29 March, 2014

Women in athletics

When I started following athletics, around the mid-fifties I was astounded to find so few women practicing and moreover that their physique was very far from the beauty canons of the times. (Remember, the 50s were the decade when Marilyn was the beauty reference). In fact women in athletics did not have the best heritage when it came to femininity. Just look at this famous picture from the Berlin, 1936, Olympics. 

On the left Helen Stephens (famous not only for her victories but also for her encounter with Hitler who pinched her bottom and asked her if she’d like to spend the weekend in Berchtesgaden, a proposal that Stephens refused). Her domination was such that it was suggested that she was in fact a man. The Olympics committee performed a physical check on Stephens and concluded that she was a woman. On the right Stanisława Walasiewicz (Stella Walsh). In this case the things are clear: an autopsy performed after her demise showed that she possessed male genitalia. 

Things started getting better when Wilma Rudolph made her appearance. The “gazelle noire” made her debut at the Melbourne, 1956, Olympics and went on to win gold medals in the Rome, 1960, Olympics.

At that time the beauty canons had been seriously challenged after B. Bardot’s blockbuster “Et Dieu créa la femme”. Still for women athletes things were changing very slowly. A look at the Press sisters suffices to convince one that we were not very far from the Stephens-Walsh model. 
(Critics have suggested that the Press sisters were actually male and, anyhow, their careers ended abruptly at the time that sex verification was introduced in 1966). The 70s brought further changes concerning the attitude towards exercising, particularly for women, culminating with J. Fonda’s workout routines. From then onwards beauty became compatible with sports and, in particular, athletics.

The list of beautiful champions is so long that any selection would look as an injustice. Still personal taste is of the utmost importance when it comes to aesthetics and so I hope that the ones not explicitly mentioned here will not take offence. I will start with the one that I consider the absolute queen of women’s athletics, the great Merlene Ottey. 

Not only did she dominate the women’s sprint events but she had an amazing sculptural beauty. I will, one day, write a full article on M. Ottey and her career, that spans a more than 30 years interval (first distinction a bronze medal at the Moscow, 1980, Olympics, last(?) major participation at the Helsinki, 2012, European Championships).  

Another great athlete, indoor world champion in 1995 and world record holder both outdoor with 14.97 m and indoor with 15.03 m (first woman over 15 m) at triple jump is Iolanda Chen. 
I still remember her artistic, extremely tasteful, photos. She could easily have had a career as top model.

Closer to us, in the last decade, the situation becomes embarrassing in the sense that there are so many female champions that could easily compete at a beauty contest. At this point I throw the towel and choose two girls that appear in all top lists. Lolo Jones was the 2008 and 2010 indoor world champion over 60 m hurdles. (She has also a gold medal from the mixed team event in the 2013 bobsled championships).
Daria Klishina was European long jump indoor champion in 2011 and again in 2013 with a personal record over 7 m both outdoor (7.05 m) and indoor (7.01 m). 
But then among all this beauty we have what the French call a “couac” (a discordant note). At the Berlin, 2009, world championships the world discovered Caster Semenya. In a single year she had improved her personal record by 8 s over 800 m and 25 s over 1500 m. The IAAf was obliged to investigate since this sort of dramatic breakthroughs usually arouse suspicion of drug use. The IAAF also asked Semenya to undergo a gender test (Since 1992 the gender test is not compulsory, but the IAAF retains the right to test athletes). In 2010 the IAAF cleared Semenya to return to international competition. The results of the gender tests, however, were never released. 
She won a silver medal at the Daegu, 2011, world championships and at the London, 2012 Olympics. Commenting for BBC, Colin Jackson, 1993 and 1999 world champion over 110 m hurdles, raised the question whether Semenya had thrown the olympic race. This is also my personal opinion after watching both the 2011 and 2012 races again and again.

Let us hope that from now on we'll have only feminine champions. Nothing is more elegant that a woman in full effort: she is more beautiful when she does not really care whether she looks beautiful.

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