coach telling her she was too fat. "My health and happiness was at risk," she said. "Life is just too short."
An example Renzetti takes particular issue with is how much of the coverage of women's beach volleyball thus far has been on if teams will wear bikinis or more modest clothing (an option for the first time this year), and very little of it has centred on the sport itself. Beach volleyball's far from the only sport where clothing has been an issue, though; federations regulating both badminton and boxing tried to force women to wear skirts before eventually backing down and making skirts optional. Even in sports where attire isn't particularly an issue, appearance still comes up; British swimmer Rebecca Adlington has been called a "****ing whale" and "a beagle" and has been described as having "a dolphin face". The abuse has been so bad that she's decided to abandon Twitter during the games to avoid the negativity. Meanwhile, an Australian newspaper called swimmer Leisel Jones fat, and weightlifters like Zoe Smith and Holley Mangold have also been criticized over their appearance.
It's not all that surprising that there are negative stories around women at the Games; after all, very little at the Olympics tends to be uniformly positive. Still, it's remarkable how many issues have cropped up. Perhaps that's partly positive; after all, there wouldn't be a hijab controversy if Saudi Arabia still wasn't sending female athletes, there wouldn't be as many stories about bikinis if women's beach volleyball players were still forced to wear them, and there wouldn't be stories about female boxers and skirts if women's boxing wasn't part of the Olympics. Pushing the envelope inevitably leads to some blowback, and that's probably even more true than usual when you're talking about conservative organizations like the IOC. There's a long way to go still on the equality front, as the protests show, and there are still a lot of problems, as the various issues show, but there's been a lot of genuine progress for female Olympians as well. It's not a completely positive "women's Games," but it's a Games with plenty of good moments for female athletes, and that's a step in the right direction.
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• Photos: Day one of Canada at the Olympics
• Video: Despatie says he's lucky to be in London
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- Saudi Arabia