Tag Archives: Olympics

Why are US Women so much better at soccer than US Men?

Tomorrow, in what has become an Olympic tradition, the US women will play in the Gold Medal final of the Olympic football tournament. The US have made the final every year that women have competed in football at the Olympics (1996 was the first year), and have only had to settle for silver ONCE.

The US men’s national team, by comparison have never made it to ANY medal match at the Olympics (Gold or Bronze) even though men’s national teams have been playing at the Olympics 88 years longer than the women.*

The situation is similar in the World Cup: In the 6 FIFA Women’s World Cups that have been held, the US have made it to the final three times and have won it twice. The men have had far more chances — there have been 19 FIFA World Cups for men — but the US have NEVER made it to the final.

Boys get that excited just over making it out of the group stage? Cute.

It’s hard to resist asking: Why have US Women been so much better, relative to the rest of the world, than US Men at the world’s most popular sport?

There might be any number of factors contributing to the “achievement gap” in American soccer, but I’ve identified two broad themes that might help explain it. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but they do sound a bit contradictory.

Perhaps they can’t both be entirely true, but they certainly go some way toward explaining the US’ gender achievement gap in football.

1. Gender roles in US sports

The most lucrative sport in the US, at both the professional and collegiate level is American football.  So for a young, male athlete who’s talented enough to play in any sport he chooses, there is undoubtedly strong pressure, both internally and externally,  to play American football.

Yeah, soccer’s totally a girlie-girl sport, isn’t it Abby?

But American football is seen as a “man’s game” so for a similarly talented young female athlete, it’s not an option (the rise of lingerie football notwithstanding). Soccer is popularly (and inaccurately, I would add) viewed as more effete, and therefore is the corresponding choice for young women.

Because of this gendered bifurcation of talent, the US women’s national soccer team is comprised of the best and most suitable athletes, while the US men’s national team is comprised just of the most suitable athletes who weren’t interested in American football.

2. Gender parity is sports financing

Thanks to Title IX and several landmark Supreme Court rulings, high schools and universities in the US must make equal provisions for men’s and women’s athletics. Not many other countries have similar provisions, including some of the football powerhouses (on the men’s side) in southern Europe and Latin America.

So while the US are a mediocre regional power on the men’s side, we rise to the top of the global table on the women’s side because several countries that could be fielding top-class national sides fail to invest in girls’ sports.

This would explain why some other countries (say, Norway) with more gender-equal societies can be so lackluster in men’s football, but so successful in women’s.

But maybe there are other explanations…


*1908 was the first year that national teams competed in football at the Olympics, but at the 1900 and 1904 Olympics, three clubs contested. Football was not a medal event at the time.

The 10 Most Adorable Athletes of London 2012 (so far)

In the spirit of the Olympics (or at least in the spirit of events such as synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics), it seems only appropriate to rank some of the world’s elite competitors according to flagrantly subjective and hopeless arbitrary criteria.

Here then is my assessment of the 10 most adorable Olympians at London 2012. Keep in mind, this is most adorable, not most attractive. I”m not trying to objectify anyone — just patronise them.

10. Hiroshi Hoketsu, Japan, Equestrian

First of all, let me just say (with apologies to Ann Romney) that I don’t think equestrian events should be included in the Olympics, and least of all the event known as dressage.

But it’s there and there’s little we can do about it. So I would be remiss if I did not include this Olympiad’s oldest competitor, Hiroshi Hoketsu. He is 71 years old and has been competing in the Olympics since Tokyo 1964. He is also utterly adorable.

He has said that this will be his last Olympics, due to age. Not his age, mind you, but that of his horse, Whisper.

Oh Hiroshi! What a dapper chap!

9. Katie Ledecky, USA, Swimming

Missy Franklin, who is 17 and has won 4 gold medals at this Olympics, has gotten a lot of attention, and much of it has focused on her youthfulness. But Missy is an old codger compared to Ms. Ledecky. The fearless 15-year old went into the 800-metre freestyle swim against world record-holder (not to mention hometown hero) Rebecca Adlington and quickly left Adlington and everyone else behind on her way to the gold.

