BBC presenter John Inverdale’s comments about Wimbledon women’s single champion Marion Bartoli’s physical appearance earlier this week, and the furor they inspired, have called attention once again to the deep-rooted, pervasive sexism within professional sports. But her reaction serves as a barometer of how things have changed for women athletes over the years.
For those who don’t know, Inverdale, chatting with another commentator about champion Bartoli’s technique as a player, remarked:
I just wonder if her dad, because he has obviously been the most influential person in her life, did say to her when she was twelve, thirteen, fourteen, maybe, ‘listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker. You are never going to be somebody like a Sharapova, you’re never going to be 5 feet 11, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that. You are going to have to be the most dogged, determined fighter that anyone has ever seen on the tennis court if you are going to make it,’ and she kind of is.
Bertoli’s beautiful, guileless reaction to Inverdale: “It doesn’t matter, honestly. I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact. Have I dreamt about having a modeling contract? No. I’m sorry. But have I dreamt about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes.”
Sports commentators, rarely insightful or enthusiastic when it comes to the performance of female athletes, are prone to paying rapt attention to the girlfriends of male athletes. See Brent Musburger’s fawning over Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron’s girlfriend, Katherine Web, or Wimbledon’s longstanding obsession with the girlfriends of male players, with this year’s focus on Kim Sears and Marta Domachowska (who are currently dating Andy Murray and Jerzy Janowics, respectively). At times, the media have pitted these beauties against each other, in a type of who-is-more-sexy-and-desirable? battle, with Domachowska “winning” the contest, having once posed for the Polish version of Playboy.
While there’s a certain old-school sexist idiocy to Inverdale and Musburger, their actions haven’t been malicious. Their reactions to the outcry and subsequent apologies seem to reflect an earnest befuddlement. One gets the impression that their comments stemmed from the genuine idea that they were complimenting these women.
Female athletes have all the qualities that make for a great sports narrative—underdog status, loyalty, commitment, perseverance, and innovation—yet they continue to be, for the most part, overlooked by commentators and reporters. When they are noticed, often it’s for their physical attractiveness and not their athleticism.
A while back, I happened upon a graphic novel by David Collier about Ethel Catherwood, a Canadian high jumper, which led me to research the 1928 Olympics. The Amsterdam Games were the first to allow women to compete in five track-and-field events, although they were only admitted at the time on a trial basis.
Houghton Mifflin’s The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, published in 1999, selected 59 articles to represent the 20th century. One of them was written by a woman. None of them featured female athlete as the main subject. By now, most people know that the best way for a woman to be on a Sports Illustrated cover, or even represented inside its pages, is to be a swimsuit model.
The Inverdale/Bartoli story reminds me of the backlash that Babe Didrikson Zaharias—arguably one of the greatest and most accomplished athletes ever—faced after her sweep in the 1932 Olympics, and her struggle with one sportswriter in particular. After her Olympic success, the press deemed her “too boyish,” a “sexual deviant” and “unfeminine.” More than one reporter questioned whether she was actually a man masquerading as a woman.
“People are always asking me,” she once said, “‘Are you going to get married, Babe?’ and it gets my goat. They seem to think that I’m a strange, unnatural being, summed up in the words ‘Muscle Moll,’ and the idea seems to be that Muscle Molls are not people.”
Unlike Inverdale and Musburger, Babe’s greatest critic—responsible for her Muscle Moll nickname—was malicious.
Babe had outrun sportswriter and novelist Paul Gallico on the seventeenth fairway after a round of golf at the Brentwood Country Club. He’d challenged her to the race, and as he lay exhausted on the edge of the green, she had playfully mocked him.
His revenge, spawned by embarrassment and anger and a tremendously bruised ego, included an onslaught of hateful articles and stories, many of which were published in Vanity Fair. Gallico wrote about their golf round in the 1932 October issue (notably forgetting to mention their race), and observed that after the game, “nobody knew whether to invite the Babe into the men’s locker room for a bath and a drink, or whether to say, ‘Well, goodbye kid, see you later.’” According to the article, Babe would have been “right at home” in the men’s locker room. Gallico used the word “boy” to describe her more than a dozen times.
In the October 1933 issue of Vanity Fair, Gallico continued his attack, publishing a short story titled “Honey.” The protagonist, Honey Hadwell, is a barely-disguised version of Babe, a parallel that was further reinforced by the full-page photograph of Babe that ran on the page opposite his story, and captioned “Tough Babe.”
Honey Hadwell is an oddity with “the most beautiful body that anyone saw on a woman because it happened to be a boy’s body,” and a face with “a hawk’s beak for a nose and a cold pair of eyes.” Honey hates herself because she can’t get a man, even if she can win gold medals. The story focuses on her self-hatred and shriveling self-esteem. A male high jumper pays attention to her until he learns her techniques, and then he drops her.
The story ends with Honey hitting and hurting herself with her fists, then the next day winning the gold in the javelin. She explains that her success comes from a desire for revenge against men, saying: “Ah throwed it right through his black heart.”
Babe loved to compete, but she hated when sportswriters wrote about her appearance or claimed that she “wasn’t interested in boys.” She knew that she wasn’t going to ever be a “glamour girl,” the highest compliment for a woman athlete at the time. She struggled to be accepted, going to great lengths to alter the way that she dressed and looked, trying as hard as she could to emphasize her heterosexuality and domesticity.
“I know I’m not pretty,” she told a reporter once, “but I do try to be graceful.”
Victoria Patterson is the author of "This Vacant Paradise" and lives in Southern California. Her next novel, coming in November ("The Peerless Four," www.victoriapatterson.com) from Counterpoint, is based on the first women allowed to compete at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.