“So this is what history looks like, a century of dominance reduced to a medal-less pile of rubble.”
So Sports Illustrated boxing columnist Chris Mannix described the U.S. boxing team’s performance at the London Olympics. He wasn’t the only big sportswriter to say so.
Except the “pile of rubble” wasn’t medal-less. There was a gold medal in there. It just happened to have been won by a woman (uh, a girl actually): 17-year-old high school student Claressa Shields.
According to this rather charming piece by Kevin Iole, Shields is now a huge celebrity in her economically depressed hometown of Flint, Michigan. In the rest of the USA, though, she’s relatively unknown.
Sure, she’s had a smattering of mainstream coverage, including an appearance on the Colbert Report and a pre-Olympics feature in The New Yorker – but I don’t think anyone would disagree with the proposition that she’d be a much bigger name if she were a man.
On TSS, she told Kelsey McCarson she craves respect: “So I’ve been thinking about the next Olympics. If I get two gold medals, there’s no way they cannot give [the recognition] to me then, right?”
Judging by her Twitter account, Shields is everything that you’d want in an athlete – engaging, funny, innocent and upbeat, but not in an “unrelenting motivational guru” kind of way.
I went to bed at 10pm, woke up at 4:30 am but I was tired! So I'm bout to get some more sleep in before School #HighSchool!
— Ha!Str8LikeThat! (@Claressashields) March 26, 2013
Oh, and once she gets in the ring she’s terrifying (that’s a good thing), boasting an unusually high knockout percentage for an amateur fighter, let alone a woman.
It sucks that she hasn’t got the acclaim she deserves. And it’s easy to explain away her experience as the lot of a female athlete; to throw out that old chestnut: “People don’t watch women’s sport because they only want to watch the best.”
It’s even easier to say that women’s boxing is a sideshow attraction or that people feel uncomfortable watching women fight.
Those explanations just don’t add up. One look at Shields’ fellow combat sports medallist and the current UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey proves that.
Rousey, 26, headlined UFC 157 in February, defeating Liz Carmouche with a trademark armbar in front of 13,257 fans. Last week UFC head honcho Dana White announced that Rousey would be one of the coaches in the next season of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC’s signature reality series.
That’s the same Dana White who said women would “never” be seen in the UFC.
So what’s the difference between the Californian judo bronze medallist and the gold medal winning wolverine?
Rousey has benefitted enormously from being with the UFC, the best organised combat sports outfit in the biz. Her marketing has been tightly controlled, while Shields has been out on her own in an organisational *********** of a sport. And it’s Rousey’s marketing, focused in more or less equal parts on her badassery and her sex appeal, that has proved the difference between the two.
#Ronda Rousey can beat me up anytime! She already bruised my heart Lol #UFC 157
— Rey Andrade Garza (@underground2112) February 22, 2013
And let’s not discount her badassery. Rousey is no Anna Kournikova (or Gina Carano), largely getting by on her attractiveness. She’s defeated every single one of her opponents via armbar submission in the first round.
But can you imagine Manny Pacquiao being asked about his pre-fight sex habits in the drooling way that Rousey has been on both Jim Rome and Real Sports? Premiere sports journalism, right there.
Unfortunately for her bank account, Shields wasn’t born blonde and blue-eyed like Rousey. Standing at 5'10" and weighing in at 165lbs, she doesn’t have a physique that you’d see in ESPN magazine’s body issue, either.
Which is where we come down to the crux of it – our society likes its female athletes to look and behave in a certain way. That’s why Maria Sharapova has earned more than Serena Williams every year for the last eight years, despite winning about half the WTA titles.
We objectify female athletes in a way we never would males. The idea of Cain Velazquez, UFC Heavyweight Champion, or Floyd Mayweather, boxing’s pound-for-pound king, posing naked is almost absurd. Meanwhile female athletes are almost expected to get their kit off, be it for advertisements or centrefolds.
Shields can still succeed, though. She might even be a superstar one day.
And there’s one big lesson she can take from Rousey’s accomplishments: It doesn’t matter who you beat, as long as you keep beating everyone they put in front of you.
It’s just that Shields might have to punch out a few people’s views on female athletes along the way.