Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

The Ideal Olympic Athlete: Some Thoughts and Reflections on Gender Differences

Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

The Ideal Olympic Athlete: Some Thoughts and Reflections on Gender Differences

Article excerpt

Introduction: The Ideal Olympic Athlete--A Woman Gone Mad?

In the following essay on the concept of an ideal Olympic athlete, I will attempt to reflect on potential tensions in regard to gender. This essay is an outgrowth of two previous essays: (1) "On the Definition of 'Woman' in the Sport Context," (1) and (2) "Ethical Issues: Women in Sport," (2), where I have argued that the story of women's participation in sport, in general, is the story of two ideals in apparent conflict. The conclusions drawn in these two previous essays were based on the basic idea that sport (or sometimes even physical activity), particularly high-level competitive sport, is somehow incompatible with what women are, or what they should be, and that this basic idea must dominate any discussion of the unique political issues for women in sport. The reasons that were advanced for the domination of this political underpinning were that ideas of ideal sport, and ideal women, lie behind discussions of permitting women to compete, of choosing the types of sport in which women can compete, in developing judging standards for adjudicated (as opposed to refereed sports--contrast gymnastics and basketball), in attitudes to aggression and competition, and indeed, to the very existence of women's sport as a separate entity at all.

From inception, the ideal of the Olympic Games, and the ideal Olympic athlete, applied specifically and exclusively to men. In Coubertin's ideal, the goals that were to be achieved by the athletes through participation in the Olympic Games were not appropriate for women. (3) For modern spectators of the Olympic Games, this view would not seem obvious. For most people the word "Olympic" itself will probably be tied to images of the modern Olympic Games where the focus is on a two week international multi-sport competition between elite athletes, both men and women, representing their countries. Most modern spectators will also understand the word "Olympiad" to refer to the four-year period between the closing of one set of games to the opening of another. However, very few modern spectators of the Olympic Games will have heard, or know what is meant by Olympism, the philosophy developed by Coubertin. On the face of it, it would appear that Coubertin's philosophy of Olympism does not have to be gender specific, even though it is clear that his personal views on women in sport would cause some conflict with this ideal. The reasons for this tension are that this philosophy has as its focus of interest, not just the elite athlete, but everyone; not just for a two-week competition period, but for one's entire life. Further, Olympism is not just about competition and winning, but the values of participation and co-operation, with sport as a formative and developmental influence contributing to desirable characteristics of individual personality and social life. What sort of feminist social theory could possibly be opposed to this ideal? Olympism as a social, political and educational ideology necessarily appeals to a philosophical anthropology that is an idealized conception of the human being towards which the ideology strives. Some modern scholars, such as Jim Parry, John Hoberman, and Hans Lenk, have tried to analyze the ideology of Olympism and its attempted social reproduction of the individual. Philosophical anthropologists develop theories about human nature by looking at the human being on the most general level. For the purposes of this essay, it is the philosophical anthropology of Olympism and the concept of an Ideal Olympic athlete that will lead to some deeper reflections on the role of women in society and the potential mental and emotional fall-out from tensions that arise for this ideal.

In her seminal book, Women and Madness, (4) Phyllis Chesler, an American psychiatrist, asks:

   When can we stop assigning any significance to biological
   differences? And if biological differences remain, despite true
   cultural neutrality, shall we, can we, use science to achieve a
   single human behaviour? … 
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