But why does she make this “most adorable” list?

Somehow Katie still seems like a kid — in her interviews, in her post-race reaction, and just generally in the way she carries herself. While Missy and the whole host of gymnasts have quickly taken on personas that make them seem like teenage stars, Katie still looked like a teenager who suddenly found herself winning in the Olympics.

Oh Katie! You remind me so much of myself when I was 15!

8. Lizzie Armistead, Great Britain, Cycling

Lizzie won the silver medal in the women’s cycling road race, which opened Britain’s account in the medal table for London 2012. Armitstead’s performance was quite impressive, given that this is her Olympic debut.

But since she’s new to the big stage, Lizzie didn’t know that, no matter what you’re asked in post-race interviews and press conferences, you should stick to traditional boilerplate and talk about how happy you are that you won and thank the people who supported you and say how you were feeling during the race and blah blah blah. So instead, dear Lizzie addressed the issue of sexism in professional cycling and sport more generally.

Oh Lizzie! Look at what zany adventures you’ve sent the chattering classes on now!

7. Tüvshinbayar Naidan, Mongolia, Judo

If we’re to be completely honest, the outfits in Judo make all competitors look ridiculous and/or adorable. And if we’re to be even more brutally honest, Mongolian names tend to sound adorable and/or ridiculous.

The mighty Tüvshinbayar won Mongolia’s first ever Olympic gold medal in 2008 in Beijing, but could only manage a silver this time around. But he was adorable, even in defeat, as he lost the final in the men’s -100kg to Tagir Khaibulaev of Russia.

Oh Tuvshee!

6. Reese Hoffa, USA, Athletics

“Can a shot putter be adorable?” you ask. Absolutely, and shame on you for asking. Everything about Reese Hoffa, the American who took bronze in his event, screams “teddy bear.” Which is odd because Hoffa himself doesn’t seem to shout with the same visceral exclamation common in throwing events.

If you have a high tolerance for adorableness, check out the picture of Hoffa and his wife in this slideshow of displays of affection at London 2012.

Oh Reese! You big chug-a-lug, you!

5. John Orozco, USA, Gymnastics

I don’t know about you, but I found the whole helicopter-parent routine with Cuban-American gymnast Danell Leyva and his omnipresent father a bit exhausting. Conversely, I couldn’t get enough of the other American gymnast in the men’s all around: John Orozco.

This Puerto Rican kid (he’s 19) from the Bronx seemed like the sweetest guy you could hope to meet, and unfortunately, his most dramatic moment was an adorable catastrophe — his leotard pants got caught on the pommel horse and all but doomed his medal chances.

Oh John! Why must you sheath your legs with those silly tights anyway!?

4. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Jamaica, Athletics

Folks, she’s no longer the Shelly-Ann Fraser we saw wearing braces while winning the 100-metres  in Beijing in 2008. She’s now Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, a married woman whose dental development is presumably complete. But Shelly-Ann still managed to look  adorable (in a very juvenile sort of way) as she won the 100 metres again yesterday (Although I really would have thought that those ribbons in her hair would create drag while running).

But what really catapulted Shelly-Ann up this ranking was NBC’s feature on her before they aired the 100m final. She couldn’t help but laugh as she told a light-hearted story about how her mother once threatened to cut up a neighbour boy with a long knife.

Oh Shelly-Ann! You and your grim sense of humour!

3. Gabby Douglas, USA, Gymnastics

Many of my American readers probably thought this whole list was just building up toward yet another first-place finish for Gabby. Well, were this just a ranking of the adorableness of American Olympians, it would be a no-contest!

The Flying Squirrel, as Douglas has so aptly been nicknamed, was just as adorable during her routines as she was when feverishly nodding along to coaches’ and teammates’ exhortations on the sidelines. All successful athletes acknowledge the influence and support of their families, and that’s especially true for competitors as young as Douglas (16). Fittingly, Gabby’s family was also quite adorable when she won gold.

Oh Gabby! Don’t ever grow old!

