Monday, December 3, 2012

Tough Mudder: The Deskilling of the Cross Country Runner?

Painted in mud, the best high school cross-country runners stumbled across the line. The exhausted pack ran their worst times all season. The painfulness of this fact was thrown into stark relief by the boorish slogan suspended across the course finish: "Run hungry. Taste victory."

Nike Cross Nationals is run every year in Oregon at the Portland Meadows Race Track. The December event is one of two cross-country races presented by corporate sponsors as national championships. Nike's event is team-centered (though individuals can and do enter). The December 8 Footlocker Cross Country National Championship (held in San Diego) is an individual competition. (The USA Track and Field Association also runs a national championship.)

Nike Cross is the strangest of cross-country meets: the course is not run on one of the region's fabled cross-country trails. It is staged instead on the infield of a horse race track. The runners get moguls and slippery avenues of mud. The course is slow: long stretches of it are covered in puddles of water. Race officials joke about picking shoes out of the field from races run in past years. The course is optimal when it is frozen. This is the one race for which the runner prays for frost. Last year temperatures hovered at 30. The boys' race was won by Futsum Zeinasellaissie in 15:03. This year was balmy: the course was not just muddy, it was gross. Sam Warton slugged it out for a 17:06 win.

Runners have to have tetanus shots to run this race. The air is lightly perfumed with manure. The race is, after all, run on horse pasture.

At the state-level no high school team would dare host an event with a course like it. It'd be considered dangerous and weird. Teams do train in harsh weather and on wet ground (this is the signature of coach Bill Aris's training regime and his girls have won the race seven years in a row no doubt because of their experience with mud). But the fastest runners want to run fast. Some courses are faster than others, but the idea is that a good race explores the limits of what is humanly possible on the day that course is run. 

The spirit of the cross-country trail is that it be a trail, not an obstacle course.  

At Nike Cross you see some runners cross the finish line painted in mud - not because it has been splashed on them, but because they've fallen into pools of it. Watching Nike's highlight reel, I was struck by how awful the pack looks. Frontrunners look tough, sure, but the rest of the field looks ruined. 

Of course there is something fun in the idea of making the best runners race against the worst conditions. But that is not how this race is presented to the teenagers running it. It is presented to them as the best team competition in the country. I got the distinct sense that even the winning athletes were disappointed.

Asked about the course, one athlete after another responded: "We don't run in mud like this in Virginia/Texas/Colorado/New Mexico/Minnesota." They sounded puzzled. When asked if he had anything good to say about the course, one wiseass looked up at the sky and said, "It's sunny." 

Nike's marketing folks assert that this mud is part of Oregon's "thing." But it isn't. When cross-country runners think of Oregon, they think of gorgeous trails along the coast, the Steve Prefountaine Memorial Running Trail. The University of Oregon (in Eugene) is one of the country's premier programs. Sure, a cross-country runner wants to "get her mud on," but even more, she wants her team to run well

From an elite runner's perspective, the logic of the event is a mystery. It is, in fact, something of a mystery when measured against Nike's claim on running, as a sport. It is ironic that the brand associated with the development of a lightweight shoe designed to reduce drag - to make your stride lighter - should sponsor a race in which the athlete's feet are sucked into mud. For much of the course, with each step the runner has to break the mud's suction. Imagine running with someone grasping onto your feet. That's what large parts of the course feel like. 

People seem to think that Nike stages the event this way so as to make cross-country "spectator friendly." The racetrack has covered stands, and it's easy to film the race on these grounds. But cross country spectators will choose to be by the trail - who wants to sit indoors at an outdoor event? The audience for the race was in the mud, with the runners. 

Nike stages this event this way not for people, but for cameras. 

Kids covered in mud make for fantastic photos. Or do they?

Antigone Archer fell early in the race. She picked herself up - with mud in her mouth and her eyes she helped her team to its impressive second place finish. Team Carroll finished (a weird) 140 points behind Manlius. Manlius has won this event seven years in a row. Thank you Antigone for letting me use this photo by Zackary Kaufman.
A little combing of the interweb turned up the above portrait in misery. And this is the expression I saw on much of the pack. A lot of runners looked upset - angry, frustrated, confused. 

Mud runs are a growing phenomenon - those courses are designed to make runners swim in mud, scale walls, crawl under barbed wire like G.I. Jane and Joe. They are fun. Crazy. But fun. That is not, however, what these athletes signed up for. 

Nike addressed them as elite runners all weekend. But did Nike stage an elite race? 

You learn a lot about yourself when you lose in good fashion. A good loss can be as inspiring as it is humbling. For many of these runners, this was their last race as a high school athlete. Some ended their high school career with the worst time they'd posted all season, in a race that felt pointless.

My sister coached the team that finished dead last. So I have a personal reason for thinking about this event. I've learned a lot from her over the years, and our conversations about this event have been illuminating. (My perspective here, it should be said, is entirely my own.)

Cross-country is a team sport. An individual might win the race, but a team can't win the race on an individual's performance. Nike's event is perhaps engineered to foreground that fact. This course is designed to handicap each individual runner as if they were horses. 
Second place finishers Carroll celebrate their victory. 
But cross-country is a curious team sport. A great team knows that its accomplishments are all the greater when that team allows each of its members to realize his or her potential to its fullest. I've always thought that this was where you found the spirit of the sport - in this chemistry. 

The production of a national championship as a runner's version of Wipeout is a sporting version of what social theorists describe as "deskilling." A race is here turned into a spectacle, the talent and experience on the field is made secondary to the moving of merchandise - the question is not who won, how or why, but who was entertained and how much they - we - are willing to buy. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Kelly Smith: It's Always the Quiet Ones

Kelly Smith celebrates a goal, her magic foot and the shoe it was in.
When you teach you learn pretty quickly that the very smartest and most interesting students are often quiet. Some are painfully shy and intense listeners. Some only talk when they think they have something valuable to contribute and have a very the bar high when it comes to their sense of value. Some feel like their own interests are so out of step with everyone else they just keep their mouths shut. Some keep their mouths shut because they don't want to stand out.

When you teach, you meet these students in their writing. It's one of the profession's real pleasures. These students teach me to never accept the surface. To expect deep waters, but also to never assume that I know where those deep waters lie.

Kelly Smith's memoir is the absolute opposite of Hope Solo's. Some of these differences can be chalked up to those of a keeper and a striker, and others can be read as the differences of American and English attitudes towards self-disclosure. (One is abundant with it, the other refuses it.) But the differences between their books don't end there.

Hope Solo barely touches on her game in her memoir. The book's focus is on her family, and on the challenging social dynamics of a team living under the spotlight. We know the name of her boyfriend and are given the outline of the development of their relationship. Her friends and the coaches who have supported her get shout-outs. We do get a peek into the USWNT run in the 2011 World Cup, and Solo outlines the physical struggle of her recovery from a shoulder injury that was far worse than most of us realized. But these things are not really at the heart of the narrative. A Memoir of Hope is personality driven. If Solo's memoir is a good read it is because it mirrors the outspoken wild card public persona we already know.

The title of Footballer: My Story pretty much says it all. Smith's book is 100% centered on her relationship to the sport. Where Solo's book opens with a broad portrait of her home town, her parents, with the landscape in which she grows up, Smith's book opens with an image of one of the world's greatest players as a kid with a ball at her feet. We learn that she would imitate moves that she saw on Match of the Day, and practice them using video tapes of the week's highlights.  The narrative sticks with this tight focus of Smith on the ball right to the end. 

