Will the Rio Olympics Be the Summer of Women?

"Female dollars" are at an all-time high. What does that mean for female athletes?

Olympics Features
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Will the Rio Olympics Be the Summer of Women?

Right before Mother’s Day, Proctor & Gamble released its first Olympic ad of the season, a mom-themed production titled (appropriately enough) “Thank You, Mom.”

It’s a trite tearjerker designed to capitalize on the emotions wrapped up in the Games. And it’s very effective. An uplifting montage cuts between athletes, all at their big moments, remembering in flashback how their moms helped them get there. (Presumably dad never drove to soccer practice.) The tagline: “It takes a strong woman to make someone strong.”

It’s an interesting choice for a tagline, since the moms highlighted in the ad don’t display strength in the traditional sense—mom’s strength is soothing, reassuring, and focused on domestic work. In contrast, Under Armour’s first Olympics ad shows the U.S. women’s gymnastics team in shadow, early in the morning and late at night, practicing and practicing and practicing, as aggressive music plays in the background. It’s a distinctly rougher and less sunny depiction of women at work. Their tagline: Rule yourself.

The difference between these two ads almost perfectly sums up the struggle faced by female athletes trying to capitalize on a boom in viewership and media attention in the run-up to the Summer Olympics. Female athletes—and the companies who endorse them—are called upon to balance a growing demand for strong, empowered super-humans, while still maintaining many of the polite fictions about how women are supposed to look and act.

Last summer, with the media storm surrounding Serena Williams, Rhonda Rousey and the World Cup victory of the U.S. Women’s National Team, commentators declared the inequalities in sports over. 25 million Americans watched that World Cup final—more than have watched any other soccer game, male or female. Watching women compete has led to women wanting to get out there themselves, setting off an explosion in the female athletic market.

Nike has announced a new line of women’s products and an effort to get its sale of women’s gear up to $2 billion by next year, while Under Armor CEO Kevin Plank said on a public conference call that the company’s $1 billion women’s business “has the potential to be larger than men’s.” All told, women’s active wear has grown in the last few years to a $20 billion business annually, said Andy Annunziata, an analyst with SportsOneSource. If women’s empowerment will sell that many pairs of shoes and tights, then plenty of companies are happy to flaunt their feminist credentials.

Historically, the Olympics has had a much higher percentage of female viewers than most major sporting events. That makes this summer the perfect time to roll out the red carpet for female athletes to attract female fans to spend female dollars.

But those female dollars often don’t make it to the place where they matter most. In March, the players on U.S. Women’s Soccer team filed an equal pay complaint with the U.S. Federal Employment Opportunity Commission. In it, they noted that they were paid less for winning the World Cup than the U.S. men’s team made for getting knocked out in the Round of 16 — despite bringing in 23 million viewers to the 18 million who watched the final game for the U.S. men. The only women who crack the top-ten list of best-paid Olympic athletes in the world are two tennis players, of whom Maria Sharapova (the world’s 23-ranked female player) brings in the most — over 17 percent more than Serena Williams, whose number one ranking still leaves her behind Sharapova and Chinese player Li Na in endorsement deals, according to Forbes. The message is clear: if you want to make the most money as a female athlete, then you had better do it looking a certain way.

While Williams made over $11 million in prize money last year, far more than any of her closest competitors, much of an athlete’s earnings come from endorsements and sponsorship money. And endorsement contracts come more easily to athletes who are lithe, pretty, and often blond.

The athletes know this. They know that there are very specific expectations of how a woman is supposed to look and act. Even as those possibilities have expanded, no company wants to sponsor a female athlete who isn’t someone the rest of us aspire to be.

Six-time national 800m champion Alysia Montaño has spent her entire career fighting that battle. The San Francisco-based runner doesn’t fit the typical female “fitspiration” mold — she’s not “putting her sexy out there,” as she says — but she likes to wear a flower in her hair when she runs, and she ran the national championship race at 7 months pregnant. In an open letter to her daughter that she posted on her blog, Montaño wrote: “Momma notices, that people impose what a girl ‘should like’ and they also impose what a boy ‘should like.’ My message to you, my brave, smart and funny little girl, is that you can like and be whatever you want.”

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“I’m not something to be put in a box of what a woman is,” said Montaño.

