Women Rock: Revisiting the Rio Olympics

In the midst of all the recent craziness, I found myself remembering the calm days of summer when women’s achievements were everywhere. At the Rio Olympics, for example, women dominated the Games. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing as there were signs even then that women still had a long way to go. So, in my salute to Women’s History Month, I decided to take a moment to recall the thrill of victory, the importance of process, and what we need to change.

Age is just a number.

Older athletes were everywhere this Olympics. American cyclist Kristin Armstrong won a gold medal the day before she turned 43 years old. Oksana Chusovitina from Uzbekistan (41) looked positively ancient competing next to the other gymnasts in their teens and early twenties but she was still giving them a run for their money. Then there was Australian equestrian Mary Hanna, vying for a medal at 61 years of age. These women proved that the mind is a powerful thing (much of competing is mental) and you shouldn’t set arbitrary limits based on what others think you can do.

If you can’t say anything nice….

The Games are about winning, sure, but they’re also about fair play and respect, a lesson that soccer star Hope Solo learned after her team’s loss to Sweden in the quarterfinals. Solo called her opponents “a bunch of cowards,” a comment that led to her dismissal from the United States Soccer Federation. It’s normal to be disappointed by a hard loss and it’s fine to say that. However, being gracious in defeat is something we all need to understand because it matters. Generosity of spirit can lead to warm feelings and the opening of a dialogue about future interactions. Hostility, as Solo discovered, often comes with a penalty.

Play your own game.

One of the great things I took away from this Olympics was that the athletes themselves didn’t have the same goals as the viewing public. Take, for instance, gymnastics superstar Simone Biles. Everyone expected her to walk away with an unprecedented five gold medals but instead she earned four gold medals and one bronze. Of course, this is still an outstanding achievement but many viewers were disappointed and expected Biles to be as well. But she wasn’t. Her comment about her broze medal performance? “The rest of the routine was still pretty good,” Biles said, “so I can’t be too disappointed in myself.”

Swimmer Katie Ledecky dominated every event she competed in, earning four gold medals and one silver (for a relay). She was so much stronger than her competition that at one point, the camera couldn’t show any other competitors because she was too far ahead. With such prowess, you might expect that she would take it easy. However, that wasn’t Ledecky’s goal. “I’m always pushing myself and seeing what I can do. That has always been the biggest goal. Dominance is never something I think about: that would be basing my goals on other people, and I don’t think that’s a wise thing to do.”

Another American swimmer, Simone Manual, also focused on her own goals. She wasn’t favored to win but she didn’t let that stop her. “Coming into my first Olympics I didn’t think I was going to be getting a gold medal individually. My goal was just to get more experience, swim as fast as I can,” she said. Instead of worrying about what others expected, she concentrated on what she knew she could do and it worked out well.

Each of these athletes ignored what others expected of them and concentrated on their own abilities and desires. Instead of getting bogged down worrying about what we “should” do, we should instead just work our own event. The rest will follow.

Sometimes your best isn’t enough…and that’s ok.

In what was the hardest event for me to watch, American cyclist Mara Abbott came in fourth after leading the pack for much of the road race. She broke away during the hill portion (her specialty) and passed the front runner when she crashed because Abbott rightly decided that particular section called for caution over speed. She then kept at least a 30 second lead until the finish line was in sight. It was then that the trio of European cyclists behind her, ones who had helped each other along the way, started catching up. Abbott saw them coming and kept pushing her hardest but it simply wasn’t enough to medal. It was devastating. But while she may not have won, her dogged persistence and amazing skill was enough to make her memorable.

Winning isn’t everything.

At the Olympics, how you play the game also matters, sometimes more than the score. New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin and American Abbey D’Agostino demonstrated a great deal of fair play when, after a fall that took both of them down, D’Agostino convinced Hamblin to get back up and the two managed to finish the heat. D’Agostino’s injuries were too severe for her to compete further. Hamblin did compete but finished dead last. However, even though neither of them won the actual race, they both were awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal, a medal for fair play, one that has only been awarded 17 times in Olympic history. They also got a lot of media attention because winners aren’t only the ones who come in first on the field.

Unfortunately, many of the female athletes discovered that winning isn’t everything when you’re a woman. In stunning displays of sexism, many people chose to emphasize, not their athletic prowess and performance, but other irrelevant aspects of some of the women athletes.  We had to hear about what their hair looked like (gymnast Gabby Douglas), whether their attitude was deemed acceptable, whether they wore makeup, their mothering status (swimmer Dana Vollmer) who they were married to (trapshooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein; Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu) or, in the case of Chinese diver He Zi, who she’s going to marry.

Several of the female athletes also saw their accomplishments overshadowed by men. After Katie Ledecky set a new world record in the women’s 800-meter freestyle AND also became the first woman since 1968 to win gold in the 200-, 400-, and 800-meter freestyle races, she still lost the headline to swimmer Michael Phelps’ tie for silver. As one tweet put it, “This headline is a metaphor for basically the entire world.” Similarly, many women competitors were compared to male athletes. It took a teenager to put all those male commentators in their place: “It’s amazing to be recognized for all this success [but] I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles.”

So, while it’s clear we still have a long way to go, it’s important for us to remember – especially in a country rife with misogynistic leaders – that women have a lot to offer. It wasn’t a mistake that American women brought home more medals than American men. We aren’t going away anytime soon.




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