The Sochi Olympics get underway tonight. Erica Rand, author of Red Nails, Black Skates, loves figure skating but hates the way atheletes are expected to conform to race and gender norms in our Olympic narratives. She offers us this guest post.
On Sunday, January 11th, I watched on the Jumbotron at the U.S. Figure Skating (USFS) championships as the organization’s president announced the selection of fourth-place Ashley Wagner over third-place Japanese American Mirai Nagasu to the 2014 U.S. Olympic team, making the “Ladies” contingent a contested trio of white blonds. Ever since, I’ve been raging and sad about the sedimented and raced histories of privilege that contribute to the obfuscating image of the Olympics as an extravaganza of sports transcending politics. I’ve forced the topic onto every polite or captive audience I could find— students, colleagues, friends, strangers on a bathroom line—complete with details can only be told long-windedly to people who don’t follow figure skating (i.e. virtually everyone I’ve mentioned): how USFS made unprecedented use of its selection policy to elevate someone who had competed badly there; how strict use of the policy might have instead booted silver medalist Polina Edmunds, an unexpected stand-out but new to the highest level of skating, or altered the men’s or pairs teams; how Wagner’s decisively lower score for a program leaden by her own account (and I saw it live!) seemed inflated besides; how even people defending the decision knew that “this never would have happened if Mirai hadn’t shown up without a coach,” suggesting insider knowledge of insider influence; and, finally, although I could go on and on (ask me for 1000 more words about that coaching situation), how USFS and NBC had an obvious predicament when Wagner blew it because they had already been promoting her as an Olympic contender—and, implicitly, as a contestant for an unofficial title that, as the cover of the latest TV Guide indicates, now has a new frontrunner in the Ladies gold medalist. Atop one of the assembled photographs of promising (white) U.S. Olympic athletes, the caption reads “Gracie Gold: Will She be America’s Next Sweetheart?”
For that title—sometimes known as “Darling of the Olympics” and lucrative for athletes, their sport, and the media alike—Wagner, Edmunds, and Gold have a key credential that Nagasu lacks: the glorious glow of flowing blond hair that signals, if not always accurately, the highest echelons of whiteness and proper heterosexual femininity. That’s why the “darling” or “sweetheart” usually comes from figure skating, a sport where heterosexual-looking femininity wins medals as well as public affection. (Stop here for a moment and ask yourself whether every single high-level female figure skater in history could possibly have been heterosexual. Ask yourself whether everyone skating as female, queer or straight, could possibly prefer to move and dress in ways that signal straight, especially when people read sexuality, badly, off gender. Then ask yourself why all the murmuring and exposé about the figure skating “closet” is almost exclusively focused on harm to men.) At Vancouver in 2010, where NBC virtually ignored Nagasu until she came in an impressive fourth against formidable opponents and where her U.S. teammate Rachel Flatt had the pale skin but not the pizzazz, that role went to skier Lindsay Vonn. Meanwhile, NBC upped its flowing-white-straight-girl-hair quotient through glamor shots of the female snowboarders that preceded the sight of them about to begin their half-pipe runs in baggy grunge-esque team uniforms and helmets.
I would hardly argue that USFS dumped Nagasu in order to get three shots at the Olympics’ big blond halo. Nor, clearly, does Nagasu’s situation remotely approach the Olympics’ biggest injustice. As David Zirin well itemized in October on the 45th anniversary of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising theirs fists on the Olympic medal stands, we need an Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), like the one that they participated in, now as much as ever. “Host” nations displace urban poor people, compete on stolen indigenous land, harm the environment, and initiate or continue bigoted, violent, and repressive policies and practices. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) still forces “sex-verification testing,” which, like Smith and Carlos, made its Olympic debut in 1968, on athletes in female-tagged events accused of not looking or competing female enough; tests based on bad science are thrown at racialized gender-norm policing and foul linkings of supreme athleticism with maleness. The IOC also maintains backward criteria for the participation of transgender athletes (in a system always excluding athletes who can’t conform to gender binarism). It requires “sex-reassignment” surgeries unrelated to athletic performance and the so-called level playing field, which, of course, is largely mythical anyway when you factor in training advantages linked to money, influence, opportunity, connections, status, bias, and privilege that affect who can become a contender in the first place. I could go on and on about that, too. But for now, I’ll stick with Mirai.