Footballer: My Story does chronicle Smith's personal struggles, and they are significant:

  • When she grew up there was no real women's football culture to speak of in England. This is the source of her often cited complaint that the women's game in England in the 1990s "was a joke."
  • Like many of the great international players, she played with boys until she was kicked off the team. She grew up being welcomed into the game (invited to play with the boys) and exiled from it.
  • Like most international players, she had no future in the sport to imagine for herself - she wanted to be a professional footballer, but for English girls this dream was a delusion. The vast majority of English women players lose access to training before they turn 18. Even now the Women's Super League is more semi-pro than pro. And it is significantly more professional than anything anyone had ever heard of just ten years ago. 
  • She was scouted and recruited to play in the US. This was dumb luck. With relatively little awareness of what it would mean, she enrolled at Seton Hall in New Jersey and plunged into deep culture shock. 
  • She suffered from crippling social anxiety which she self-medicated, becoming a full-blown alcoholic in her twenties. 
  • She suffered one serious injury after another. Torn ACL, broken leg, fractured leg - and has come back from each. 
  • Unlike the USWNT, England has been a serious underdog in international competition for years. Under Hope Powell's leadership the team has been climbing a serious mountain. They've suffered some agonizing, cruel defeats on the world stage. When it comes to trophies and medals, they are far more familiar with failure than they are with success. 
In short, Kelly Smith has worked hard, suffered, and gotten through it and over it. In spite of the list I've given above, the book is not a litany of complaints. Far from it. Smith is clearly a person with an enormous reservoir of strength. If she shares one quality with Solo, it is a certain stubbornness. A refusal to hear "no." An obstacle is not a roadblock. It's something to be hurdled. 

Her narrative is also not sappy, or sentimental. It's remarkably reticent. We never learn, for example, why Smith was so afraid of speaking in front of people, or why she felt so intensely alone and isolated that she crawled up inside a bottle. This book is no confessional. On this point, it feels remarkably English - she makes absolutely no excuses for herself. Even as we learn of relationships that have sustained her, she never tells their story - Smith comes off as very private. This leaves her somewhat of a mystery as a person.

Smith's discretion compares interestingly with Solo's openness, as do her struggles with social anxiety.  Solo is what the corporate world diagnoses  as "non-joiner" - a person not so good at small talk, who prefers time alone to team-building exercises, prefers the company of a handful of people she trusts than that of people she doesn't know and who don't know her. Solo does not lack for confidence - in fact her  confidence perhaps grounds her decisions about how she socializes.  The Solo we meet in her memoir knows what she needs.

Footballer: My Story suggests a very different kind of isolation. Smith struggled with profound loneliness and depression. Real despair - and it seems that for a long time this was kept hidden from the people around her. Fortunately, it wasn't hidden for too long: Powell, her teammates and her family helped her get on solid ground. Where Solo and co-author Ann Killian give us detail about her background in order that we understand Solo's lone wolf, controversy-provoking style, Smith and her co-author Lance Hardy draw a careful line around Smith's private life.

The refusal to disclose much about herself off the pitch makes room in Smith's autobiography for lots of writing about her development as a player and a teammate. This book will teach readers a lot about the England women's team. It will also introduce readers to the basic state of European women's football. You'll also get a fantastic glimpse of Hope Powell's coaching, which is no small thing in and of itself. Smith devotes a full chapter to Powell - the whole book might just be a long thank you to the woman that Smith credits with saving not just her career, but her very soul.

The book starts of slowly and awkwardly - somehow its writing seems to mirror Smith's battles with social awkwardness, picking up pace as she gets deeper into her career and maturity. The book is most comfortable inside the game: the chapter on England's loss to France in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinals is as heart breaking as the match itself.

When you watch the game as much as some of  us do, you really want to know what it feels like to play at that level. Sometimes it is a joyful experience and sometimes it is absolute physical and emotional agony. The game started off with a "bright start" but soon France put the pressure on them and then kept it up. Smith's team scored a goal against the run of play at 58 minutes. The French really piled it on then. "We knew we were in a match," Smith writes. Her ankle had been sore from the start, and the pain mounted with each passing minute.
The longer the game went on, the more pressure the French put on our goal. The pain in my ankle, too, was mounting as time passed. 
At one stage I remember looking up at the clock on the scoreboard - I think we were about seventy or seventy-five minutes into the game, and we had the lead - and I thought to myself 'Just get through this.' 
We were keeping them at bay. We were playing so well defensively that I thought they couldn't score. Our backs were against the wall, admittedly, but I felt so confident in our back line and goalkeeper. But the clock seemed to be going very slowly and as a result our place in the semi-finals seemed so near and yet so far away. The second half seemed to be lasting forever.
Powell made the last of her substitutions. Smith didn't have a chance to signal how much pain she was in. Powell subbed in for defenders on the basis of a miscommunication. With three minutes left France broke through the back line and the game went into extra-time. By this point Smith could scarcely put weight on her foot.
As the French ran around, screaming heir heads off in delight, it struck me there and then that I would now have to play on for another half an hour. 
France kept up their attack, dominating possession. England held on for dear life. Smith writes, "I couldn't see us getting a goal. So, without thinking about it, I started to will the game to end. I wanted penalties."

Penalties they got. Smith took the first and scored. But they went out anyway. This is the kind of story that fans want: How was Smith feeling in the middle of that firestorm? What happened with the penalties? (Few players volunteered, this because a major talking point in the press.) What happened with that substitution?

Many people wrote after that match that England's women are like the men - and that English players need to practice penalties more than they do.  Smith's recollections and thoughts on this whole episode are frank and sobering:
I would like to take this opportunity to say that we practiced penalties after virtually every training session in Germany. I would also like to this: you can practice penalties all day long and it makes no difference to what will happen on the day when it matters.
You can't prepare for the stadium, the crowd, the pressure. How can you plan for who is going to be on the pitch after ninety minutes, or who is going to be fit or injured? It's impossible....
Regarding the comparison with the men's side:
Of course the England men's time have had a torrid time of it in the past, going out of the 1990 World Cup, the 1996 European Championship, the 1998 World Cup, the 2004 European Championship, and the 2006 World Cup on penalties. That is quite a list. By contrast, England's women's team have gone out of tournaments at that stage against Sweden in the European Championship final in 1984, when the team was still not officially recognized by the Football Association, and against China in a competition that didn't really matter to us, the Algarve Cup in 2005. The defeat by France in the 20011 Women's World Cup was only the third occasion. It's hardly an epidemic.  
It's a good point. I appreciated hearing this from her. I also appreciated her account of watching the World Cup final with her teammates in Boston, and then what it felt like to see Breakers teammate Aya Sameshina return to the squad with the medal. ("I saw the medal but I couldn't touch it.")

Soon the Breakers suspend play and the WPS folds. She writes, "With the problems that have occurred over the years, I think it's understandable for me to feel that there will always be some kind of issue with women's football [in the United States] at the highest professional level. Let's just say that I don't think things will ever run smoothly. It's a shame, but that's the way it seems to be."

It's hard to argue with her on that score. Smith's book gives us a glimpse of the difference that the England makes, as a context for developing the game. The system has strengths and weaknesses. Club training isn't as frequent and developed as it is in the US. But the FA is building its league system slowly and carefully. The FA had better luck with television contracts until recently. The national team's growth ties directly into the league's visibility. The book left me optimistic about women's football in England - and wondering how long it will be before it tops Sweden and Germany as the destination for the world's best.