2. Jessica Ennis, Great Britain, Athletics

It would not be a stretch to say Jessica Ennis was the face of these Olympics before she even performed. In fact, it wouldn’t even be all that metaphorical to say she was the face of the Games: British fans wore masks of “Our Jess” in Olympic Park, and her face is on billboards all over London. She was Britain’s great hope and was the favourite to win the Pentathlon.

Needless to say, the pressure on Jess was enormous, and she delivered.

But somehow, despite having the weight of her country’s collective expectations on her shoulders, she was always sporting her whimsical smile, and her delightful Yorkshire accent maintained its musical lilt in all her interviews throughout the Heptathlon.

Oh Jess! You could make even a basset hound stop being so gloomy.

1. Mo Farah, Great Britain, Athletics

First of all, there is something inherently adorable about watching a man the width of a chihuahua flying along at speeds unattainable by the average human and then seeing his eyes practically bugging out of his skull as he wins a gold medal.

The final of the Men’s 10,000 metres was probably the most exciting distance race I’ve ever seen at the Olympics, and if you didn’t see it, you at least owe it to yourself to watch the highlights of the race. Equally important to watch, though, is Farah’s tracksideinterview with BBC following the race.  The whole thing is adorable, but the most adorable bit starts here.

Because this list is so America-heavy and transparently unscientific, feel free to offer your rebuttals or amendments.

2014 Sochi Olympics will out-controversy 2008 Beijing Olympics

You heard it here first (probably): the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia will generate more controversy, put heads-of-state around the world in more diplomatically tense situations, and provoke more outrage among human rights activists before the games even start than the 2008 summer games did by the time they were over.  This would be no mean feat; in case you’ve forgotten, there’s an entire wikipedia entry devoted to the controversies surrounding Beijing’s Olympiad.  Before embarking on my reasoning for such a claim, some background information on the region is in order.  If you don’t like background information, skip down to the funny picture of Vladimir Putin.

Background information

Much like the 2010 Olympics which were split between Vancouver, a city, and Whistler, a mountain resort town two hours away, the 2014 games will be split between the Black Sea port of Sochi and the ski resort town of Krasnaya Polyana.  Both are in Krasnodarkrai, which is on the edge of the mountainous North Caucasus region.  The North Caucasus is extraordinarily diverse, inhabited by over 50 different ethnicities, many of whom practiced mystical Sufi Islam.  The region was conquered by the Russian Empire in the mid-19th century and has unwillingly been part of Russia in one fashion or other ever since.  The North Caucasus contains several republics that are in theory autonomous, but whose leaders are all appointed by the Kremlin.  The most well-known in the West of these republics is Chechnya, probably because the Russian Federation fought two wars there in the 1990s, and its complex, often violent history provides good fodder for Hollywood and Tom Clancy.

Technically Russia

The North Caucasus has a highly advanced, but opaque rebel infrastructure. Rebels under the command of Shamil Basayev fought Russian troops in a guerilla war that ravaged Chechnya from 1994-96.  In 1999, Basayev led an incursion into neighbouring Dagestan, and this, combined with bombings of apartment buildings in several European Russian cities that were blamed on Chechens, prompted the second Chechen war. Basayev was killed in the summer of 2006, and the current leader of the rebel movement is Doku Umarov.  In 2007, Umarov declared the creation of the Caucasus Emirate, a nominally Islamist group that was no longer fighting for just Chechnya, but all the oppressed North Caucasus peoples.  Although Umarov is often depicted as the mastermind, the emirate is actually quite decentralised, with individual jamaats in each republic, whose leaders and fighters seem to have more nationalistic than religious motivations.  Whether you classify their activity as insurgency or terrorism is of course a matter of perspective; but either way, they are a deadly force — In February of this year alone, they were responsible for 22 bombings and 31 shootouts, which killed over 50 people and wounded more.

Foreground Information?

One of the issues underlying all the potential hazards I will outline below is the ham-handedness of Vladimir Putin, who will almost surely return to the Presidency next term, after a brief spell as Prime Minister.  Whereas the Chinese government has constructed a well-oiled machine to manage dissent, Putin and his operatives tend to deal with opponents in a rather more primitive fashion. Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Alexander Litvinenko are two high-profile victims of Putin’s distaste for dissent.  So when challenges to the smooth running of the Sochi Olympics inevitably arise, Putin’s response is almost guaranteed to generate maximum outrage.

