I was excited to hear yesterday that Solve Media, an online advertising firm, had stepped up to sponsor American Olympic weightlifter Sarah Robles. Robles, the highest ranked American weightlifter of either gender, became the subject of national attention when the news broke that she was unsponsored and living/training on $400 a week from the U.S. Weightlifting Federation. While swimmer Michael Phelps gets paid to talk about how Subway provides some of the 12,000 calories he consumes every day, Robles must rely on food banks and donations to reach the 3,000 to 4,000 she needs.
So the sponsorship deal is great. But there’s still something sort of depressing about the fact that an athletic equipment company, the kind of business that ought to value strength more than any other potential advertiser, didn’t step up for Robles. Adidas, which makes weightlifting shoes, doesn’t have a weightlifter in its stable of endorsees, though it did back former Olympian gymnast Shawn Johnson. Nike, which sells both weightlifting shoes and belts, has “Nike Weightlifting Athletes,” including two women, Natalie Burgener and Erin Wallace. Wallace weighs 165 pounds, lifting 100kg in the snatch and 119kg in the clean and jerk. Burgener weighs in at 138 pounds, and lifts 105kg in the snatch and 120kg in the clean and jerk. Both of them are strong in the way movie superheroines are strong—part of what’s supposed to be impressive about them is the cognitive dissonance involved, that their conventionally feminine bodies can accomplish the things they do. Robles, by contrast, weighs 275 pounds, and lifts 120kg in the snatch and 150kg in the clean and jerk. Is that why she’s not on Nike’s roster?
There’s no question that what Robles can do is amazing. But because she isn’t a pinup, and really can’t be if she wants to lift as much as she does, her achievements don’t come with the same sense of all that and in high heels—the weird idea that powerful women of any stripe are doubly accomplished when they manage to, say, run companies without mysteriously losing their ability to bake killer cupcakes, like the new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.
Nike, in its Voices advertising campaign, features elite female athletes like marathoner Joan Benoit Samuelson talking about pursuing sports despite the people who discouraged them. Nike apparently feels it is still necessary to have former professional basketball player Lisa Leslie remind the audience, “I’m a fashion model who can dunk.” The hashtag for the campaign? #MakeTheRules. Turns out it’s fine to change the rules about who can get in the game, but much riskier to challenge the ones about how you’re supposed to look and behave when you get off the bench.