There is, of course, a lot more to the book - and to Solo's - than I've been able to describe in these two posts. But of the two, Smith's will tell you a lot more about the experience of the match and the state of the game than will Solo's.

The tone of Smith's book suggests to me that if you sat next to Smith at a party, you could probably talk with her about the game for hours. She might be quiet at the start. She might not be the most gregarious person at the table, but once she gets rolling she can hold your attention just as well as she can hold the ball. Sorry for that last analogy, but I couldn't resist it. If you want to buy Footballer: My Story, you can find it on Amazon. And there's a kindle edition. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Hope Solo's Paradox (a book review)

Solo: A Memoir of Hope is the story of a deeply charismatic outsider. She is a lone wolf, but she was also a prom queen. That's the paradox of Solo's persona: she's the outcast in the middle of every drama, the anti-social social phenomenon. Solo might be an independent spirt, but this book is centered on her relationships with other people.

The book's most compelling writing focuses on her childhood and on the drama which unfolded behind the scenes at the 2007 World Cup. Her father - a drifter and a grifter - is at the center of both stories. He looms large over the whole book, for good reason. He was a natural athlete, a charismatic and attractive man who was much loved by the dozens of kids he coached. As Solo herself acknowledges, her father routinely destroyed his personal relationships - he stole money from his family, and he left Solo's mother dispossessed of their home.

People in Solo's family stuck by each other though seriously troubled times - her family is full of complicated people who are fiercely loyal to each other. Solo was very close to her father - and he wasn't an easy person to be close to. He died just before the 2007 World Cup - only months after a friend of Solo's had been killed in a car accident. She buried him, and went to China supported by other players with experience dealing with profound grief. The squad seemed tighter than ever until its coach benched Solo for the match that would become the team's most infamous loss.

Most fans will read the book for its chapter about the 2007 World Cup. Like many watching the tournament, I was shocked to see Solo on the bench. With a different keeper slotted into the defensive system deep into the tournament, everything seemed off. As is now well known, after the match Solo said a few choice words about the selection. She asserted that she'd have made the saves that Briana Scurry didn't.

After reading Solo's account of the aftermath of this loss, I felt far more sympathetic to her teammates than I expected to. Solo was punished for criticizing the team. She was isolated, forbidden from watching the last match, forced to fly home separately and put through the paces in a way that seems really particular to women's organizations. The team bonded in its criticism of Solo and staged "come to Jesus" sessions whose main function was to be to heap more and more shame and anger upon her. The team was stuck in an emotionally abusive script.

It's clear now that the team was struggling with the humiliation of that defeat. Although the book does not provide much insight into what that felt like - there is no blow-by-blow account of that match (at least not with the level of detail you'll find in other player memoirs) - it is clear that the entire USWNT organization lost their minds.

If Solo was grieving her father, the team was grieving the loss of its status. It had been separated from its glorious legacy and it had been separated from that legacy by a team with far, far less institutional support and experience. It was, for a lot of these players, their first experience with this level of failure and public humiliation. Given the team's status as the sport's golden girls, that fall from grace would be a long hard trip.

That so many of the players framed Solo's behavior as a betrayal of the '99 legacy affirms that everyone was feeling their way through what was, in fact, a structural inevitability. Solo's account of this period reveals a community of women holding very tightly onto their heroines. I think it also shows us how scary it is to take your place in those ranks.

History has a way of forgetting women - especially women athletes. A lot of us feel protective of our history. We must all remember that the women who won trophy in 1999 were not the first American women to play the sport. They are the first American women whose names were celebrated. I don't think there is any easy way to take your place in a history that is so recent, so tenuous. When Solo complained this summer that Brandi Chastain was too critical in her match commentary, she surfaced the problem in the relationship of one generation to the other - a structure neither of them created and that neither of them can transcend. Chastain's criticism will sound like a mother's. Solo's complaints about that criticism will sound like a daughter's.

Men can point back generations. They can place themselves in elaborate constellations of teams and players. American women have had just this one team. And they are with us - broadcasting the matches. As they should be. What a burden to carry, though. Ugh.

When the USWNT lost to Brazil, and when they lost in such a dramatic fashion, they showed everyone that they were not that team. And, perhaps, until then, on some level the team didn't know how to think of themselves as better than that team - each generation needs to work this out.

It's difficult to grasp what this loss - so laden with its symbolic weight - must have felt like. A different kind of book (written by a neutral party with a more critical eye and poetic touch) would make this into a different kind of story. Who is to say, for example, that Solo's remarks weren't themselves a violent disidentification with Briana Scurry's abjection in that moment - a way to emotionally protect herself from the knowledge that it might easily have been her hung out to dry. She'd put a huge burden on herself - she was playing for her father. What if she let his memory down? What if all that drama was produced by young women carrying complex fears and anxieties about their place in the world? One, in isolation, playing for the memory of her father. A collective, formed in opposition to her, bonded in defense of the memory of their mothers. Each loyal to another generation at the expense of their own.

That's an awful conflict. And it is not a part of Solo's story. That's me reading into it.

Solo comes off in this book as supremely confident. She actually doesn't seem to have much of a relationship with fear of failure. Or fear.

(This brings us to the limits of this genre. As I wrote elsewhere in a post about Robbie Fowler's autobiography, "there is no story quite so that of the totally confident person." Usually this makes player memoirs kind of boring. Many of the most famous have never sat with real failure. And those players have done nothing but play football all their lives. And they are young to boot. Not much drama there to work with.)

It would be nice if there was more of Solo's game in this story. I assume that as this book was put together, someone thought that detailing her team's various campaigns would turn off all but the hard core fans of the sport. I'm sure they were right about that. Thankfully, someone thought that the book should include some discussion of the USWNT win over Brazil in the last World Cup. That chapter is emotionally rewarding.

The book is a fantastic read - it's a great portrait of a player in context.

I conclude with a complaint I couldn't fold anywhere else into this review because it seemed so out of place with the book as a whole. Solo doesn't get into too much detail regarding her love life, but she does confess to making out with a woman while she played for Lyon. She writes,
One French girl flirted with me for months, asking,  
"How do you know you don't like kissing girls if you've never tried it?" 
"Trust me," I said. "I know I like men."
One night I got drunk and let her kiss me. I'd had gay teammates throughout my career-I thought maybe I should see their side of things. So we made out. Interesting but not life-changing. I was straight.
The references to her relationships with men are more abstract. She dates men, has relationships with men - she does discuss this fact but not in any great detail. So why have the lesbian kiss in the book at all if not to titillate the reader? This is the book's "no homo" moment - invoking homosexual possibility only to contain it. With nothing else to say about the gay teammates she has had throughout her career (and what can she say about them?), I am left wondering what this passage is doing there at all.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Oh the Irony!: Nike's Gold Diggers

Can Nike come up with an Olympic motto worse than "Greatness has been found?" YES!

Of course, this shirt is only sold in women's sizes. Nike explains itself:
“Nike has consistently supported female athletes and the position they enjoy as positive role models. The t-shirt uses a phrase in an ironic way that is relevant given it was released just as the world focused on the success of female athletes.”
Tell me how this is ironic again? Seriously. Oh wait! The joke is on the people who buy it. Nike is lining its coffers at the expense of the women it purports to support. Ha ha! OMG that's so funny. I get it!  Ironic gold digging indeed.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Gender of Second

Mariya Savinova and Caster Semenya
When Caster Semenya raced from last to second in the final stretch of the women's 800 meters, some wondered is she aimed for silver. She has a turbo drive of a kick - if she'd engaged it sooner she might have taken gold. Maybe.

