I started writing my first essay on gender inequality in sports after Lance got caught doping. We were about a month into the semester, exercise science and art history courses being my favorites, when the story was released. The mangled affair would have broken the internet if the concept existed in 2012, but it did succeed in breaking the belief of cycling and non-cycling fans alike. You didn’t have to be a fan of the sport to know his or the infamous Livestrong name sprawled on bright yellow wristbands worn by athletes, pop-culture vultures, and fashionistas alike.
Once the golden boy Tour de France champion donning sun-colored apparel, now a liar and a cheat. His story sat at the pit of our stomachs because it made everything all the more glorious, until it made the struggle to condemn him harder for the people who trusted an athlete they didn’t know. Had it been the meme era it is now, I’m convinced there would have been something equivalent to a blacked out ‘v’ on Livestrong. His legacy was burning; and Lance just didn’t seem to care.
I watched the Oprah interview in awe when it aired. His despondency and genuine disinterest in shaking the world around him, tarnishing his brand the way he had, it was something to see. Oprah inquired about his decision to dope and he treated it all like it was a molehill, and everyone else had made it into Everest. I was sure it must have been a defense mechanism, acting untouched by the crumbling walls and stray debris b-lining for his head. He just couldn’t show it, so he showed contempt instead. Maybe. It still radiated in a privilege I didn’t fully understand at the time, one I thought was painted in whiteness and wealth. I don’t think I was completely wrong, but there was a riskless gambit I was yet to remember.
One of the biggest takeaways of the interview was: everyone does it, he just got caught. This rhetoric was a well-known one in my house and likely the homes of many sports families. There was no surprise in him taking an enhancement when you’d watch teammates supe up before practice. It did seem as though everyone took something, the substance just likely hadn’t been put on the banned list yet. His smugness about it all, though, the apparent lack of remorse drenched in how he spoke about an illegal act that had stripped him of the things that made him great. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. So after the interview concluded, I looked up another athlete that had fallen to the exposure of enhancement, an athlete I recalled reacting much differently to the ordeal than Lance did.
When my sister was fourteen, she was the first tennis starter on her high school varsity team. As with most sports, a freshman coming out and kicking enough ass to be seeded at the top of a senior level sport was something to applaud. She finished the season with an almost undefeated record and had frequented newsprint front pages throughout the course of the season. She was the favorite, and one of the best tennis players at her school.
Once practices ended, she went looking for other competition outside of the day-to-day after school crew. She approached the boys’ varsity team coach in hopes they were looking for hitting partners the way the girls’ team always did. She wasn’t met with the hitting partner quota being full, or some other mundane reason she was unwelcome; instead, the coach told her it wasn’t a good idea because he didn’t know how it would make the boys feel. When she followed up with “How what would make them feel?” he doubled down and clarified—he didn’t know how the team would take having to hit with a girl.
To my sister, the kicker was that she was a better player than 90% of that team. That if she met the majority of them on the court in any sanctioned tournament, she’d beat them handily. To hear their coach express concern over a better athlete playing with them, not because of skill level or regulations, but gender, was difficult for her to absorb. She asked me if I’d experienced similar situations playing basketball. Of course I had, we all had. I searched my bank for conversations I’d had with her about sports culture and inequality, if I’d spoken to her enough about the matter, if I’d sufficiently prepared her for the reality she was facing. I had, but there was no preparing someone for a veil removal. For an understanding bigger than themselves and what they stood against before knowing they stood against anything.
To a lot of people, those in and out of sport; we would always be women and girls first. Athletes second, or last. The idea was jolting for me when I realized it and for my sister right at that moment. When you played the sport you loved, doused in competition, sweat, angst, and victory, you weren’t anything, but an athlete. If it wasn’t bad enough being hit with the misogynistic lambast that was the coach’s concern for the boys on his team and not the work ethic, skill, wellbeing or self-esteem of the athlete that stood in front of him, it was the realization that in sports, as in all things, people would perceive you differently than you perceived yourself. In a sinking and notched way, you feel more than helpless, you are made to feel inferior, when you are not.
In 2008, Marion Jones was sentenced to six months in prison for her involvement in a check fraud case, and more publicly and arguably more relevantly, for her use of performance enhancing drugs. Her medals and Olympic titles were stripped as were the varied endorsement deals and all of the other grace falling commandments. When Marion made her public apology, it was drowning in remorse, “And so it is with a great amount of shame,” she said, “that I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust.” She stood on the crucifix of judgements and onward looks that made her into something other than a gold medal winning athlete; a person.
Marion wept with a tender disdain for her choices and involvement in the activities that were not only changing the happenings of her life, but her teammates and fellow runners. She apologized to the institution, the Olympic Games and that of sport in general, for not being better than she had chosen to be. Her posture slumped and head often down, Marion was sorry, and she needed everyone who was watching to know it.
