Random thoughts after Week 1 in Rio

We are one week into the Rio Olympics and I have some thoughts-- well, a lot of thoughts, but here are some serious (and not so serious) personal highlights. I'll focus on the big three that sociologists like to think about: gender, class, and race.

One aspect of the gendered coverage I am less convinced by though is the motherhood. If you'd ask me in 2008 I likely would have given you a   different reaction, but the fact is that I have created two human beings since then. And, honestly, I am in AWE that people like Kerri Walsh Jennings and Dana Vollmer (Girl, I totally noticed in an NBC interview when you commented on when your *first* child was born-- could you possibly be swimming pregnant?! Walsh Jennings did do just that in London...) had children who are younger or the same age as my youngest and they are performing at the top of the world, sometimes better than before. Now, don't get me wrong, it's not like my body could do what they did before childbirth anyway. But I DO find it noteworthy that they are physically so amazing not that far removed (months!) from pregnancy and labor/delivery. Additionally, they sure ARE making a big deal out of Boomer Phelps and Michael Phelps being a new dad, so I think parenthood is a big trope and the reality is that Phelps didn't grow Boomer, so this is legitimately a big deal. And if anything shows how insanely powerful women are.

  • Class is the unspoken element in much of life, but especially in the Olympic games. An overt mention came from an unlikely source for me: my personal favorite gymnast (for her personality/leadership more than her gymnastics style), Aly Raisman. During an interview with Bob Costas after her 2nd place finish to fellow teammate, Simone Biles, Costas asked about the sacrifices they have made to get here-- like missed proms, Friday nights, etc. Raisman responded that in the end it's not a sacrifice because they were lucky to have *parents* (looking at you Al Trautwig) who not only paid for them to do this sport, but who COULD pay for them to participate. I rarely hear athletes, let along younger ones, mention this. It's clear Raisman's family is very well off (watch Gold Medal Families for evidence of this), but good that she pointed this out.
  • As the Games progress class and race become more entwined, especially as we move from swimming to track in Weeks 1 and 2 (Note though the historic swim[s] by Simone Manuel though- unfortunately complete with offensive headline!). The racial background of all the participants, and especially the Americans, changes noticeably. Some attribute this to the cost-- it costs "nothing" to run, but you have to have access to a pool to swim, for example. But this is changing.

Already since Track & Field began we have a new gender story emerging-- the father/daughter pair, and coach. In general this is more positive as it shows fathers investing in their daughters, a change Title IX helped enable. One big story that already occurred, on night 1 in a Field event was Michelle Carter in the shot put. Her coach is her father, Michael Carter, who won silver in the same event in 1984, making them the first father-daughter duo to medal in the same event. There are a whole bunch of other firsts associated with this duo (check some out here) and the backstory on her getting started in the sport, as relayed here, is fascinating. Look for more NFL father/coach and Field daughter stories as Vashti Cunningham makes her debut later this week...

One of the things I liked about Carter was her putting on lip gloss right after she won-- totally what I would have done, and taking NOTHING away from her incredible physical feats. It's important to remember this is a valid choice as well... But now I need to make some superficial remarks. I can't help it.

  • I couldn't find a picture but Costas was trying to power pose it the first few nights in studio and it was awkward. He's changed it now.
  • Katie Ledecky has one of the strangest hairlines I have ever seen. At first I thought it might be from a swim cap, but no one else has this so it must not be?! Her left side is soooo much further back than her right and it's all I can see when she isn't setting world records...

Katie Ledecky of the USA celebrates after winning the Women's 800m Freestyle at the London 2012 Olympic Games Swimming competition, London, Britain, 03 August 2012. Photo: Marius Becker dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

  • It simply cannot be possible that this Canadian synchro diving team couldn't find suits that actually fit.13942418_10206799600575204_62366869_n
  • When I watch tennis on Bravo and I see The Real Housewives of New Jersey promos, it reminds me that most of these women actually have no talent/skill. A mistake on Bravo's part to so clearly remind people of that?!

If you aren't following Leslie Jones on Twitter to get her thoughts on the Olympics (especially now that she is IN RIO), you are seriously missing out. SLAY ALL DAY USA!


Turkey Trots for Tots

Prodigies are always a hot topic, and with the publication of Andrew Solomon's Far From the Tree, they have been back in the news.  While prodigies tend to come from fields where it is not necessary to go through physical maturation first (like music, math, chess, etc.), that is beginning to change as some parents push their kids to become pint-sized phenoms at younger and younger ages.  With the development of the Internet and many more organized competitions in a variety of fields it's become easier to develop skill and talent in a variety of fields and activities. Running is one such area.  Unlike baseball and football, which require specialized skills (although, as I wrote about last month, even football is seeing young stars in areas like quarterback), kids learn to start running shortly after they learn to walk.  Three female running prodigies have recently made headlines.

1) Mary Cain-While she might not seem like a true prodigy given that she is 16, Cain is a prodigy when it comes to (middle- and long-distance) running-- a sport where women often do not peak until their 20s and even 30s.  Cain is setting records (she set the American high school record in the 1500m at the World Junior Championships) and she is already so good that she caught the eye of legendary running coach Alberto Salazar, who is coaching her long-distance (pun intended).  Cain is so good that she stopped running for her high school team and is now running as an independent-- though she is careful to preserve her NCAA eligibility.

