Washington: Deep into the Olympics – almost to the end, really – and we’ve reached the Land of the Women of the Pretty Sports.
Here is Russia, paddling to its fifth straight synchronised-swimming gold, in a routine called “Angels” that involved eyebrow-skimming blue eyeshadow and headpieces resembling starfish. Here are the semifinals of rhythmic gymnastics, in which shockingly flexible athletes hurl rubber balls in the air with control that rivals Kevin Durant, while wearing uniforms that rival “Showgirls.”
“They need to be very glamorous, glitzy – it’s all part of the sport,” said one announcer to the other during the finals of the synchronised swimming competition. “The headpieces, too, they have to be a certain size.”
“Cheeky!” her co-announcer replied a few moments later. “Really good fun.”
The Women of the Pretty Sports cannot be seen in prime time. The Women of the Pretty Sports – and yes, it is a women thing; these are the two female-only events in the Olympics – must be livestreamed in the middle of the day (US time).
That well-used phrase about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels? These athletes are the absolute best in the world at what they do, and they compete with giant gauze baubles pinned to their heads while nobody at home is even watching.
Trust us, we are as tired as you of analysing the way female athletes are treated differently in these Olympics. After commentators credited Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu’s world records to her husband (who remained on dry land), our eyes were too strained to keep rolling.
But as the Rio Games come to a close, we can’t help but look back at what the ladies were wearing, and what that meant.
The moment when women’s Olympic attire became truly jarring was during the individual gymnastics competition. Oksana Chusovitina, a 41-year-old Uzbeki gymnast was competing in her seventh – seventh! – Olympics. The double-somersaulted vault that she chose is known as the “Vault of Death” and Chusovitina, who has a son older than many of her competitors, performed it while wearing a pink leotard covered in sequins, her hair secured into a high ponytail with a scrunchie.
Did she look ridiculous – half spangled, half crows feet? No, she looked like a finely tuned, slightly middle-aged machine. What Chusovitina’s presence revealed as ridiculous was the costume itself: the fact that any world-class athlete should be expected to push through torn ligaments and sprained ankles, complete literally death-defying feats, always stick the landing, and do it while wearing abundant glitter.
Would we expect a male gymnast to do the same? Usain Bolt? Michael Phelps?
Of course not – it would be silly to expect glitter for a sport competed entirely in the water. And yet somehow elaborate make-up is de rigueur for the synchronised swimmers, whose workout routines include swimming three miles a day, hours of strength and flexibility conditioning, and practicing underwater routines with weights attached to their wrists and ankles to increase stamina, according a profile on British Olympian Olivia Federici. Federici told the Guardian, “In competition, I wear lipstick and dark eye-shadow and my hair is scraped back in a bun with gelatin to accentuate our facial features so the judges can see our expressions.”
Commenters and Twitter snarkers have already made note of the absurdity of “expressions” playing any kind of role at all in athletic competitions. “Please stop telling Gabby Douglas to smile,” begged a headline from Women’s Health magazine, because when Gabby Douglas comes in a disappointing seventh and looks a tad sad about it, she becomes “Crabby Gabby.” When Michael Phelps shoots death rays from his eyeballs at a competitor, he’s a delightful meme.
You tell me that all athletic costumes and accessories are designed specifically to enhance the performance of that particular sport, and I’ll believe you – I’m useless with anything involving a ball, a javelin, a hurdle, a kneepad. But if that’s the case, why do the male beach volleyball players compete in long shorts and loose tank tops, while their female counterparts are in bikinis? Why are female hurdlers in essentially underpants, and men in mid-thigh shorts? You tell me whether Simone Biles’s powerful routines would be any less physically impressive if she completed them in a solid-color unitard?
“She’s been a bit inconsistent,” an announcer said of an Israeli rhythmic gymnast who faltered with a piece of equipment during her routine, around 2.30pm Friday afternoon, peak time for the Women of the Pretty Sports.
“But what impressive shoulder flexibility,” his partner added.
It sounded like they were talking about an athlete – and she is one. It’s too bad she had to look like a tip-hungry server at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.