The Olympics are a time of unity and excitement: we acknowledge diversity and achieve international cooperation; we celebrate feats of the human body that take our collective breath away. And somehow, during all of this, yelling “but is it a sport!?” becomes another Olympic event.
According to people who whined their way through Olympics coverage, basically every single Olympic event is “not a sport.” We all heard it: in the middle of rhythmic gymnastics, during Aly Raisman’s gold medal-winning floor routine, or after watching Russian synchronized swimming, someone (usually sitting on his or her couch) got very emphatic about whether the event used too much make up, included music, or was “silly” (because clearly, kicking a ball across a field for 90 minutes or hitting a ball with a stick isn’t silly at all).
The sports world has long been valued through a masculine lens, in which the primary elements that matter are strength and speed. Skill, of course, is also valued, but if an activity is judged on how aesthetically pleasing that skill is – in other words, if any athlete is also putting on a performance – it is suddenly “not a sport.” Making things aesthetically pleasing is not masculine; in fact, most of traditional femininity is based in performance and making things look good.
Some viewers start to get nervous when adding femininity to sports, even though adding it doesn’t actually eliminate the masculine elements of a sport. Given the opportunity, we can value both athleticism and grace, strength and flexibility. The primary focus is still the competition; the primary goal is still to use the human body better than the other person.
But those emphatic viewers, the ones who turned on daytime Olympic coverage just to rant about how “real sports don’t use hula hoops” (actual quote from a coworker), are obviously feeling quite threatened. Allowing elements of femininity into sports means that we are opening the door to something some sports fans may not like, or may not understand. Those who value the uber-masculine nights of beer-drinking and wing-eating see a disconnect between Monday Night Football and what’s being called a “sport” during the Olympics. And what, now you’re expected to know the difference between a triple lutz and a triple salchow?
If you don’t believe the sports world is afraid of opening the door to its cave of masculinity to let everyone inside, consider the Super Bowl. In 2011, nearly 50% of Super Bowl viewers identified as women. But that didn’t stop women from being constantly objectified during the commercial breaks the following year. In objectifying women, the Super Bowl broadcast consistently reminds male viewers – or those masculine enough to exemplify the men in the commercials, at least – that they are in some special club. Those who don’t identify with masculinity, regardless of our places on the gender spectrum, are not acknowledged as viewers, reminding us that we have no role in the broadcast, and we probably shouldn’t be watching in the first place.
But no one owns sports, so I’m begging those of you who find the need to call out “not a sport” every time something looks pretty to please stop. There’s no need to feel threatened because figure skating, gymnastics, dressage, and synchronized swimming have entered your sacred world. Traditionally masculine sports haven’t become any less important because we’re also excited about Jordyn Wieber and Evan Lysacek. I’m still a baseball fan, I still love college basketball, and none of this ends when “sports” means more. Making the sports world more inclusive means more people are active, more of us get to take joy in competition, and more talent gets the attention it deserves.