Second guessing someone who comes in second is a strange thing. This isn't to say that the thought didn't occur to me. It was being fed to us all by BBC commentators who wondered how someone with that much "in the tank" could wait so long to use it.

Semenya looks different from her competitors. When she switches from running really fast to her full sprint, it's hard to miss her singularity. Her strength and her power make her simply magnificent to watch.

Like Semenya, Mo Farah spent much of his last race (10,000m) at the back of the pack. As they fought their way forward, he and his training partner (Galen Rupp) had to work hard to avoid being boxed in. The back of the pack is safe in that regard but dangerous in others. You have to know your kick and everyone else's.

Maybe Semenya was working the same strategy and kicked too late. The 800 is a war of strategy and speed. There isn't time to hide.

The Olympic final was a very fast race. Mariya Savinova won in 1:56.19. The Russian looked amazing from start to finish. She won with nearly a second to spare. She very nearly wept on the podium when they played her country's anthem. She ran 1:55.87 at the 2011 World Championships.

The year Semenya became the object of global scrutiny, the year she was sandbagged into what can best be described as a medical rape, she ran 1:55.45. It was the fastest 800 run by any woman in 2009 and the fifth fastest ever. Just over a half a second faster than Savinova's 2011 race. She moved up early, stayed with the leaders and then kicked coming out of the last turn, as one does.

She won that 2009 race by a huge margin. She stood out. She looked like no one else. It looked easy.

When Usain Bolt runs, it looks like he is from a different planet. Some place in the Jamaican Galaxy. His stride is noticeably longer than that of his competitors. He's freakishly tall for a runner. He's different. A man apart. His exceptionalism makes him into a god. It is not in conflict with his masculinity. In fact, his is a standard. All men who sprint are measured against him. In fact, all people who sprint measure themselves against him. He is the fastest person.

One of my nieces has had a poster of Bolt taped to the wall over her bed since the 2008 Olympics. She's a runner.

When Joan Benoit won the first marathon that women were allowed to run at the Olympics, she broke away from the pack early. She was on her own. She clocked in at 2:24:52. Until 1952, the men's world record was slower than that. If she'd run that time in the 1984 men's Olympic marathon she'd have placed 52nd - about two-thirds of the way back into the pack. But of course, if she'd been running with people faster than her, she'd probably have run faster.

Unlike celebrated world marathons, men and women are forced to run completely separate races at the Olympics. They run in "women-only" and "men-only" races.

Not so long ago, the IAAF created a new rule. No times run by women in races that include men count as a women's record unless women are given such a huge head start that no man could possibly race with them. This new rule would invalidate the world marathon record set by Paula Radcliff. Graciously, the IAAF has let it stand as a record for women running "mixed" marathons.

In "mixed" marathons, officials now see men as illegal pace-setters. In this view, male "pace-setters" (meaning here, simply other runners who are faster than the fastest woman) give women an unnatural advantage. A woman who runs faster when she runs alongside the fastest runners in the world has betrayed her sex.

Women must not run raster than women can run.

Women can't run faster then men.

A woman who breaks from the pack isn't doping. She's a man.

Or she is running with men.

One man can run with longer legs than everyone else. Another can run with prosthetics. But a woman can't run in her own body. 


The new IOC gender testing policy mirrors this ideology - defining women by what they must not have or be - by marking testosterone levels as the border it defends against women's exceptional capacities.

Women, now, will be tested for their testosterone levels. Too much (and what that level might be hasn't actually been clearly identified) and she can't compete.

A woman's capacity must be limited. It must be fixed by removing whatever excess officials have latched onto. Men in the race. Maleness in her body. She must be produced as castrated.

In an article for the June 2012 issue of American Journal of Bioethics, scholars condemn the new policy on multiple grounds.
The current scientific evidence...does not support the notion that endogenous testosterone levels confer athletic advantage in any straightforward or predictable way. Even if naturally occurring testosterone levels confer athletic advantage, is that advantage unfair? It bears noting that athletes never begin on a fair playing field; if they were not exceptional in one regard or another, they would not have made it to a prestigious international athletic stage. Athletic excellence is the product of a complex entanglement of biological factors and material resources that have the potential to influence athletic advantage. However, the IAAF and IOC target testosterone as the most important factor in contributing to athletic advantage. The policies seek to do the impossible: isolate androgen from other possible biological factors and material resources to determine that the impact that it alone, in the form of testosterone, has on athletic advantage. ("Out of Bounds: A Critique of the New Policies on Hyperandrogenism in Elite Female Athletes")
They conclude:
Considerations of fairness support an approach that allows all legally recognized females to compete with other females, regardless of their hormonal levels, provided their bodies naturally produce the hormones.
And then proceed to embrace the contradictions that such a policy will bring on. (Different countries define women differently.)


When I was a child "women's lib" and the Equal Rights Amendment were much in the news. Shirley Chisolm was running for president. My parents hosted National Organization of Women meetings in our living room. I pinned an "ERA NOW!" button to whatever I wore to school.

This meant that I got into a lot of arguments with my classmates. Almost always with boys who wanted me to admit the men are faster/smarter/stronger than women. That ERA button was a red flag I waved before little bulls.

I was reminded of this schoolyard training for the junior feminist at a public forum on gender testing in sports. A local radio station invited me to join a panel to talk about the case of Caster Semenya and the recent changes in the IOC's gender testing policy.

All three of the panelists came from feminist and anti-homophobic perspectives - in principal and in practice all three of us are opposed to gender policing. But there was a moment when I felt baited by the one man on the panel, when he tried to engage me in an argument about how men are faster/stronger than women - how the fastest man is stronger than the fastest woman and therefore men and women's sports must be absolutely distinct from each other.

Now, he said this after I'd already indicated that I opposed gender policing and gender segregation in sports. If he was goading me I'd certainly offered myself to be goaded.

But when he put that bit of gendered common sense into play ("the fastest man...") I called him out for baiting me. I couldn't respond to the issue lightly.

This post is not about what gender is faster.

This post is about what gender is given to us, over and over again, as second. It is about all the work we do to make sure that women and men can be told apart from each other, to perpetuate the fiction that male and female are "opposites."

I am protesting a system that produces "female" as a debility.

That is what a policy forcing exceptional women to take a hormone suppressant is: The production of the fiction that women are quantitatively and qualitatively less than men.


A policy that negates the accomplishments of a woman runner because she ran alongside a man is ludicrous and offensive. It is ludicrous because every runner except the one in front is being paced.

It is offensive to deny women the opportunity to be paced by the fastest runners in the world. It is, plain and simple, discrimination. That kind of rule should be against the law.

Men and women should run the marathon together. They just should. Why not have men and women compete with and against each other, as they do in the best events in the world? Why not embrace the fact that it will make the women run faster?


Every elite runner runs against the history of running. It's the difference between a race and a game. A race and a routine.

In their minds, women around the world will run with Usain Bolt and Mo Farah. This takes nothing away from Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Tirunish Dibaba. Surely they run with them too. Surely, as members of an imagined community of athletes, we run with each other.

Caster Semenya reminds me of Usain Bolt.

