3 Aug 2016

A sight for sore eyes: why watching the Olympics is a win for women

11:56 am on 3 August 2016

The Olympics are a radical season of sport watching, which gives our rugby-obsessed little country other things to think about for a change, writes Katie Parker.

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Photo: Image: Katie Parker

Clearly things are not looking great for the Rio Olympics: the Zika virussuper gross pollutionkidnappings and a corrupt government are rarely conducive to a fun mass international sporting event. 

This is a terrible shame because the Olympics are awesome.

Let us count the ways: they last a brief 16 days, so you don’t get too sick of them; they are fun and pageant-y, with mascots and ceremonies and fabulous prizes; best of all, they are a chance for our rugby-obsessed little country to think about other things for a change.

It’s an almost radical season of sport watching. In fact, as a somewhat sports-averse person, they are revelatory. Every four years, I remember that sports need not be a disturbing performance of gender roles and myopic nationalism and brutish hordes, but rather a celebration: of bodies, amazing, disciplined, freakishly honed bodies, doing absurd, beautiful, surreal things that can be funny or silly or scary - but always exciting. 

In case you hadn’t noticed, female athletes are a little thin on the ground in sports coverage. I know there are female rugby players and cricket players and basketball players, so why do we never ever seem to see hide nor hair of them?

The Olympics are also really the one time you see female athletes given more or less the same importance and screen time as male athletes, and thus one of the only times you get an influx of images of the female body without it being politicised and fetishised. Instead, for once in our lives, it is chance to see the female body in completely practical terms, with the only thing to measure being how strong, how incredible, and how disciplined they are.

I would love to say it makes me feel empowered and freed and liberated, but I am way too conditioned by our patriarchal hell dystopia for it to make me feel good or inspired about the practical possibilities of my own body.

Instead, it’s like a visual holiday, a chance to watch and consider women’s bodies with a completely different eye. With the exception of bloody beach volley ball, which is just pure male-gaze Trojan horse bullshit, to watch it as a woman is almost like escapism.

Of course, there are always gross guys making stupid jokes about the women looking masculine, or the men being feminine or incredible graceful sport-arts like rhythmic gymnastics or synchronised swimming being trivial or silly or funny (things all sport is). But for women, as viewers of sport, the Olympics are genuinely refreshing and kind of radical.

A preoccupation with the potential of the human body is at the core of our fascination with the moving image, and there are few better places than to feed this than the Olympics. And though there are obviously organised sports in there too, it’s the emphasis on the individual that makes this spectacle of the body so watchable.

Unhindered by stupid games and rules and celebrity, bodies are the stars and they can do some crazy shit. And they’re all alone. Just one little person made of the same soft vulnerable mushy matter as you or I, pushing themselves to the extreme in front of the whole wide world.

You see we are all narcissists by nature and we want to see images of ourselves, reflected back, constantly. But not just that: aspirational versions of ourselves, doing things that surely, if we had the wherewithal, we too could do.

There’s always issues, and this year is no different: in addition to some VERY SERIOUS health and safety concerns in this year’s host country, there are extensive issues with doping, an uncomfortably white New Zealand Olympic line-up and Katy Perry.

What is an Olympics lover to do?

Watch away, but bear in mind that fun sports events are a privilege, not a right. These issues and those that athletes and fans and other sports-goers are contending with are in Brazil, for the most part, not new. Yet the world only takes an interest in such things when sports are involved?

These problems have downsides far worse than just spoiling the Olympics and it sucks that that is what people get salty about. Maybe when we watch this year instead of escapism it will be a reality check, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Or maybe it will all be swept under the rug as usual. Either way, keep it real guys.

The Rio Olympics begin this weekend.