This week, Sistory was featured on Not Your Boyfriend’s Sports Show, a podcast created and hosted by Friend of this Blog, Maeve Duggan. If you’re a sports fan, or just a fan of interesting podcasts with stellar storytelling, it’s worth listening to NYBF on a regular basis.
If you’re just a fan of us, we recommend starting with this week’s episode. On it, we talk about whether bridge is a sport, why skill sports are gender-segregated just like strength sports, and synchronized swimming. Also, we pretend like we were living in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics, which we definitely weren’t.
Don’t let the lush grass fool you. That’s Philadelphia, and based on the video camera in the grass, 1979.
When Maeve approached us about being on NYBF, we immediately decided to talk about the Olympics. Since we’re not much in the way of athletes ourselves, the Olympics is the extent of our sports knowledge. Every two years (or four, if you don’t care about the Winter Games) everyone pretends like they’re huge fans of random sports: curling, race walking, dressage, HANDBALL.
How do these weird sports end up in the Olympics? It’s a long, complicated process that has a lot more to do with politics than you might think. And, since you’re reading this on Sistory and not Olympics Digest, we’re going to explain it using ~gender.~
Look at the case of Margaret Murdock, who shot right through an extremely unnecessary Olympic glass ceiling. Shooting has been a sport in the Olympics since it’s modern inception in 1896, but of course, women have been excluded for the first 80 years.
Since shooting is a game of skill, not strength, it was only a matter of time before a little lady found herself with a gun in her hand and the aim needed to beat the boys. Murdock was the best shooter in the game, better than all the men, when she was finally allowed in the Olympics in 1976. She tied for first — and they gave her the silver medal, while her teammate got the gold. They were both from Team USA, so what’s the difference, right?
Her teammate was kind enough to pull her up onto the gold medal pedestal with him (what a #niceguy.) But this proves that just being allowed to compete is not the same thing as being accepted, or being judged by the same rules.
Which seems weird when the sports are sort of gender-neutral. Anyone can pull a trigger, and frankly, the Olympic Committee is just lucky Ms. Murdock didn’t “accidentally” “misfire” right into “someone’s” “kneecap.”
But lest you cast us as nasty women, seeking equality of the sexes as a way to tear down men, we now present you with the story of Bill May.
No. That’s Billy Mays, and he’s gone on to that great infomercial in the sky. This is Bill May, the very-much-alive synchronized swimmer who has fought his whole life to be allowed to compete in the Olympics. At the international level — Olympics and FINA Worlds — there are no co-ed synchro events, so despite devoting his life to the sport, May was never able to perform on the international stage.
He was arguably the greatest synchronized swimmer in the world, though, there was no way to prove that. But it was a tricky conundrum. In an ESPN magazine profile, writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner muses, “Bill didn’t represent throngs of boys fighting for equality. It was just him. You can’t change an entire sport just for Bill, right?” No other country had an entrant for co-ed synchronized events, so there was just no will to change the sport just to give him a shot.
Bill retired from synchronized swimming with his dreams dashed in 2004. He settled into a quiet life of performing the underwater Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas.
Then, in 2014, Worlds decided to allow men to compete. Bam. All of Bill’s dreams coming true … 10 years after he retired. He did the only thing you could do: got his coach and teammates on board, trained his butt off and showed up in Kazan, Russia, for the first co-ed events in synchronized swimming history.
Bill won gold for the free event and silver for the technical. (The Russians took the opposite.)
Rematch at the Olympics? Perhaps. There’s still no word on whether there will be co-ed events allowed at the big Games.
But hey, we’ll know soon enough. Because there’s always another Olympics right around the corner.