I want Caster Semenya to lope like him across the finish so far ahead of the pack she makes everyone else look like they are standing still. I want her to avenge the idea that what a woman can do should be limited by some notion of what a man is.

But last night Semenya wasn't our avenging angel. Last night she was Mariya Savinova. She's a ropey figure. More like Farah than Bolt.

As they played her country's anthem Savinova fought back tears of joy. And Caster Semenya looked just as she did when she crossed the finish line. After nearly a year out of the sport and in the headlines, she seemed relaxed - happy to be on the track and pleased as punch with being second.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Greatness Has Been Found: A Close Reading

Doing it themselves. USWNT fans at the 2011 World Cup semi-final.
At the end of yesterday's match, most of the USWNT pulled Nike t-shirts over their uniforms. The kit sponsor must move its merchandise. As long as the swoosh is on the team jersey it doesn't much matter than they throw another Nike product on at the designated moment. Except that this shirt is just so awful. Let me count the ways.

Greatness had been found.

The suggestion is that in the win, the US 'found' a greatness that was absent from not only the team, but from the tournament. This is embarrassing. I love swagger, I really do. But this isn't swagger.

Greatness has been found. In small letters, under the emblem, "United We Stand."

The USWNT has been ranked either number 1 or 2 in the women's game for eons. Even if they don't make the road to victory easy on themselves, they are, in fact, not the underdog. They are the team that everyone wants to beat. Their opponents bring full-on heavy metal GAME. Everyone loves to take them down.

To suggest that this team has had anything but a very long history of "greatness," that this "greatness" (what a shitty word) is anything but their freaking baseline is just ridiculous. Not one fan buys that narrative.

The closest this team came to being an underdog of any kind was last summer and frankly it was only those of us who actually follow the team who were even aware of this. In fact, most of the mainstream US sports media ignored the team during its struggles. Most of us fans could not watch any form of broadcast of the play-off matches with Italy which would determine IF they were going to the World Cup at all.

Greatness has been lost? If only the channel was found upon which we could watch it!

You'll never walk alone? You will in the world of American women's football if you are anything less than freaking invincible.

The Americans feel like they have to win every tournament just to stay in the headlines. Last year was scary. Placing second in the World Cup in the same year that the home league was floundering must have been absolutely harrowing for everyone on the team. This hit home for me as players talked about how hard that loss was. That wasn't just about being bested by Japan. That was about what not being the best might mean.

So it's a bullshit slogan because it implies that people have stood by the sport in its darkest hours and now they have been rewarded by the team suddenly happening upon their own greatness. The US women's soccer program is, instead, a fascinating story of a super-dominant team that has to fight for every single scrap of media real estate. They been doing this for, uhm, twenty years.

Greatness has been found.

The best you can say is that the team was flirting with slight underdog status for a few months last year. There was a chance they might not make it to the finals. A chance. That, my dears, is not an underdog team.  Imagine representing Manchester United or Real Madrid or Spain this way. For, really, that's the level of "greatness" we are talking about, isn't it?

Now, this slogan has a context. Nike has been working this "greatness" theme in an Olympic campaign celebrating the greatness in the ordinary athlete. But the unveiling of this shirt at the moment the US defeated the World Cup champs reveals the grotesque ideology at work in the multi-national apparel corporation's advertising. These ads are deeply manipulative - they show little kids inhabiting the space of big-time sports competition. Adult voices narrate their story as that of the underdog. It's a recitation of all the times girls and boys are told, "no, you can't just do it." And they do it anyway.

If you want a glimpse of how much media manipulation goes into such things, just look at the media's love affair with Lolo Jones and its complete disinterest in the three women who actually won the 100m hurdles. I admire Jones - but USA athletes Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells were favored over Jones and took silver and bronze. New Zealand's Sally Pearson took gold and set an Olympic record. The three of them ran a close race. Photo finish. But at the race's end, the media flocked around Jones.

Meanwhile, Mexican American Leo Manzano stormed through the pack to take a silver medal in the 1500. That's a huge story for all sorts of reasons, too. But it hasn't gotten the same coverage that as Jones's tears.

Greatness has been found.

The media liked the idea of a very beautiful woman who disavows her power. I've always read the media fascination with Jones's virginity as a preference for the self-castrating woman. The pretty, non-threatening underdog. Meaning, if you are woman athlete, please pretend that you don't know the full measure of your power. Please, just be great. But not too great. Not too obvious. Tuck that greatness into the closet. Let someone find it for you. Oh, and please be pretty.

Oh, what a story it would make for that woman to win! This is the media's work not Jones's - she is right to complain that the excoriating she's received is unfair, and it actually makes the whole situation worse.

She lost. Sports media (or, I should just say NBC) was left the fact that it picked an underdog who didn't even medal. AWKWARD. Because then the media was left with the looming question as to why it continued to ignore the two American athletes who did. Even a next-day interview turned focus back to Jones as the interviewer (Michelle Beadle) baited Harper and Wells to trash talk. This they did somewhat gleefully.

Neither Wells nor Harper are self-effacing. They are not prone to apologize for being great. But neither is Usain Bolt. Bolt can boast about being a living legend. He is one. That shirt would make no sense on him. And it makes no sense as a USWNT shirt.

Bolt is with Puma, as it happens. Puma likes Bolt. Puma also understands how to use real-life grammar.

Greatness has been found.

This is not the language of swagger. It is the language of a militarized bureaucracy.

Where was this greatness? Under the couch? In the back of the closet? Did someone leave it on the bus? Someone actually wrote a slogan in passive voice - and then vaporized whatever trace of the subject might have been implied from both the noun and the verb.

How was this greatness found? Did it just roll out from under a seat and then it was noticed, generally - by no one in particular?

Greatness has been found.

American mythology flips its obsession with winners into the delusion that everyone can be a winner.  A winner and an underdog. Everyone always already has won. If this sentence doesn't express the affective miasma of entitlement I don't know what does.

Greatness has been found.

You know, one might want a shirt that said something like "2012 Olympic Champions." OH, wait. Adidas is the official apparel company for the Olympics. Nike can't make a reference to the event on the shirt. (How about "The USWNT went to London in 2012 and won this t-shirt"?)

Finally: The shirt is boring. There is nothing visually interesting about it at all. Not one design element resonates with the game. It could be about anything. Or nothing.

Far, far better are is the "greatness" found by a bunch of teenage girls armed with a pair of scissors and some face paint. They express a guileless enthusiasm for the game that just can't be bottled, and you know it's the only kind of shirt that does real justice to the players.

Happy Together

On July 20th, someone tweeting as Pia Sundhage - and I do think it might actually be Sundhage - wrote the following:
Happy Players have a tendency to make good decisions on the field - together.

Something shifted about 18 months ago. The USWNT looked very shaky. They barely qualified for the World Cup - they lost a game to Mexico (a historic defeat), they had to qualify for the final tournament in a play-off with Italy. In the first round they didn't score a single goal until Alex Morgan struck deep into a complicated injury time extended by the Italian coach's bizarre decision to sub a player (which added at least 30 seconds to match). It should never have come to that.

They squeezed out wins against much less developed teams. Those matches weren't fun to watch. They were stressful, the team appeared stiff and play was stingy. But then last year they played a thriller of a game against Brazil at the World Cup. Then they fought against the run of play and snatched a win from France. Both of those matches were engaging. Even though the team was fighting - they looked so into it. Last summer something broke open. They seemed happy on the field. Joyful.