But Montaño also struggled to find sponsors coming out of college. She went unsponsored for a while. She knew men who were putting up similar results, along with some women who were pretty and blond, and were having an easier time of it. “There’s a different set of standards, and women are required to be more attractive than men,” said Peter Abraham, a marketing expert who has consulted with brands like Nike and Lululemon.

“It’s all about the sex sells thing,” says Brook Turner, a friend of Montaño’s who ran collegiately and professionally after school—and who helped fund her career with modeling work for athletic companies. “If you’re a beautiful woman, who’s doing well [in her sport], it’s easier for you.” And it’s hard not to notice, when looking, say, at Sharapova and Williams, that the women who companies throw most of their sponsorship dollars behind are very often white.

Many of these smaller niche sports also have a chicken-egg problem with their female stars. While the Olympics is one of the most equal of sporting venues — with comparable events for both genders and similar money available (since there’s no prize money offered in the actual Olympics) — the sports all vary in how equally they treat women the rest of the four years. Many of the longest or hardest races aren’t offered to women, the 1500m in swimming or nearly half the events in road and track cycling. It’s the problem of the heptathlon v. the men’s decathlon. This permits arguments for less media coverage, since there’s less to cover, which in turn brings less sponsorship dollars and government funding to the smaller women’s fields.

In surfing, the World Surf League argues that it has “equal” pay for the men and women on its tour — the women’s field is half the size of the men’s and competes for a prize purse half the size. Per surfer, that works out to the same amount of money. The league has also struggled to put on a women’s big wave tour, with far fewer female big wave surfers. With a few exceptions, though, the highest paid female surfers typically aren’t even the top performers on the tour; they’re really earning all their money through lifestyle sponsorship contracts.

“The [women] making the most money are basically models for these companies,” said Paige Alms, one of the top female big wave surfers in the world, who works part-time jobs as well. “There’s nothing wrong with them making money,” she said. “But I don’t understand why athletes, purely for the sport athletes, aren’t making somewhat equal money.” In surfing, as in so many things, sex appeal still matters more than athletic ability.

Being an athlete, in the day-in, day-out reality of sweaty, smelly gyms, isn’t actually an attractive process for men or for women, but it hits women trying to meet societal standards of female beauty particularly hard. There’s a reason the ads of female athletes working out aren’t of the gut-wrenching, snot-dripping, red-faced, sweat-soaked workouts. The women in the ads glisten; they don’t sweat.

But those ads sell.

U.S. women’s soccer star Alex Morgan always looks flawless on the field and in promotional spots. She has a carefully cultivated image, necessary to sign her many—inspirational—endorsement deals. When she and her teammates were feted in the streets of New York, it was the first time a victory parade had ever been held for a women’s team. And it wasn’t just women celebrating. It set a new bar for girls hoping to follow in their footsteps, showing them that they too could bring the Big Apple to a stop. “We showed girls that they can walk a little taller and reach a little higher,” said Morgan.

But not too high yet. Morgan might sell Chapstick and Nike products, but if you’ve seen the Orlando Pride, her pro team, play a game—in person or on TV—you’re part of a small crowd. The National Women’s Soccer League shattered its previous attendance records last year — averaging 5,046 fans/game. Outside of world sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup, it turns out we don’t actually regularly want to see women playing and competing in all their sweaty glory.

The women’s athletic wear market is massively booming, but it’s driven largely by the sale of athleisure — tights and yoga pants and cute tanktops that women wear not just to work out in, but to run errands in. Strong is the new sexy, as the saying goes; that was even the title of MTV star Snooki’s newest book. But the women winning the biggest sponsorship dollars know when to put sexy before strong. And even they won’t earn as much as men — men who have more options to never worry about being sexy at all.

This summer, we will watch female athletes from all over the world run faster, jump higher, be stronger. We will tell our daughters and nieces that they too can achieve sporting glory one day.

But while we tell them they can be strong, we’re also telling them—not too strong. Sexy, but not too sexy. They can work hard, but it can’t look like work. We will watch Rio and marvel at how far female athletes have come in such a short time. And then we will forget about most of them, and about how far they still have to go.

Kelly O’Mara writes about sportsexcept football, baseball, and basketballfor places like espnW, VICE Sports, and Competitor. She also races a lot of triathlon. @kellydomara