There seems to be an annoyingly persistent trend regarding female athletes at these Olympic games. If you’re trim and cute — say, a member of the Dutch women’s field hockey team, you’re good to go. You can look forward to face time with the press, endorsements and maybe even earn yourself one of NBC’s overly dramatic, sob-story-behind-the-athlete spots. If, however, your sport requires a physique that’s maybe slightly less feminine, perhaps you’re a swimmer or a weightlifter, you’re on your own. You stand to either be criticized for being too manly, like British weightlifter Zoe Smith, or — possibly worse — ignored entirely.
Take U.S. weightlifter Sarah Robles for example. She’s ranked no. 1 among U.S. women listed in the super heavyweight division and placed 11th at last year’s world championships. She’s 5’10.5″, 275 pounds, and can lift well over twice her own body weight (her best is 568 lbs!). Definitely a world-class athlete at the top of her game. So what’s the problem? She’s relatively unknown to the general sports-viewing public, which makes it difficult for her to secure substantial endorsements. Robles says it best herself in an interview with BuzzFeed:
You can get a sponsorship if you’re a super-built guy or a girl who looks good in a bikini. But not if you’re a girl who’s built like a guy.
No endorsements obviously means no money, which in turn leaves aspiring Olympians like Robles, for whom training is the equivalent of a full time job, in a tough spot. If you’re slim, blond Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova, your endorsement deals with Nike and Tag Heuer will handily pay the bills so that you can focus on your athletic career. For Robles, however, her lack of commercial sponsorship means she has to figure out how to subsist on her $400 monthly stipend from U.S.A. Weightlifting, along with visits to food pantries and the good will of her loved ones.
I sense a wee bit of irony here (aside from the obvious objectification/perpetuance of an idealized female body image). In order to perform at elite levels, athletes like Robles have to maintain body types outside of the popular norm for females. In order to focus on training and not have to worry about how to make a few hundred dollars last a whole month, they need to secure sponsorships or endorsements. In order to secure these deals, they need to have a slender, athletic build that appeals to the general sports-viewing public. If they do slim down, however, they jeopardize their ability to excel at their sport. It hardly seems fair, especially in an arena like the Olympics, where athletic ability should be the bottom line when it comes to individual athletes’ success. Robles again:
I still have bad thoughts about myself, but I’ve learned that you have to love yourself the way you are…I may look like this, but I’m in the Olympics because of the way I am.
Well said, Robles. Fortunately, internet ad firm Solve Media recently responded to the ThinkProgress petition on Robles’ behalf and offered her a sponsorship. Hallelujah! Here’s what CEO Ari Jacoby had to say:
“It pained me to see someone at the top of her game working for what amounts to a few hundred dollars a month,” he said. “She’s the very best of the best, poised to end a 12-year medal drought in her sport. And she’s living this way because it’s her ultimate dream to represent her country and achieve greatness in the sport that she loves.”
How refreshing (and for once I mean that sincerely). It’s great that one company had the good sense to step up and reward Robles’ obvious dedication to her sport, but what about other non-traditionally shaped women in non-mainstream sports? Should we cross our fingers and hope that plus-sized, non-pixie-like women become the most sought after athletic spokespeople overnight? We probably shouldn’t hold our breaths. Should Olympic sports be narrowed down to only those that allow female participants to appear dainty and feminine? I doubt that one would go over well. Maybe we need a beautiful-people-only Olympic games to even the playing field? No?
In all seriousness, it would be great to see two things happen:
1. More companies like Solve Media should give women like Robles a chance at endorsements. Mainstream acceptance of women with varying body types won’t grow without exposure to different shapes and sizes.
2. The International Olympic Committee, its member nations, and individual sports associations should review how athletes are compensated. If athletes are going to represent their home countries and potentially bring them prestige on a world stage, it seems they deserve a fair chance to live above the poverty line — regardless of their appearance.
What do you think?
Photo Credit: sillygwailo via Flickr