This past march I spoke with some women in Brazil about soccer. We talked about why it is so hard to get women's soccer off the ground - whether you are organizing a recreational or a professional league.

Instead of talking about sponsorships etc., we started talking about pleasure. About how hard it is for a lot of women to advocate for their own joy. How crazy you can seem when your only reason for doing something is the pleasure it gives you. How often our pleasure is minimized and diminished by others. How we do that to ourselves. Someone hypothesized that the spectacle of women expressing this kind of joy was itself so unsettling in Brazilian culture that this was perhaps one of the game's biggest obstacles. (Which raises the question as to why that joy is so celebrated in other aspects of Brazilian life, but not this one.) I was surprised by that conversation's rapid turn to a certain raw honesty about the thing inside the game. Deep game. Joy, happiness. Happy players play better football.

To extend Sundhage's axiom: A great football team advocates for the happiness of its players. For a profound and communitarian happiness cultivated in the pursuit of a great game. Thus that word "together." One happy player isn't enough. An individual happiness only works in relation to other happinesses.

It's the thing that a lot of people miss from the men's side. And even when we see glimpses of it, our pleasure as spectators has been so ruthlessly exploited I think a lot of us feel alienated even when we, say, watch Spain cruise to another elegant victory. Maybe those men are happy - but that happiness comes at a high price. Maybe we enjoy watching them play - but what is our happiness supporting if not the business of it all. It's long been true for me that the joy I might experience watching the men's game has been compromised. It's the sugar in a Coca-Cola. Tastes good, but toxic.

There were so many matches in this tournament to remind us of the romance that draws fans to the stands. Team GB's win over Brazil was joyful. Brazil has looked distinctly unhappy for a long while now - they've taken on a tragic air. Their game is so obviously rooted in pleasure - without it things just fell apart. Canada's performances across the whole tournament - they have a right to be upset, devestated - this team dialed into each other's game in a way that made them play. Sinclair plays with the dark, slow-burn joy of a great athlete - I want a velvet painting of her post-goal scoring face. At times France seemed more dutiful than joyful in their play. Like they knew what they were supposed to do but couldn't quite feel it.

Japan's had this pleasure vibe for a long while - they are famously not so showy but the affection they feel for each other and for the game itself is evident in every detail. From the moment they walk on the pitch to the moment they take the medal. They might in fact be setting a standard on this front for the world game.

All this was happening in the region that invented the ban against women playing the game - a region that cultivated such a deep hostility to the idea of women playing that it isn't at all unusual to find women who've been mocked - even beaten - for playing when they were girls. Season ticket holders for Arsenal or Tottenham, who were told by school teachers that girls weren't "allowed" to play football - because it was true. The joyful spectacle of an exciting women's game in that context does real, very meaningful political work.

Four years ago I wrote a melancholy, sour post about the final match between Brazil and the US. I'd grown tired of the exchange of trophies between USA and Germany. I'd fallen in love with Brazil's technical skill and attacking game. But then the US shut them down by parking a bus in front of the goal. And Brazil did the same, but not quite as well. Carli Lloyd cracked their defense and scored a goal in the opening minutes of extra time and that was that. 1-0. It wasn't particularly fun to watch. At least not for me. But in the tournament you could see shadows of another world out there - of girls and women growing up with the ball at their feet, playing pick-up soccer just for the hell of it. Of girls who can seriously freestyle. Four years ago there were glimpses of this joy in sides like Brazil, Nigeria and Japan. And more at the 2011 World Cup. France, Equatorial Guinea. Mexico.

This has made the whole game better. So much better. Who would have thought that we'd have tournament finals played to win? Exchanges of leads? Breathtaking attacks and defending by the seat of your pants - or, in Solo's case, by the very tips of your gloves.

It seems like the culture of football cycles from the generous spectacles (full of goals and real drama - bad calls, unlucky breaks) to the miserly (a constipated game producing one lone goal forced out over 90 minutes of a well-executed plan). I'm loving the upswing in this wheel of spectatorial fortune.

I fell in love with Brazil in 2007 (sacrilege to admit!) because (I now see) I fell in love with the game they played. Full of swagger and bravado. Excess. Drama (which could be in fact quite cynical, but they seem to enjoy their own theatrics). When Brazil plays well it's with improvisational genius. For me - in my limited experience - they were the first international women's side to bring that to the broadcast game. More teams are showing the capacity for that kind of game. More teams are putting their signature on it. Entertaining women's football is not an exception, and it is not a surprise. It is, at least right now, the rule.

With that, I offer my deepest thanks to the teams who played for us in London. From South Africa, making it's first appearance in the tournament to the USWNT taking its fourth gold medal.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

All In, All Out: a note on the amazing Megan Rapinoe

In two interviews, four years apart, two different USWNT players casually identified themselves as gay to reporters. Neither did so with the solemn declaration, "I'm a lesbian." Both players answered a reporter's question in a way that snuffed out the presumption of heterosexuality maintained by mass sports media on those rare occasions when it addresses women athletes, a presumption it maintains in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

In 2008, Natasha Kai (remember her?) responded to an NBC interviewer's question about her rocky start on the national team squad:
"It was a hard time," remembered Kai, who saw limited action under former coach Greg Ryan as one of the last three players added to the 2007 World Cup roster. "I had missed the first camp [under Sundhage] in early-January because I had bronchitis, and I was going through a nasty break-up with my girlfriend. Then [Coach Sundhage] told me my job was on the line."
The fact that she's gay was not only subordinate to a story about her fitness; it was subordinate to the story of relationship trouble. The "problem" was not that she had a girlfriend, it was that she and her girlfriend broke up. It was gay drama, but it wasn't drama because it was gay. It isn't at all clear from that interview that Kai was coming out to anyone but the reporter, or to the reader who assumed she was straight. Her answer is structured by the assumption that this is just her life, and anyone who knows her would know this.  Which is a coming out - and it's the kind of coming out that has to be staged over and over again within a discursive context that prefers not to notice that there are a lot of gay people in the sports world. Scarcely any of the media discourse asking "when will it be OK for a soccer player to come out" qualifies the question by pointing out that in fact prominent women athletes have come out, and are a part of our sport. And that this hasn't magically banished homophobia from it.*

Megan Rapinoe's coming out was even less direct than Kai's. In May, Jimmy Conrad (former US national team player) interviewed Rapinoe for KickTV. At the end of their conversation (at about 5:20), he observed that she's been supportive of the gay and lesbian community. By even pointing this out, Conrad identified himself with that community as at least an ally. When does Bob Costas take notice of something like that?


KickTV isn't like mainstream sports media. The Youtube channel is closer to a fan forum. Conrad is very relaxed and familiar with his interview subjects, and his interviews are conducted with a sense of humor. The whole affect of the video is closer to what soccer culture actually feels like (alternately technical, serious, self-deprecating, goofy, bashful). It is much more familiar to me than is anything I've seen from NBC this summer.

Conrad's question seemed pulled from conversations about the men's game. Things are pretty stark in that world. It is indeed hard to imagine a current EPL player coming out to the media. The question seemed like it was pointing in the direction of the men's game, but this wasn't at all clear.

