The Olympics and Celebrating Strong Women

Like many of you, I’ve spent the better part of the last week glued to my television and losing way too much sleep over the Olympics. I love the Olympics. I love watching sports I don’t get to see regularly. I love learning about new athletes. I love the dedication and talent that permeates the games. I love the human interest stories that tell us more about the athletes. I love it all.

This Olympics, the American team is majority female, which means we have the highest percentage of female athletes of any competing country. There is no denying women have come very far in sports. What I love about the coverage of the athletes (male and female) is how we learn not only about their sport, but their life.

What I've really appreciated about these stories is how they reveal the multi-dimensional level of a woman's life. No one is the sum total of any one role that she has. She is not just a mom, she is a swimmer or a volleyball player or a cyclist. There is no doubt, that these athletes value their lives outside of their sports, but they are also not defined by just one of their roles either. We see the goodness and joy they have in motherhood and family life, and this is worth celebrating. And we also see the hard work and dedication that culminates in excellence in their sport. Of course, if you’ve watched any coverage of Michael Phelps, or others, you would also know that the male athletes lead multi-dimensional lives as well. We are all influenced and shaped by the people in our lives.

But watching the Olympics has also made me think more about how we talk about female strength versus male strength. If we ever doubted that women could be strong, the Olympics throw those doubts out the window, never to return again. Sure, strength might come in small packages (like in gymnasts), but there is no denying that these women are strong. With each event I am reminded just how strong women can be. It might look different than a man’s strength, but it is still strength. Just because a woman who holds the world record in swimming swims slower than the man who holds the world record doesn’t diminish the very real accomplishment of her record. She is strong, and it shows.

The continued influence of women in sports allows us to no longer define strength in strictly male terms. When we see strong women we have a category for female strength. This is a conversation that extends even beyond the Olympics as we have women rising to positions of leadership in business and in government. Some have said that for a long time so much of what is expected of women in politics (and leadership) is coming from a man’s perspective. Men have been in power, so it is only natural that the terms would come from them. But the more we include women in sports, leadership, and even politics, the more we are able to broaden what leadership, strength, and ambition looks like, from a female perspective. And this can only mean good things for those of us who value a female voice, but also value it because of the unique perspective it brings that is different than a man’s.

The Olympics teach us that strength comes in all shapes and sizes, but the Olympics also show us that women are whole people, with varied life seasons, gifts, and strengths, all used by God to show his glory in the world. Sometimes women use these gifts as moms, sometimes as athletes, and sometimes as politicians—and depending on the season of our life, we use them in different capacities.

For a long time we have heard of one of two paths for women: the first is that the only place for a woman to have influence is in the home, ambition is the thing of feminists. The second is that to be an ambitious woman you must deny your femininity and act like a man. But the Bible doesn’t present women in such sharply divided camps. Women, depending on their season of life, often do (and should) have influence in a variety of spheres—both in the home and outside the home—without having to feel like they are denying their uniqueness as a woman or be labeled a feminist.

When we speak of women as whole human beings, with both ambition and femininity, we are able to see that no woman fits one model of anything (anymore than a man fits a particular model). God made us all uniquely gifted and different image bearers.

I’m thankful that in the Olympics we see the value of women both in sports and in their families, how female strength is a blessing to our society both in the home and outside the home, and that women can play sports like women and be celebrated for it.