2) Katylynn and Heather Welsch-  The Welsch sisters likely aspire to be a runner like Cain someday.  Today the girls inspire strong feelings-- sometimes admiration and awe, but more often concern and consternation.  At only 12 and 10 they often compete in 13-mile trail runs and even in marathons.  Their father coaches them in running and biking and pushes them to run faster than some men.  The long NYT feature on them raised some question marks as it describes tears, injuries, and a high-level of parental involvement.  While it's true that it's difficult to say what is best for a child, and I wouldn't presume to do so, I will hazard a guess that 4-6 years from now these girls won't be competing the way Cain does.  Burnout and/or the puberty monster (hopefully they will hit puberty at a normal rate) will likely strike. Extreme, young athletes like the Welsch girls raise questions about how young is too young for little bodies.

My husband, who is a serious runner, is eager to get our son Carston running.  Given John's competitive style, which I've written about before when it comes to our son swimming, this is not surprising.  It also shouldn't be surprising that when John found out there was a kids' race as part of his traditional turkey trot race, he signed up our ten-month-old...

The "Kids' K" was 100 yards and Carston "ran" in the 4 and under age division.  While he did start walking on his own about a week before the race, we had him use the little wooden walker he likes to use to tool around the house.

We also made sure to get a training "run" in beforehand to see if he could actually do the full distance.  While slightly tongue-in-cheek, you can definitely get a sense of the fun chaos in our house-- and our different parenting styles-- from this video.

So how did the actual race go? Before the race started Carston was very interested in the race official, as you can see.

You may have noticed that according to his bib he was number 1.  No, he wasn't the first one to sign up-- every child is given the number 1.  Even among the youngest kids I find this (as someone who studies kids and competition) slightly ridiculous.  In a race it is very clear-- even to a three-year-old-- who finished first, second, third, etc.  In other competitions like chess and dance it's less obvious so I can understand other choices, but not so in running.

In any case, we held the Little Man back until the final heat in the 4 and under set (there were four, from what I could tell).  He obviously got off to a pretty slow start.  Here he is on the race course.

After getting a lift to the finish line (distracted by the cold and crowd he lost focus, unlike in his training video), he ended strong-- but only barely before the 5-6 age division started.

At the finish line every child got a medal.  As I discovered while research Playing to Win, younger kids are quite taken with participation awards.  But once they hit first grade or so they become much savvier.  For this reason I'm sure that the 8-12 year-olds in particular would have much preferred an actual trophy if they won.  In any case, I'm sure that someday Carston will appreciate his first medal that is just about his current length! In the interest of full disclosure, which gives you some real insight into how I feel about this medal, when his relatives said, "Oh, look what you won!" I replied, "Well, he didn't really win it, but I guess he earned it."

After the Kids' K, I bundled the Little Man up so John could push him in the five-mile race.  John was actually the first person to finish the race while pushing a running stroller, so there's hope for Carston's competitive juices yet-- if only he'd been awake to see the big finish.  By mile 2 Carston was out cold and he slept right on through the finish line and the walk back to our car.

Running is a great activity for kids.  It burns off energy and can promote overall health.  But like most things, when taken to an extreme it can be a negative experience.  I don't envision Carstonr unning endurance races at age 10, but it'd be great if he was setting records at 16...

In any case I'm guessing even next year at 22 months he won't be very competitive at the Feaster Five.  But I'm sure he'll enter, if only to get another shirt like this one.

Shrinking and Pinking: More Girls, More Sports, More Changes

Compared to the past few months, October brought less female athlete news-- but as students returned to school and Olympic-caliber athletes returned to training, there's no doubt that women in sports were hard at work.  And, in many cases, they are working hard in new contexts. 1) In Massachusetts female high school golfers now have the chance to compete in a more rigorous state-level tournament, as the state's athletic association voted to add sectional tournaments.  This is a great sign that golfing is growing for girls.

2) Lolo Jones, the American hurdler who often gets more attention than wins, has just be named to the US bobsled team.

She's not the only one in the running to be a two-sport Olympian (summer and fall), as gold medal sprinter Tianna Madison also made the team as a push athlete (the people who run and literally push the bobsled before hopping in and letting others steer down the mountain). It will be interesting to see if they both make it to the 2014 Games!

I wonder if there is this same type of crossover in male bobsledding?

3) Legendary women's basketball coach, Geno Auriemma, of UConn's storied program made headlines this week when he suggested that the rim should be lowered in the women's game. His reasoning? It would help increase the audience for women's basketball because it would mean a faster game, more dunks, and better layups.  He also suggested changing the size of the basketball and a few other timing rule changes.  Through the article I learned that the net in women's volleyball is lower (mainly because of the average height difference between men and women)-- which shows he was right that I had no idea!

I have mixed feelings about different rules for men's and women's games, but changing the equipment to reflect the realities of known physical differences between men and women (like height) seems reasonable. In the end it's just great to see more females doing a variety of competitive sports.