In the women's game, things aren't so black and white. There are, in fact, quite a few high profile figures in women's soccer who have spoken publicly as lesbian athletes, usually without making the fact that they are doing so into a headline. Pia Sundhage, Nadine Angerer, Hope Powell - in most of these cases, the fact that these women have placed themselves within the lesbian and gay community isn't news, except to LGBT media. ( keeps a constant eye out for players who take this step, as does After Ellen.) Mainstream sports media avoids acknowledging the sexuality of out lesbian players, even as it apparently can't stop itself from addressing the romantic lives of straight players. (Thank god for Hope Solo, who forces heterosexist media to wrangle with a loud-mouthed shameless man-eater. HA.)

In any case, when it comes to naming a player as not only lesbian, but "out," in the women's game we are often discerning between shades of gray. In an interview for a program called Abbey Road, for example, Marta was asked about the impact of her international travel on her relationship with her girlfriend (also a soccer player). She said that of her two loves, soccer comes first. Is that a coming out? Can a player be out in Sweden but not in the US? Seems so. So why, in the US, does the air get sucked out of the room when the word lesbian is put in the same sentence as "Marta"? Perhaps while she was under contract with the WPS, the desire was that everyone practice a "don't ask, don't tell" policy? What was the fear,exactly? That lesbians might suddenly start attending soccer matches?

In Strong Women, Deep Closets (1998), Pat Griffin offers a table of escalating categories of "outness" to describe how people manage their identity in sports.
  1. Completely Closeted             Concealing lesbian identity from all in athletic context
  2. Passing as heterosexual         Intentionally leading selected others in athletic context to see self as heterosexual
  3. Covering lesbian identity      Concealing lesbian identity from selected others in athletic context
  4. Implicitly out                        Allowing selected others in ahtletic conext to see self as lesbian without naming self
  5. Explicitly out                        Intentionally revealing lesbian identity to selected others in athletic context
  6. Publicly out                           Revelaing lesbian identity to everyone in athletic context.
It's a helpful scale for at least presenting something other than the "closeted" or "out" binary that usually shapes this conversation. A lot of public figures in sports seem to fall somewhere between 4/implicit and 6/public, but of course these would be the athletes that we are mostly likely to notice. 

Even within the top of that range there seems to be room for nuance and gradations, given the complexity of the media sphere. Today, it isn't like you are coming out to one of three networks. Instead, you talk about your girlfriend within a very specific media context that cares and respects you for the player you are. It's not the same interview you'd give to ESPN - it is unlikely that ESPN would solicit that kind of interview from you. They aren't going to ask you what it's like to have a girlfriend who also plays your sport at the international level. Or if coming out shifted your play at all. Or if there are lesbian athletes who inspired you. (espnW might, someday.) The remarks you do make on these subjects within the micro-media of (e.g.) women's sports blogs may or may not be picked up by larger media networks. Given the paucity of attention given to the women's game in general it isn't likely to be as big a story as, say, a ponytail pull. 

Anyway, Pia Sundhage has said that for her being a lesbian "is no problem," and that she and her partner were welcomed when they came to the US. (See Patricia Nell Warren's recent article on Sundhage.)

But it is a problem for plenty of people. As readers of this blog will know, there's a broad and deep culture of homophobia in and around women's sports. And if players are pressured to be very, very discrete about their homosexuality, you can assume that this pushes a lot of women out of the sport entirely. Gender policing and homophobia push a lot of people out of sports. No news there.

Athletes decide to be discrete about their sexuality for lots of reasons - and I'm not in any place to speak to their experiences. Coming out to the media is a political act and what that means to the person who does it is something only they can tell us. But the ramifications of coming out seem to be more complicated than we want to believe - for women have come out, and that doesn't seem to change how women are represented. If anything it just seems to make the commercial organizations that manage sports anxious.

Conrad's question to Rapinoe:
You've vocally supported the lesbian and gay community. What do you think about the absence of out athletes in sports? Do you think we'll see a high profile soccer player come out soon?
This question replicates a lot of assumptions - assumptions built on years of not remembering or noticing the women athletes who are out. I mean, her coach is out. And she's one of the most famous people in the sport. How can you ask a woman on the USWNT soccer team that question without erasing the lesbians who are a part of it?

There was no way for Rapinoe to address that question with a "Yes/No/Maybe" without replicating its assumptions. And there was no way to respond honestly without "outing" herself. Without promoting herself from perhaps level 5 to level 6. So Rapinoe answered:
Hopefully. I think that obviously we're out there. It's weird. I guess on the female side, not on the men's side. But it's accepted within the teams and within the sport. But it seems sports is that last...institutional homophobia.
Welcome to level 6. I love how in getting stuck with explaining a pretty complicated subject she just sends a cross to "institutional homophobia." For that's the right move: if you haven't noticed that quite a few of the most famous women in the sport are out to the media, then that's a symptom of a big problem.

Rapinoe refused to allow herself to be interpellated as closeted, and she also refused to allow the question to situate her as somehow in the dark about the fact that there are, in fact, quite a few out lesbians in the sports world. Obviously. That is as important as the word "we." Obviously we are out there.

All of this is to say that there are out women in sports. Pia Sundhage, Hope Powell, Nadine Angerer - that's just a few. None of them are shrinking violets, none of them are in hiding. But there are days when it seems like the media is hiding from them.

As we all know, Megan Rapinoe has gone on to have a fantastic tournament. Obviously, there's no hiding from that.

*For bloggers trying to find their way through this thicket, GLAAD offers a media guide for addressing sports and homophobia. You can download it here.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Poetics of Failure: On NBC's Coverage of Gymnastics

The network that broadcasts the Olympics mediates the Olympics. That is what media does. NBC has been particularly stingy with the live broadcast of marquee events. By the time the network airs its prime time program, people like myself have already consumed, digested and excreted opinions about not just the day's events, but media coverage of them. This makes evening coverage feel worse than "delayed." NBC's evening broadcast is the night of the living dead of sports coverage.

The gross jingoism and cynical story-manipulation (always a factor for any Olympics broadcast) amplifies the problem of time difference - the agonizing suspense of watching events like gymnastics is completely destroyed by editorial practices that decide for you what performances are important.

The exciting thing about live broadcast is that you have no idea what performances will be important. Each one might be. Each failure hits you like a little knife stab. You wince, but some of that wince is pleasurable.

NBC decided to deny us this experience in the sport that is most defined by it. Watching gymnastics can feel like being tickled. The fan sits through one routine after another, holding her breath in anticipation of some kind of athletic humiliation.

Sports like gymnastics and figure skating are defined by this poetics of virtuosity and failure. The performance of virtuosity that defines these sports is not same that we seek in something like the perfection of a ballet. When you go to see a ballet you are not waiting for someone to fail. But that is exactly what we wait for as we watch someone flip their bodies over a balance beam. We are afraid the athlete is going to fall - and the sport encourages our souls to hover over that likelihood. We know it's coming - but from where? When? Who?

There is an exquisite thrill to watching people defy spectatorship's death-drive - in doing so, they flirt with the part of us that wants someone to release us from the agony of anticipation. The audience's groan at a gymnast's fall can thus sound like the release of a pressure valve. The joy expressed in response to the perfect routine is that of pleasure extended beyond what you thought was possible.

The importance of failure to these events is what makes them sports. If these sports theatricalize perfection, it is by playing its difficulty out before our eyes.

Gymnastics is a theater of failure - this is what makes live broadcasts of gymnastics so popular with people who don't even follow the sport. Its athletes are brutally judged. Scored. One. At. A. Time. Every flaw is on full view.

