THIS year's U.S. Olympic team included 269 women and 261 men, making women a majority for the first time. Every country participating had at least one woman competing, and there were 4,847 female Olympians, the most in history.
That's why some proclaimed this Olympics the “year of the woman” and a sign of growing equality. The trend is also hailed for providing young women with role models who emphasize fitness and self-worth through competition, not the overly sexualized and unrealistic female images often promoted through popular culture.
So it's especially disconcerting to see some of those athletes now attacked for being role models in both the area of physical fitness and personal morals.
Gold-medal gymnast Gabrielle Douglas is unabashed about her Christian faith. For that, she was mocked in a Salon.com article that included this subhead: “The gold medalist is a teenager of deep faith and gratitude — and that can be a little unnerving.”
The attack on U.S. Olympic track and field athlete Lolo Jones was more harsh. After a near-win in the 100-meter hurdles in 2008, Jones tried again this year and missed winning the bronze by only 0.10 seconds.
Jones' personal story is inspiring, having overcome a childhood of severe poverty. She is undeniably attractive and a devout Christian who has said she's saving herself for her future husband. Those aspects of her life get as much attention as her athletic ability, leading to criticism.
In a column, New York Times writer Jere Longman derided Jones, saying she gets attention “based not on achievement but on her exotic beauty and on a sad and cynical marketing campaign. Essentially, Jones has decided she will be whatever anyone wants her to be — vixen, virgin, victim — to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses.”
It's true Jones posed for an artistic nude in ESPN magazine's “body” issue, but so have numerous female and male athletes. That doesn't make her a Playboy bunny. And Jones' athletic achievement is undeniable. She won back-to-back world indoor titles in the 60-meter hurdles while setting an American record. This year's Olympic results prove she's the fourth-best female hurdler on the planet. So the criticism isn't based on her athletic ability, but on her faith and willingness to advocate a life of abstinence until marriage.
You would think those stances would draw praise, or at least silent respect, not criticism. Consider this: Nationally, 41.5 of every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 had babies in 2008. In Oklahoma, the rate was 61.6 per 1,000. How much would those rates fall if more girls looked up to people like Douglas and Jones and not the cast of “Jersey Shore”?
We know many parents cheer female role models who stand for self-esteem developed through faith and hard work, not promiscuity and debasement — and many young girls do as well. To know an adult achieved success without compromising her morals is no small thing for a child.
For that alone Douglas and Jones deserve praise, regardless of the medal count. Long after the 2012 Olympics are a footnote, their positive impact will be felt in the lives of young women who took inspiration from their example; a pair of childhood heroes who showed athletic success is compatible with character and morality.