Shrinking and Pinking: Milestones and Menstruation

It's been an interesting month for female athletes. Yesterday 16-year-old Lexi Thompson (who I have previously featured in a Shrinking and Pinking post in which I named her a "star of the future," which was clearly spot-on!) became the youngest ever winner of an LPGA event. While she's not old enough to join the LPGA tour (you have to be 18 to do that), she does get in the record books and take home a $195,000 pay check.  Her father served as the caddy for this homeschooled high schooler-- and golf clearly runs in their family. Her eldest brother plays on the PGA tour, another brother plays for Louisiana State, and her mother played junior golf in South Florida.

Not surprisingly, golf is pretty competitive in their household. The New York Times reports: "Nicholas [the eldest] was the catalyst; his brother and sister grew up alternately emulating him and competing against him in high-stakes backyard chipping and putting contests. The loser would have to empty the dishwasher, take out the trash or perform some other hated chore."

I love the novelty of putting for chores, so I don't mind reading about those contests.  But it is striking to me that the article gives just as much space to covering Lexi's looks as it does to these backyard contests: "Thompson, blond and nearly 6 feet tall, could be a cover girl for Golf magazine or Glamour. This weekend she received marriage proposals on the course and on Twitter. She is young and attractive and American, making her a coveted commodity on a tour that has been dominated in recent years by foreign-born players and that has struggled to maintain sponsorships and a full schedule."  Even in the context of such a significant milestone, looks still matter in a pink athletic world.

A few weeks ago it was more significant when several markers and milestones did not fall in the world of women's athletics.  Not one women's world record was broken at the Track and Field World Championships held in Daegu, South Korea. (My husband, a serious runner and track fan, got me hooked on the meets this year.) Women's records, and looks, remain an issue in this sport as well. I found this article on the lack of records in women's track fascinating.   The author argues that women's records should be expunged because of suspected doping violations (suspected based on other cases, almost improbable performances, and, yes, women's looks).  "Looks" in general remain an issue in women's track-- take the case of Caster Semenya-- but even she has not broken any world records.

Also not breaking any world records, but opening up an important discussion after her performance at Worlds, is Lauren Fleshman. Fleshman is a middle and long distance runner from the United States who finished seventh in in the 5000m at Worlds (my husband, showing an unexpected gossip-y side, informed me that when he was running college track/cross country Fleshman was the "hot running girl from Stanford").

Fleshman maintains a great website/blog and after the meet posted her thoughts on her performance.  The most interesting part to me was the following comment at the end of her post:

"If you are a dude, be warned that the following paragraph contains feminine stuff:

The race fell on the absolute worst day of the month for my cycle, and I can’t help but wonder how I would have felt had that not been the case (I get 4 pounds heavier and sluggish at that time of the month). But maybe defending world champ Linet Masai is saying the same thing about her 6th place finish. Maybe the young Dibaba that I passed at the line had the flu. Defar had stomach problems. Molly Huddle had an injured foot. Our fastest American, Shalane, wasn’t even in the race. I guess that’s what championships are all about, and have always been about: unknowns and variables and who toes the line on the day. That spirit of championships will never change, and I wouldn’t change it if I could.  But I would like to change my cycle next time, please. Or at least learn how to lesson the side-effects of bloating and water retention.  Tips from other women with experience in this area would be appreciated!  Thanks!"

The comments section is filled with interesting suggestions and tips that likely could help other female athletes. It also reminded me of a great piece from The New York Times on female athletes' menstrual cycles, which appeared earlier this summer.  The Times article discusses several different studies on the effect of the menstrual cycle, and female hormones, on athletic performance. While it's not all bad, it's clear there is a reason that women in the 1980s supposedly took male hormones, and not female hormones, to improve their athletic outcomes.

While female athletes do need to negotiate the realities of their bodies, more gender lines are being crossed than ever before. In a show of some hometown love, Therea Scruton, a senior at Framingham High School, recently joined the boys' football team. Congrats and good luck to Theresa! (Though, of course, my favorite female high school football player remains college classmate Anna Lakovitch, who was a kicker for her Florida team. She now owns what looks to be an amazing restaurant, Ollie Irene, in Mountain Brook, Alabama, which you should check out if you are in the area!)

UPDATE: The day after I posted this blog, news broke that the international federation for track and field (the IAAF) had changed the rules for women's marathon world records. Essentially a woman can no longer set a record in a race run with men (presumably because the set pace will be faster). Well, ok, maybe... But that also means that they are changing the existing records on the books. So the "new" world record for a female marathoner is now slower than it was before, because the fastest was set in a race with men. I know sport has become increasingly numericized, and I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing.  But this decision makes it harder both for fans to follow the sport and for athletes to promote and support themselves (for instance, if you can say you are the world's fastest woman at X, you will likely get more and better endorsements). This sort of promotion is especially important for women, I think, as men tend to get a lot of the attention. Yesterday The New York Times posted a story on this (head-scratching) decision near the top of their website, so I'd expect to hear more about this, especially in the lead-up to next summer's Olympics. The first line is especially powerful: "Now added to the list of banned performance-enhancing substances for female distance runners: men. "