The network's attempt to override and take control over this aspect of gymnastics left its coverage of the women's team feeling particularly distorted and out of focus. The consistent marginalization of Gabby Douglas's accomplishments; the association of her presence with Jordyn Weiber's absence in the all-around finals - this was enabled by the void created by the network's failure to cover the full competition. (The Crunk Feminist Collective is the go-to source for reading of Gabby Douglas's accomplishments and how they've been handled by the media.)

It's as if NBC had no idea that spectators are drawn to the sport's brutality, to its unforgiving attention to the body and to its most retrograde articulation of femininity. It's as if NBC forgot that the thrill of gymnastics is found in its violent juxtaposition of the denial of gravity and the staging of the evaluation of young women, publicly and individually.  NBC had bet on its favorite story - the underdog destined to win (Weiber), but miscast the role. You got the sense that its coverage was shaped well before the event even happened. That it plugged whatever happened into an old script. Thus going into the all-around competition Douglas's presence became the story of Weiber's absence.

So the network was slow in responding to the story that was already in place before the games started. The one in which Douglas was fighting to be the first African American to win an individual gold medal in this sport, ever.

That context renders Gabby Douglas's triumph within the sport's elaborate theater all the more meaningful. She becomes visible within this context as a refusal of failure, in a triumph over the sport's economy of humiliation. It's a brutal form of perfection, and its full measure can only be taken in relation to all the others on that day who tried and failed to get there.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Weight of History: Great Britain & Brazil play at Wembley

According to the FIFA preview for this event, Team GB's game against Brazil will be the first women's football match ever played at Wembley.*

I'm a big supporter of Team GB. They have great players - just the midfield features Jill Scott, Rachel Yankey, Fara Williams, Anita Asante. There's Kelly Smith, Ellen White, Alex Scott - all fantastic and very experienced players. England (Team GB is England w/ a few players from Scotland) beat Japan 2-0 in the World Cup. They beat the US in a friendly a few months before that. They lost to France in the quarterfinals on penalties. (That left us with a lot to talk about as manager Hope Powell complained to the press that too few of the players wanted to take the penalty shots. The media storm created by that was perhaps even worse than that created recently by Solo. There was talk of Powell's retirement from the England team.)

Team GB is a legacy team. If within the men's game there is a romance to playing for the countries that "invented" football, the women who take the field at Wembley tomorrow honor a far more heroic past. For fifty years of women were banned from football pitches. Where at the end of WWI, people turned out in huge numbers (far exceeding attendance at women's league matches in England and the US) by the 1970s (when the game was decriminalized) it was a nearly universal object for derision.

But off the grid, behind that history of prohibition and hostility women played on. If the FA banned women's football and created a culture in which the idea of women playing the game seemed ridiculous, they also created a football underground. The ban produced a punk-rock oppositional zone for gender non-conforming girls and women to find each other. By this I don't mean that women footballers circa 1970 were gay punks and labor organizers. But rather that the history of women's football is that of a counter-culture - far more powerfully than is true of the men's game, even given its working class roots. How many men are bullied and harassed off of football pitches, for being men? (Histories of women's teams through the 70s and 80s can include stories of women being physically assaulted for taking pitches - telling men to get off the field you've paid for could be dangerous.)

I just love the women of those generations and the legacy they've given us - a legacy of outspoken, pig-headed, delusional figures like Hope Powell - who fought her way through circumspect and hostile boys, proved herself amongst them, played for women's teams through years when doing so was seen as a ridiculous waste of time, then slugged it out with the FA. As she put it in an interview, "I will not be bullied."

And she won't take anything less than that level of determination from her squad.


My emotional attachment to this team is complicated. They have contributed some of the most exciting matches to the recent history of the women's game. It has been generally true that you can count on Brazil for entertaining football - technical skill, theatrics, gamesmanship, emotion and drama. The women's team has everything the men's team is famous for. Except money and institutional backing.

It was easy to root for them when they played Germany - when they were the underdog, the talented side proving themselves to an indifferent CBF (the organization managing the sport in Brazil). They have pleaded for help from the CBF for years. In 2007, while at the Women's World Cup, the team's players wrote and signed a letter of complaint to the federation. They complained that not only was the team under-supported, the CBF routinely failed to direct awards money to the team. There was no clarity regarding financial support for players, and no consistency in material support for the team's training.

They thought things would improve when they won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics. They gave the heavily favored USWNT a run for the money (Abby Wambach who put the game away in its waning minutes). Given their outstanding performance there, the Brazilian thought maybe things would get better for them. But their future success would only highlight the potential that was going to waste. Year after year.

At the 2011 World Cup, the team went into competition wearing the uniform for the men's side. That's as big a symbolic statement as a federation can make - they do not order team kits specific to the women's side (and so their shirts had stars for all the World Cup trophies won by the men). The women complained publicly about these problems in 2007. Little has changed. Lost in reports regarding the profound corruption at the highest levels of Brazilian football is the impact of this lack of professionalism must have on the women's team. It's dire.

Brazil's women ask their federation for support, holding up a banner at the 2007 Women's World Cup award ceremony.
Imagine you compete against the US and Germany, year after year you show that you have the ability to conquer teams with far better training.

The team's semifinal win (4-1) against Germany in the 2008 Olympics remains one of my favorite viewing experiences. In that match they broke Germany's defense. Better teams (including the US) had tried and failed. It was a very physical game, but it was a game that also featured fantastic technical ability and a certain ruthlessness. Both teams tried to knock their opponent out of rhythm. Brazil played like a real team. Their first goal was a telepathic collaboration between three of the game's absolute best: Formiga, Marta and Cristiane. They never connected like that in the final, though. The USWNT took all the wind out of their sails, and took the trophy with one goal scored in extra-time.

Imagine that over and over again you find yourself inches from a trophy. You have not just one of the best players in the world on your squad (Marta), but two (Cristiane) - and a host of others who are absolute all-stars (Formiga - playing in her fifth Olympics). But you never get to the winner's circle - after so many years, maybe you stop thinking that you can. Because the grim reality of it all soaks in: the world is full of talented players. You need more.

Cut to last year's World Cup tournament. The team's performance in the game against the USWNT was heartbreaking. As much as I was rooting for the American women, I was rooting for a great performance from Brazil. Yes, they almost knocked the US out of the tournament. They were so close. But they played angry.

They didn't play with the kind of focused anger Wambach used to avenge herself against Colombia's Lady Andrade. Last year, Brazil played like they were angry at the world - like the USWNT had everything that they have been fighting for and have been denied. Like they were frustrated and like they were very tired of being frustrated. It looks to me like the battle with the CBF is breaking them. I guess they were just playing by the 'by any means necessary' playbook. Infamously, at about 115 minutes Erika plopped herself down on the field and just lay there, faking injury and eating up nearly four minutes of the game. After watching that, I wondered if I could ever want to see them win anything again, ever.

I still can't believe that happened.

In this tournament, Brazil has yet to be tested. Five unanswered goals against Cameroon isn't really a game. To score only one against New Zealand - late in the match, too - it doesn't bode well.

Whatever the outcome, Team GB and Brazil are both heading to the quarterfinals. They are playing to avoid moving on to face the second place finisher in group F: right now, that's likely to be the reigning World Cup champions. If it's not, then it's formidable Sweden Canada. The winner of this match, however, will move on to face Canada or North Korea. That's where both will want to be.

*I never trust this kind of information, as people have a tendency to frame every big women's event as a "first," even when history says otherwise. (The launch for the FA Women's Super League was staged at Wembley, but no matches have been played there.)
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