Hayley Wickenheiser: Flag Bearer, Standard-Bearer

Fifteen for 15 #6

This morning Hayley Wickenheiser will carry the Canadian flag into Fisht Stadium in the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Olympic Games. My first thought on hearing Wickenheiser was going to be flag bearer was, great choice! My second thought was, she’s competing in another Olympics? Hayley Wickenheiser has been a member of the Canadian Women’s National hockey team since 1994. She first competed in the Olympic Games in 1998 (Nagano), where the team won silver. Since then the Canadian women have won three consecutive gold medals in 2002 (Salt Lake City), 2006 (Turin) and 2010 (Vancouver). These accomplishments, and her numerous accolades, are detailed on her website.

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Wickenheiser has rightfully been credited with contributing to the growth of women’s hockey in Canada, at the elite and recreational level. 1998 was the first year women’s hockey was an official sport in the Games, and now we have a generation of young women who have grown up watching our team compete, and dominate, at an international level. This is unquestionably a good thing for the sport and for players who, as Wickenheiser demonstrates, are can play elite hockey for longer, and on a bigger stage, than ever before.

I’ll be watching coverage of the opening ceremonies, and profiles of Wickenheiser closely over the course of the games. She is unquestionably one of the most accomplished, toughest, and unapologetic female athletes in Canadian history. Her representation in the media and ads follows a trend I’ve observed since the early-2000s, which is that female athletes are increasingly presented in more complex and less cloyingly feminine/heterosexual terms than their predecessors. As I’ve written before, in the past ads and news coverage has tended to focus on what else an athlete can do. For example, “XX” is an athlete, and also a wife! “XX” is incredibly skilled, but her kids come first! “XX” competes like a man, but looks like a woman! There is nothing wrong with looking or acting feminine, however, my research suggests that this focus on what else female athletes can do is about trying to reconcile or make people comfortable with their perceived gender non-conformity.

And yet, in the last five to ten years we’ve seen some important changes in the way female athletes are presented to the media. In advertisements and promotional shots they flaunt their muscles. Wickenheiser certainly does this in several images on her website. And, the women’s hockey team, as an example, gets taken very seriously by sports commentators who have documented developments on the team, roster and coaching changes in great detail in the lead up to the games. Tensions remain, however, about what female athletes can and should do. The hilarious controversy over the Canadian women’s hockey team’s celebration, with cigars and booze, at the 2010 games being one notable example.

On the ice, all that should matter is the game. Wickenheiser and her teammates are players first and their femininity and life choices don’t matter. Off the ice, female athletes need not be apologetic for their sexuality or their self-presentation. The challenge is to find ways to talk to, and about, athletes without reducing them to one thing, as historically a lot of sports coverage has done. My hope is to see complex portrayals of Wickenheiser that depict her as a competitor, an Olympic veteran, a mom, and possibly a future physician. It is all of these things, plus, you know, talent and years of training, that make Hayley Wickenheiser an important figure in women’s sport.

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