Even if the site of the Olympics weren’t so very, very close to the simmering cauldron of the North Caucasus republics, it would be vulnerable.  Although the militants in the North Caucasus regularly wreak havoc on the local authorities, they are by no means confined to local attacks.  Indeed in the last decade, they have carried out several very high-profile attacks in Russia.  These have included seizing the Dubrovka theatre with 900 people inside and holding it hostage  for three days; bombing a popular high-speed train that connects Moscow and St. Petersburg; and just this January, bombing Moscow’s Domodedovo airport.  In perhaps the most ominous sign for the officials in charge of security at the Sochi Olympics, terrorists have carried out several attacks in the ski area of Mt. Elbrus. Suffice to say, the Sochi Olympics will be an irresistible target for North Caucasus militants, all the more so because it’s so close.

Russian authorities still have three years to try to quiet down the restive North Caucasus, but there is almost no reason to believe they will be successful; Russian rulers  have been trying for 150 years with little success (Stalin deported entire ethnic groups  to Central Asia, for example).  There have been counterterrorist regimes in place somewhere or other in the North Caucasus for virtually all of Putin’s presidency, but attacks have only increased in recent years.  Recently, Moscow’s envoy to the region, Aleksandr Khloponin, had the bright idea to address one of the major underlying causes of terrorism –unemployment — through a grand economic development scheme.  But the patronage networks of local elites, as well as the plan’s reliance on foreign investors to put money in  a region that is still epically unstable, have doomed that strategy thus far.

SO, since the Kremlin will still have an armed insurgency simmering in Sochi’s neighbourhood, it is probably going to have to use brute force to contain the violence.  A supposed citizens’ self-defense unit calling themselves the “Black Hawks” has suddenly gained lots of attention in the Moscow press, by saying they would kill suspected militants and their children.  The Black Hawks are almost certainly a creation of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Moscow, as the article linked above argues.  This sort of gruesome collective punishment might grow more common as the need to maintain stability becomes more urgent with the approach of 2014.

Right now, Moscow’s tactics in dealing with the North Caucasus insurgency don’t attract much international attention.  For this reason, murders of the likes of Anna Politkovskaya, who reported on Russian forces’ brutality in Chechnya, and Magomed Yevloev, who owned a site that provided independent (i.e. not Kremlin-sanctioned) news in Ingushetia, are usually denounced by human rights organizations and certain watchdog groups, but fail to generate much international outrage.  As the world’s spotlight turns to the region in 2014, though, there will be much more scrutiny of the Kremlin’s doings.  This will leave Putin with three choices:

1. Restrict journalists’ access to the North Caucasus.

2. Allow journalists to report from the North Caucasus on all the unsavoury things happening there to an international audience.

3. Allow journalists to report from the North Caucasus, but assassinate the first one who writes about something unsavoury that the FSB is doing, as an example to others.

None of these would be very well-received by the international community, but nor are any of them implausible.  Again, you heard them all here first.

Another issue that will bedevil Russia’s attempt to host a problem-free Olympiad is the grievances of the Circassians.  The Circassians were one of the many ethnic groups with whom the Russian Empire warred in its imperial conquest of the Caucasus in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The Circassians inhabited the area where Sochi now sits, and many consider their removal from this area in 1864 by Russia to be genocide.  The fact that 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of this alleged genocide only adds to the Circassians’ sense of injustice.  Previously Russia’s atrocities during the Caucasian conquest have not been well-known outside the former Soviet Union or European History departments (if even there).  But many Circassian activists see the Sochi Olympics as an opportunity to draw international attention to their historical grievances.  As China has learned all to well with Tibet, and Turkey with Armenia, the plight of a historically-oppressed people group can generate sympathy around the world, and complicate diplomatic relations.

All of this will invite unwelcome comparisons with the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Whereas the Vancouver organizers celebrated First Nations people groups and saw the Games as an opportunity to highlight the cultures of historically oppressed peoples, Russia will be seen as suppressing them.