Sarah Churchwell: Women are winners – at last

Share
Related Topics

Over the last two weeks, the Olympic games have been held to provide object lessons in anthropology, sociology, psychology, economics, politics, history, biology, physics, justice, business, drama, and, of course, engineering.

According to the pundits, watching the Olympics will teach us how to solve every social problem, by showing us how to encourage excellence throughout our society. We can learn "responsibility, self belief, positivity to challenge," according to one commentator (although judging by that example we won't learn English). We've been learning some more disheartening lessons as well.

I've read that Jamaicans are naturally faster, and people from East Africa are better sprinters (or maybe they're better distance runners, I was so dazed by the latent eugenics that I can't remember. What next, Olympic phrenology?)

The one stereotype we've seen little of, perhaps surprisingly, is the one traditionally most associated with sports: gender roles. At the first Olympics, in 776BC, women were not only barred from participating, they weren't even allowed to watch, presumably to keep them from getting ideas.

By the time of the first "modern" Olympics, in 1896, women had made it to the sidelines. But they still couldn't compete: scientists and doctors were arguing that strenuous physical activity was dangerous to women – it could make them infertile, or even drive them mad.

In 1900, in Paris, women were at last allowed to participate in the gentler sports in which ladies could be trusted to "glow" rather than sweat (yachting, lawn tennis, golf).

In 1928, women were allowed to enter a few track and field events, despite the disapproval of the Pope. Unfortunately for the sisterhood, three of them collapsed, leading officials to ban women from running longer events, or participating in more than three events in one Olympics, for decades. It wasn't until 1984 that the women's marathon was at last added; women's football didn't become an Olympic event until 1996.

When Rebecca Adlington won the 800m freestyle gold, and broke the world record, she was joined by her teammate Cassie Patten, who, despite coming eighth in the same race, announced jubilantly, "If the Queen is watching, two golds, Dame Rebecca Adlington!" and gave her team-mate and best friend a big congratulatory hug and kiss.

Patten's cheering display of bonhomie was followed by the men's 50m freestyle, which was won by Brazilian Cielo Filho, who celebrated with a chest-thumping, number-one-finger-pointing display of manly narcissism, pounding the water, pumping his fists, and generally being pleased with himself.

We could extrapolate this small example into any number of claims about gender roles: that women are more compassionate than men, or more communal; that women are taught to be more comfortable with sororal affection; that women create intimacy, while men create hierarchies; that women are from Venus and men are from Mars.

Or possibly, in a society that is only just beginning to encourage women to go into sports, and in which men and boys are still more likely to be comfortable playing, and perceive themselves as being good at, sports, women have learned to give each other a helping hand? Now there's an object lesson worth learning.

Sarah Churchwell is senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Pentagon has suggested that, since the campaign started, some 10,000 Isis fighters in Iraq and Syria have been killed  

War with Isis: If the US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life