When Brianna Decker takes the ice for the U.S. hockey team this weekend, she will be a woman. When Karen Chen skates into the rink to go for gold in figure skating, however, she will be a lady.
It’s nothing personal. The Olympics just has a different — and puzzling — way of referring to female athletes competing in different sports.
Of the 14 categories of Winter Olympic sports that have competitions for female athletes, eight use the moniker “ladies,” including skiing, snowboarding, and speed skating, while six use the term “women,” including bobsledding, curling, and ice hockey. “Ladies soar in ski jumping, but women ride the luge,” writes Boston’s WBUR 90.9 in response to a reader’s question about the discrepancy. “Is ski jumping somehow more polite than luge? Do curlers occupy a lower social position than alpine skiers?”
To many 21st century ears, “ladies” does sound uncomfortably outdated, something belonging to an era of petticoats rather than polyester and Spandex. “‘Lady’ once implied a proper woman who is not to be disrespected, crosses her legs at the ankle, and never talks out of turn,” The New Republic writes in an analysis of how the term has evolved.
When the modern Olympics began in 1896, there was no question about how to refer to women; their very inclusion was considered improper. French founder Pierre de Coubertin claimed that “no matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks.” Thankfully, the horrendous term sportswoman didn’t make it long past the turn of the 20th century, nor did de Coubertin’s imposition. Lady golfers and tennis players joined the Summer Games in 1900.
It would be somewhat straightforward if we could chalk up the Olympics’ use of the term “ladies” to outmoded labels that were first applied more than 100 years ago. But the term keeps getting applied to new events, too. Ladies’ big air debuts this year and ladies’ ski jumping was added in 2014.
So what gives? Why are some sports for women and some for ladies?
As WBUR 90.9 explained, the distinction is tied to what international governing body the sport falls under. The International Ski Federation’s (FIS) events all use the term “ladies,” as do all events under the umbrella of the International Skating Union (ISU). The rest of the Winter Olympic governing bodies — the International …read more