Impressive collection of female activist athletes of various degrees and directions

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Alan Bairner
Loughborough University


Linda K. Fuller
Female Olympian and Paralympian Athlete Activists: Breaking Records, Glass Ceilings, and Social Codes
483 pages, hardcover, ill
Oxford, Oxon: Peter Lang Publishing 2023
ISBN 978-1-4331-9116-9

Linda Fuller is a respected scholar and Professor Emerita at Worcester State University in the United States. She has authored or co-edited over 30 books, including Sport, rhetoric, and gender (2006), Sportscasters/Sportscasting (2008), and Women, War and Violence (2010). There are hints of her previous scholarship in this mighty tome published in 2023. However, it is a very different type of book and I am not entirely sure what purpose it is intended to serve. Nevertheless, with 483 pages, all but 54 of which consist of 800+ pen pictures of female athletes from many different sports and eras, it is clearly a labour of love. Fuller herself describes Martina Navratilova as ‘the original impetus for this book, and for many athletic activist causes’ (p. 251).

Chapter One introduces the subject matter of the book, beginning with a reminder of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and the demonstration of Black solidarity by Tommie Smith and John Carlos but also, more pertinently, the protest of Vĕra Čáslavská directed at the Soviet Union in response to the crushing of the Prague Spring uprising earlier that year. Significantly, but perhaps not surprisingly, Čáslavská arguably suffered more than the American male athletes for her protest, ’effectively banned from leading a normal life for much of the next 20 years’ (p. 1).

Chapter One also includes an outline of Fuller’s theoretical approach which is Gendered Critical Discourse Analysis which ‘draws on sociolinguistics and its applications for female power/relationships’ (p. 12). Prior to this, there is an explanation of the criteria used to decide who should be included in the book. Hence, ‘self-described female athletes – specifically, sportswomen involved in contested arenas who also go beyond their various sports to be(come) part of wider social concerns, whether they be s/heores [sic], renegades, bad-asses, and/or supersportspeople’ (p. 2). They must also have competed in the Summer or Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games. The latter criterion means that it was not possible to include numerous female athlete activists although thankfully Billie Jean King is included on the basis of having coached gold-medal winners, Lindsay Davenport and Gigi and Mary Joe Fernández.

The appearance of Caitlyn Jenner is also interesting. As Bruce Jenner, they won the gold medal in the men’s Decathlon at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. It was not until 2015 that Jenner announced that they were a trans woman.

The former criterion is more problematic for the simple reason that being ‘part of wider social concerns’ is not the same as adopting an activist position in relation to these concerns. For example, Anne, Princess Royal, who competed in equestrianism at the Montreal Games, is included (13 lines compared with King’s 6). Much as I personally appreciate the Princess’s patronage of Scottish rugby, I find it impossible to think of her charity work as evidence of social activism rather than as performing the kind of duties that are expected of senior members of what is probably Europe’s most conservative royal family.

The appearance of Caitlyn Jenner is also interesting. As Bruce Jenner, they won the gold medal in the men’s Decathlon at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. It was not until 2015 that Jenner announced that they were a trans woman. This tests Fuller’s inclusion criteria insofar as Jenner was not ‘a self-described female’ athlete at the time of their participation in the Olympics.

I was pleased to see an entry for Irina Rodnina, who won three gold medals in pairs skating at the Winter Olympics of 1972, 1976 and 1980, because her activism took the form of being elected to the State Duma of Russia in 2007 as a member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party. Too often, only those athletes who espouse causes with which we agree are recognised as activists. For rather different reasons, the inclusion of Helene Mayer is also illuminating. The only Jewish athlete allowed to represent Germany at the Berlin Olympics, having already won gold in the individual foil in Amsterdam eight years earlier, fencer Mayer responded to an invitation by the Nazis and came out of exile in the United States to compete, won a silver medal, wore a uniform bearing the Swastika and gave the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute. The question why remains unanswered to this day.

Since childhood, I have enjoyed turning the pages of books of this sort. The snippets of information that are provided are often fascinating although, in this instance, there is too much information for any single reader to fully take in. One wonders too if there is still a place for books like this when so much information (and disinformation) is available at our fingertips. The fact remains, however, that it would be invidious to be too critical of a work that has been so painstakingly assembled.

Irina Rodnina, now Slutskaya, won three gold medals in pairs skating at the Winter Olympics of 1972, 1976 and 1980. Her activism took the form of being elected to the State Duma of Russia in 2007 as a member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party. (Image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Attribution: Tatarstan.ru)

It was heartening to see a place in the book for Brittney Griner, gold medal winner in basketball in 2016 and 2020. At the time of the book’s publication, US athlete Griner was still imprisoned in Russia having been arrested in February 2022 and sentenced to nine years in jail for having hashish-filled vape cartridges in her luggage at SheremetyFullerevo International Airport. She was released in December 2022 following a prisoner swap involving Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Griner continues to be an advocate against bullying especially of LTGBTQ people.

There are mistakes in the book, no doubt as there were bound to be in such a massive undertaking. Only those who identify an error will know how significant it is. For my part, it is unfortunate that Lady Mary Peters is described as having won the Pentathlon at the 1972 Munich Olympics competing for Northern Ireland. In fact, she was representing the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is reported in her entry that she received, presumably Irish republican, death threats for being a Protestant although it is more likely that these were a response to her competing for Britain than to her religious beliefs. Now in her 80s, she actually remains well loved by members of both of the two main communities in the north of Ireland, a reminder of happier times in what is otherwise remembered as the bloodiest year of the Troubles during which 479 people were killed and 4, 876 were injured.

One particularly surprising omission from the book is volleyball player Lang Ping, known in her native country as ‘Iron Hammer’, who enjoyed Olympic gold medal success as a Chinese national team member in 1984 and subsequently as a coach of the victorious US and Chinese national teams in 2008 and 2016 respectively. An acknowledged cultural icon in her native country, she was forgiven by the Chinese public for having coached the US team to victory over China at the Beijing Olympics in a game watched by Chinese president Hu Jintao and his US counterpart George W. Bush, and then returning to coach her own national side to Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro. Yet another reminder of happier times perhaps.

In light of the many moving and courageous stories recounted in the book, it is perhaps regrettable that Fuller chooses to end the introduction to this remarkable achievement with the well-known quote from Nelson Mandela. ‘Sport can create hope where once there was only despair’. In the current geopolitical environment, we can but wish that this were true.

Copyright © Alan Bairner 2024


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