A few months later she began her stint in Carswell prison and completed her six month term, followed by two years of probation and four hundred hours of community service. The sentencing seemed too harsh for many. The judge explained his reasoning soon after the verdict, which centered around the fact that even though she admitted to the illegal enhancement activity, he did not believe that she had been completely honest about her knowledge of the drugs she had taken. Just like that, Marion’s downfall also lit up the papers and she was arguably made into an example of what we refused to accept, by certain athletes.
A couple years later, player interactions and day-to-day occurrences aside, the next coach that vocalized their prejudice concerning my sister’s gender versus athletic ability was one she volunteered for. She’d started working as a volunteer coach at a community center where the kids ranged from her age down to seven or six. While hitting and besting another high schooler, the coach yelled out across the court, “You’re going to let a girl do that to you?” The comment was followed by reactionary oohs and aahs, and of course, the same expendable feelings occupied by the girl who was apparently supposed to be losing to her less skilled opponent, because she was assigned the gender she was.
When she didn’t return to volunteer at the program, the coach called her afternoon clinic coach and inquired about her absence. When her afternoon clinic coach approached her about it, she told him what happened, the same way she told me, and unlike my compassion and comprehension as to why she chose not to return, her afternoon coach didn’t quite understand.
“He didn’t mean anything by it,” he assured.
My sister disagreed, “He meant exactly what he said.”
I couldn’t say I was surprised at the lighthearted perception he had adopted towards someone speaking about his star player, because it was common. While my sister and I varied in our approaches to dealing with this sort of bigotry in sport, she stepping back and me stepping forward, there was an understanding that we shared, one that too many coaches and players didn’t have to—your talent doesn’t define you as an athlete, not in her game, not in mine, not in any. People do. This was especially true as a woman because even when you were the best, there’d always be someone you were expected to be inferior to. I suppose that notion isn’t solely based in sport, but I’ll stay on track.
She asked me if she was right to step away from the program, remarking that the kids shouldn’t suffer because of the coach. I asked her to take a second to decide if she really thought she was doing the right thing. She paused before she said she couldn’t bear working for someone who saw her as anything less than what she was. Whether that was based on skill level or gender. She’d worked too hard to be the best for anyone to expect her not to be. She followed up by imagining what it might be like to never have to hear things like that. To just be able to slam a ball between someone’s eyes and be congratulated for it, not overlooked, not ignored, or made to feel smaller than. We both imagined what it might be like to be athletes, and only athletes.
I thought about both Marion and Lance on my way out of art history one afternoon. We were learning about tapestries, their unique quality and method of hiding warp threads all throughout the design. They were beautiful and flawless, well at least that’s how they appeared—they really just hid the flaws. Majestic and expansive, tapestries were still imperfect masterpieces with their inadequacies and pointed faults woven deep inside.
Marion went to prison and Lance did not. Marion might have had to hide her contempt, Lance did not. She might have had to dampen the rage of knowing she wasn’t alone in her actions, he did not. Marion had to be sympathetic, Lance did not. No one can name one specific reason for these realities, but a few can be listed. In that few, the inevitability of gender and race is a certainty.
I don’t speak for Marion, as I don’t deny she could simply be a more sympathetic and likeable person than Lance, but I do understand the weight of supposition. That it would mean something entirely different if she had presented herself the way he had, face-to-face with condemnation. That in sport, and so many other places, she had to be what was expected of her, expected of women, expected of Black women, who are held to an even harsher, more suffocating standard than our peers, and not the individual athlete she was. One could argue that everything that transpired in her press conference was exactly the way she would have reacted regardless of any variation of the circumstance. One could also argue that the bubbled rage oozing from Lance coarsed through Marion’s veins as well and slept on the tip of a tongue that knew what would happen if it woke up. The reality is, we exist in a culture of sport that makes it impossible for us to know if she did what she wanted to do, or what she was expected to do. There’s a searing discomfort in that truth, just as there was in watching Lance’s dissonance. Where his respect for the sport seemed buried in the whispered truth of professional athletes partaking in the illegal extracurriculars that he was no longer whispering about.
I don’t believe all athletes use drug enhancements. But I did believe Marion’s tears, as well as the unspoken reasons they existed and unleashed the way they did. I thought about them, pooling down, showcasing the necessary remorse and vulnerability they laced through our hearts and temperaments. I thought about what it might have meant for her to be sitting across from Oprah without an inkling of contrition to be seen. I thought about my experiences and having been told to be softer, and gentler, or a ‘woman first’—like it wasn’t what I already was, or like it should matter at all, like I even knew what it meant. I didn’t think of my sister then though, of her having to feel the same unwarranted weight as the rest of us. I thought about Marion’s tears again and wondered if the unspoken reasons would ever be loud enough to run as free as those tears did; or if they’d forever remain hidden like the warp threads on a tapestry, quietly floating beneath the surface.