The #girlpower headlines are everywhere: “Year of the Woman at the Olympic Games? For Americans, It’s True.” “U.S. Female Olympians Have Won More Medal Points Than All But Four Countries.” The weirdest: “U.S. Domination of Women’s Sports Proves Power of Positive Thinking.”
When the Olympics began two weeks ago, the headlines were about the slight gender imbalance on the U.S. team—more women than men for the first time ever. As the Games close today, the storyline has shifted to focus on the huge number of medals those women have won (about two-thirds of the total U.S. haul). On every social media platform, I’ve seen dozens of smart feminists post these stories with triumphant messages.
But labeling the U.S. women’s Olympic blitz an unequivocal feminist success demonstrates a misunderstanding of the international sports world. U.S. women didn’t win more medals because they’re better than their male counterparts. They won more medals because they’re better than their (female) competitors from other countries. And unless your feminism applies only to Americans, that’s not something to celebrate.
The (relatively) low number of medals for U.S. men demonstrates (relative) parity in men’s sports. There are still events in which the big, bad Americans win easily (watching some of those early-round basketball games was a joke), but there are more in which they are playing against tough competitors from even small, developing countries. All but a handful of nations have dramatically fewer sports resources than the U.S., but they usually find ways to support their top male athletes. It’s much more rare to see that sort of commitment to women.
The trailblazing Saudi Arabian 800m runner Sarah Attar would not have qualified for the Olympics if she’d had any competition from outside her own country. When she did compete on the world stage, she finished a distant last in her qualifying heat. And that makes sense! She’s never had resources or high-level training. She doesn’t have predecessors to emulate and surpass. Attar is obviously the extreme example, but the number of countries where women are taken seriously as athletes is shockingly small. When we celebrate the U.S. women’s gaudy medal total, we’re celebrating the fact that women are more oppressed elsewhere. Hearing a little less of the Star Spangled Banner during Sochi 2014 would be the true sign of progress.