In the last week Austrian coaches claimed downhill skier and USA Olympian (and fellow Minnesotan!) Lindsay Vonn was heavy, which they said gives her a competitive advantage. Really? Are you sure she isn’t one of the best skiers because she is an amazing athlete who trains hard?
I was called by local WCCO TV reporter Heather Brown to comment on this issue. I didn’t know where to start, there were just so many angles of this story. Here are my thoughts:
1. From a sport psychology perspective, the Austrian coaches could of purposely leaked the comment to the media to distract Vonn’s attention away from optimal performance. That appears to have backfired, as Vonn responded as a mentally tough athlete would by choosing not to comment much and use it for fuel to further motivate her. Vonn’s response was that of a champion. She couldn’t control what was said, but the did control how she responded. Point Vonn!
2. From a sport media perspective, the comment about Vonn’s weight is yet another example of how the focus on female athlete’s appearance seems to be more important than her performance. Serena Williams is constantly being criticized for being “too big and muscular” and people seem confused as to how a woman so “big” can be so good. Yes we do hear comments about male athlete’s bodies, but it is rarely about appearance…it is about strength, power, speed. I doubt we will hear an Austrian coach discuss Bode Miller’s weight. When a female athlete dominates her sport and her body doesn’t conform to the traditional feminine norm, she comes under surveillance. Think of South African sprinter Caster Semenya from this summer.
The Vonn comment is a bit unique because the coach said her “extra weight” gives her a competitive advantage. It reminded me of similar comments made about Danica Patrick, when opponents claimed she had a unfair competitive advantage because she weighed less than the males drivers. The point is, comments about a female athlete’s weight is a way to minimize her performances, and “explain” why she excels rather than attributing winning to athleticism.
3. Lastly, the weight comment conveys to young girls and female athletes that emphasis is placed on what the body looks like, than what it can do. Constant media messages like the Vonn comment socializes girls and women into becoming obsessed on physical appearance, rather than on health, well-being, and optimal performance.
As head into the Vancouver Olympics keep a close eye on how the media constructs Lindsey Vonn as the poster girl for the team.
Note: to read the transcript from Brown’s piece click here