Torn Over Torres: Olympic Mothers and the Heterosexist Strain by Ashley Gollmann

This past Sunday we bid farewell to the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. A former swimmer myself, I was glued to the television for the first week of competition and absolutely blown away by the phenomenal success of Olympic swimmers the world over. An astonishing 25 World Records were broken in Beijing’s Water Cube, marking the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a turning point for elite swimming. Was it the Speedo LZR Racer suits? Was it the drastic change of holding the swimming finals in the morning? The world may never know. Amidst moments of pure competitive frenzy, however, I remained always the analytical student as certain aspects of Olympic coverage caught my interest. This is where I turn my attention to America’s fascination with Olympic swimmer Dara Torres. Through an analysis of particular aspects of the Olympic coverage on Torres, the exploitation of motherhood and the female body reinforces and maintains heterosexist power within a sporting context.

There are a several events which form the basis of this post. First, the August 4th edition of Time magazine displayed a poised Torres against a background of bluish-green pool water. Immediately, I felt pride that a woman was on the cover of Time. I continued to feel a sense of pride because of the type of suit she donned: a two-piece practice suit. Some may argue this image was designed to titillate, as the suit does not occupy much body surface. However, this suit allowed readers to see Torres’ incredibly sculpted torso and arms, her broad shoulders, and vascular body. Furthermore, her hair was gelled back, bringing attention to her sculpted face and jaw line (the cynic in me, looking ever so closely, also noticed indications of lip gloss and mascara). This cover stands in stark contrast to Torres’ 2000 appearance in Maxim magazine. Needless to say, I wondered how people would react to seeing such an image of a female athlete.

Second, throughout the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials and the Beijing Games, much of buzz around Torres concerned her age. Not only did she become the oldest Olympic swimmer to medal, but she also became the first U.S. swimmer to qualify for and medal at five Olympic Games. I was most impressed by the feat of qualifying and medaling at five Olymics, and paid little attention to her age. Why should we be concerned with her age? Older male athletes compete in the Olympics and nobody blinks an eye. Why the focus on age with Torres? Was it the fact that she is a swimmer? Perhaps it is the fact that she is a female swimmer? I really hope this is not the case.

Finally, the last piece of the puzzle made everything so very clear. Interest regarding Torres’ pregnancy (the reason for not competing in Athens 2004), and her now two year-old daughter, Tessa, made it all click. This is what I will call the Torres Trifecta: body, age, baby.

Sports media (both print and televised) could willingly display and dote upon Torres’ sculpted physique because there was no perceived “threat” of what Pat Griffin (1998) terms “the lesbian boogeywoman.” Dara Torres is married with a child, and therefore read as heterosexual, so she is ‘allowed’ to show off her muscles and veins free from speculation. Furthermore, the surprise over such an athletic body and athletic capabilities is also a response fueled by gendered views of the post-pregnancy female body. Accordingly, concern over Torres’ age was always linked to post-pregnancy and motherhood. I guess having a child somehow makes Torres an older woman? I’m still trying to grasp the fascination with age. But again, the emphasis remains on heterosexual relationships and children as the ‘natural outcome’ of such a relationship. Thus, having a husband and child affords Torres a social currency that is unavailable to lesbian athletes or female athletes who do not wish to disclose their personal relationships (and I don’t think they should have to).

I use Torres as an example because of her media popularity throughout the 2008 Beijing Games. This is undoubtedly because of the attention the sport of swimming receives during the Summer Olympics. Nevertheless, the focus on motherhood, and by extension heterosexual relationships, was also consistently mentioned regarding basketball star Lisa Leslie, weightlifter Melanie Roach, softballers Jennie Finch and Stacey Nuveman, and the dynamic duo of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. Evidence of this is clear in a recent Sports Illustrated article titled “Mother Load” (2008). Writer Michael Farber explains,“If Beijing is the Mother of all Olympics, it is also staging the Olympics of many mothers—at least for the United States. The U.S. team counts 20 moms among its 286 women, the boo-boo-kissin’, bedtime-story-readin’ athletes who really put the family in the IOC’S self-important phrase, Olympic family” (p. 60). So should we start using the term ‘mother-athlete’? Currently, the word ‘mother’ has heterosexual implications within the sporting world, but I am hoping that this will change with future Olympic Games.

This is not an attack on Dara Torres or heterosexual female Olympians. I am very much in awe of Torres and all athletes who continue to push the boundaries of women in sport. It is the actual sports coverage which I seek to interrogate. I take issue with what Pat Griffin (1998) terms the “promotion of heterosexual image”. Such promotion can be found in the televised NBC Olympic coverage (a certainly Johnson & Johnson’s family campaigns), and in print media following the Olympics. Through the publishing of articles and the conducting of interviews, which always concerned children, pregnancy, and marriage, a heterosexist agenda is allowed to thrive. Furthermore, it would also seem that by focusing on such aspects of these women’s lives, there is little time for a discussion regarding their actual sport, training, or athletic success. Therefore, not only does this create a hostile environment for lesbian athletes, but it also undermines the abilities of all women athletes.


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