Tanya in the Barracuda

Photo by Jean Lukanovich

Women Athletes ROCK

August 15, 2008
N.J. Lukanovich

The Olympics have begun and I'm glued to the tube, exhilarated by the nearly non-stop vicarious thrills and spills. There is nothing like this gathering of the world's best to revive the passions of a former athlete, and I can't help but feel inspired by the determination, dedication and courage to risk failure. To sacrifice the lazy fun and play of youth in favor of committing oneself to training, often for hours on a daily basis, is no small thing; all for the goal of being as fast, as strong, or as skilled as you can be, stretching the boundaries of what's possible, sometimes appearing superhuman. How can this not be admired?

For all the talk of steroids and doping, most athletes are motoring on nothing but themselves; most athletes in the games are not in the high-profile sports with high financial returns or possibilities of becoming state heroes. Most athletes do it for the love of the sport, for the love of competition, for the indescribable pleasure and pain that comes with pushing yourself as far as your body and mind can be pushed.

The vicarious thrills go beyond the competitions themselves; I haven't forgotten the heady rush of traveling to an international competition, meeting people from other countries, getting a taste of a foreign land, and hearing the languages of the world mingling together at the venue. I grew in a family in which sport was nearly a religion - my father was an Olympian and two-time Olympic coach in canoe-kayak at a time when amateur athletes got little support, and coaches worked for free. It's a side of sports that few outside of amateur sport witness - this dedication of not only athletes, but of coaches and volunteers.

For all of my father's labours of love, for building-up clubs by coaching at the local level as well as the elite level, his enthusiasm not only inspiring youth to join the sport but to excell, his guidance as a coach not only helping his atheltes in sport but in their personal lives, he was rewarded with the Order of Canada when he was only 40-years-old, and it was more than well-deserved.

I witnessed first hand something called devotion to sport, and I also saw the grief of athletes whose Olympic opportunity was wrenched away by boycotts that achieved nothing politically. More specifically, my sister was on the Olympic team for both the Montreal Games and the Moscow Games. The boycott of the Moscow Games was as useless as the later boycott of the LA Games by the Soviet Bloc. A boycott of the China games would not have brought human rights abuses to a halt, a boycott would only have caused devastation to the hopes and dreams of athletes, and built further walls between China and the West.

And besides all of that, when else to we get to see women athletes so brilliantly showcased? The Olympics are a blessed relief from watching men's professional team sports. I relish the Olympics because once every four years we get to see these incredible women - big and strong, small and fierce, models of radiant grace. They are proof positive that women are not the delicate, frail beings that the media would have us believe, and that beauty can come from strength.

I grew up surrounded by powerful women who put to shame any notions that the feminine is "weak" - women who could beat a man senseless if provoked, women that have guts and muscles and nerves of steel.

Women's participation in the Olympics is a reflection of women's place in society. Over the last century, women were gradually allowed to compete, sport by sport, event by event. We have nearly achieved parity, but not quite yet. Women's ski-jumping is still a no-go in the winter Olympics, but the ski-jumpers aren't accepting this without a fight. Canadian and American women ski-jumpers are doing what they can through legal avenues to contest this decision by the IOC.

The International Olympic Committee has a long history of being stodgily and steadfastly run by men. There are two notable quotes from Avery Brundage, President of the IOC from l952 to l972:

"The Olympic Movement is a 20th century religion. Where there is no injustice of caste, of race, of family, of wealth."

"The ancient Greeks kept women athletes out of their games. They wouldn't even let them on the sidelines. I'm not sure but that they were right."

This ease of promoting equality for all, except for women, was, and still is, all too typical among those who understand equality as a human ideal but fail to accept that women are equally human.

It was not until 2000 that women's pole vaulting was included in the games. There was a tremendous amount of opposition to women's pole-vaulting. There was the ridiculous claim that it would be bad for the uterus, and worse yet, that women didn't have the mental strength. Thus far, there have been no reports of damage to any reproductive organs, or mental collapse on the field.

In the painting above, you see a pole vaulter soaring over the lines of a power station, a woman flying above the boundaries of male power, including the IOC. Eventually we will see the women ski-jumpers join the men, and watch them fly over the snow in a show of skill and courage.

And women in China? Last week I wrote about China's one child policy and the impact on female infant survival, but there has been progress in China, particularly in urban China. It's a long way from binding women's feet so they grow no longer than 3 inches, to a nation where girls are educated and can enter all professions. It has become a nation that is proud to see their women athletes perform so well on the world stage.

While it's true that these women and girls are part of China's intention to showcase their strength, and those who fail may feel they have wasted their youth in exceptionally intensive training, the opportunities for girls in urban China are vastly different than what they were in the past.

The world is still filled with nations and cultures that discourage strength in women, and watching the opening ceremonies, it's easy to pick them out. There are six nations that went to Beijing that did not send a single woman, and many that sent only one or two. And they should know that women athletes rock, and when a nation encourages its women to fulfill their potential, it not only improves its record of equality, but becomes a much stronger nation in the process.

Women athletes are fantastic and amazing, and really, could you find better poster girls for feminism?

Update: On August 16th, Canada's Carol Huynh won our first medal in women's wrestling, and within the hour, Tonya Verbeek won another. Women athletes...ROCK!