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Ali Bernard, Lolo Jones, and the Women of the London Olympics

Coming into the Olympics, I had a hunch that these games were going to be remembered for the performances of the U.S. women. Maybe it had something to do with the local media attention on Missy Franklin, or my native state's attention on Gabby Douglas and Lolo Jones, but it seemed there was a lot more talk about our female Olympians than there was for the men. (Michael Phelps is the obvious exception. Remember, NBC thought it was worth skipping part of the Opening Ceremony so we could listen to Ryan Seacrest ask him about his fear of spiders.)

Now through 13 days of competition, it appears my hunch was right. U.S. women have so far won 51 medals to the men's 38 (neither figure counting the bronze won in tennis mixed doubles), and the women have struck gold twice as often as the men, 26 to 13. Give yourself this quiz: Name a male U.S. Olympic gold medalist who isn't a swimmer. (crickets) Give up? It's not easy, because there have only been three: Vincent Hancock in shooting, Christian Taylor in the triple jump, and Ashton Eaton in the decathlon.

(Side note: How backwards is it that we give so much more hype to the "World's Fastest Man" instead of the "World's Greatest Athlete?" Do we just lack the patience to follow the decathlon competition?)

Now, I know the games aren't over yet, but I find this imbalance pretty astounding. Yes, there have been some hard-to-explain surprises for the U.S. men: Zero medals in boxing for the first time everZero medals in Greco-Roman wrestling, the first time that's happened since 1976; and no American men in the 400m finals, an event we've won the last seven Olympics, sweeping the medals in 2008, 2004, and 1988. Maybe these are just flukes, an unfortunate accumulation of bad luck. But I don't think the performance of the women has much to do with luck. I think a lot of credit should go to Title IX (despite what effects it may have had on minor men's sports), which just recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. This country opened up opportunities for women to participate and compete, and they've flourished. We should be proud of this as a nation, and we should be proud of these women as individuals.

I've loved watching the U.S. women compete in these games. The women's indoor volleyball team has been excellent and I even stretched my soccer tolerance to 10 whole minutes to catch the end of the gold medal match we won against Japan. I was especially happy to see Allyson Felix win a gold in the 200m after silvers in the past two Olympics. But do you know who I looked forward to watching most? Two wrestlers: Clarissa Chun and Ali Bernard, both returning Olympians from the Beijing games. You've probably never heard of them. In a way, that's what makes the Olympics great -- you discover some athlete who has been toiling day-in and day-out with little reward or recognition, just waiting to be discovered by a national audience. Being a wrestling fan, these two women aren't as obscure to me as they are to most people. I've known about Clarissa since she won a World Championship in 2008, and I really had hoped to meet her when I was coaching and we took our state qualifiers to workout with the women's freestyle wrestlers from the Olympic Training Center. (She wasn't there, sadly.) Clarissa won a bronze medal in London by beating a long-time Ukrainian nemisis, and if there's a tragedy in these games, it's that Clarissa broke her phone during the opening ceremonies. (Who do you think took the photo of teammate Elena Pirozhkova lifting Michelle Obama?)

I really didn't know much about Ali Bernard before the games, but as I watched matches and interviews on YouTube before the start of competition there was something special about her that drew me in. Maybe it's because I can imagine what it was like for her to grow up in rural Minnesota, and the challenges she faced being a girl in a predominantly boy's sport. Maybe it was imagining the big step she took to leave the U.S. and go to college in Canada where there was a women's wrestling program, or the sacrifice of committing herself to the training required for world-level competition. Maybe I can imagine her ups and downs the past year: a bronze at the 2011 World Championship; being named Women's Wrestler of the year; losing at the Olympic Trials despite being the favorite; having ankle surgery; then making the Olympic team after the original qualifying wrestler failed a drug test. You'll have to pardon me, Kobe and LeBron, but Ali Bernard's journey to the Olympics satisfies me in a way yours does not. And Ali's result is, to me, no less Olympian: a hard-fought first round loss, a dream over in four minutes as her hometown watched and cheered her on. As did I.

As much as I've enjoyed pinning my hopes to Ali, I could have been cheering for anyone. With a few different clicks on YouTube, maybe I'd have been getting up at 6am to watch a heptathlete, or a rower, or a boxer like Claressa Shields, the 17-year-old from Flint, Michigan, who won a gold for the U.S. The U.S. seems to have so many talented female athletes to support, and many of them have knocked-down-get-up-again histories like Ali Bernard. They're everything we expect our Olympians to be, and often times more. Winning so many medals is just icing on the cake.

Unfortunately, it hasn't been a perfect Olympics for the U.S. women, or at least our perception and judgement of them. Being a successful female athlete in America still has its problems. First and foremost, I could happily do without linkbait like "20 Hottest Olympians of London 2012," to which I won't give any extra traffic by linking to here. Even NBC (and my local NBC affiliate) shamelessly published such an article, complete with plenty of bikini and semi-nude photos of female Olympians. I don't have all the answers here, but somehow our culture just hasn't quite figured out how to recognize their fitness and attractiveness -- which they should be free to display, and we should be free to appreciate -- in a way that I think is appropriate and not gender-biased. (The worst example: One site posted pictures without the names of the athletes or other identifiers. Just pictures.)

It was also disappointing to see some of our biases and double-standards get targeted at individuals. For example, in the midst of Gabby Douglas's run at all-around gymnastics gold, the internet buzzed with criticisms of her hair. And the biggest drama of the games might be that surrounding Lolo Jones, which she referred to in this Today Show interview:


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Lolo was clearly was upset. And after I read the New York Times article in question, I was upset, too. (An editor for the Times has since apologized for the article. Okay, not really, but sorta.) The article claimed the attention given to Jones "was based not on achievement but on her exotic beauty and on a sad and cynical marketing campaign. Essentially, Jones has decided she will be whatever anyone wants her to be -- vixen, virgin, victim -- to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses."

Yes, Lolo gets a lot of attention. Her story of running out of childhood poverty and on to championships and track records is inspiring, and a lot of people cried with her when hitting the final hurdle in Beijing cost her a sure gold medal. That mistake might have been an early sign of a worsening spinal cord problem that kept her from feeling her feet, a problem that required surgery a year ago with an uncertain outcome. Given the emotional and physical turmoil, it's a surprise that Lolo even made these games, much less ran well enough to finish 4th best in the world. And yes, she's incredibly attractive. Beautiful. Gorgeous. She's all those things and more, and people love and celebrate her because of how she fits all her talents and attributes together. (And don't forget her wit and humor, which she displays best on Twitter.)

Track and Field is often not all that lucrative, and athletes hope for steady paychecks from endorsements in between running for prize money. To maximize your endorsement value, athletes need to win and market themselves. Lolo did both, and did both well. Unfortunately for Jeré Longman, the author of the Times article, he was uncomfortable with Lolo doing both. It's as if he's saying Lolo -- or any female athlete -- has to choose between success in their sport and being eye candy. Be one, or be the other, but don't be both. Don't be one whole person. Minimize our discomfort by only being the parts that don't expose our societal (or personal) double standards.

That's not fair, and the problem isn't limited to Lolo Jones. On a variety of scales, our society still struggles with women who are beautiful and successful, and the Olympics is rich with women who are both. (Including, specifically, the U.S. women's freestyle wrestling team, no matter how many of those "Sexiest Olympians" lists omit them.) As a culture, are we getting better? I think so. But we stumble once in a while. After all, nobody clears every hurdle.

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