Nike Is A Goddess The History Of Women In Sports Edited By Lissa Smith

Nike Is A Goddess The History of Women in Sports is a book that delineates women participation in sport. It is a combination of writings by Mariah Nelson, Amy Ellis Nutt, Kathleen McElroy, Melanie Hauser, Jean Weiss, Michelle Kaufman, Grace Lichtenstien, Jackie Burke, Karen Karbo, Barbra Stewart,  Shelly Smith, Elsie Pettus, and Lucy Danziger. The sports discussed are track and field, basketball, gymnastics, ice hockey, figure skating, golf, tennis, baseball,softball, skiing, canoeing, kayaking, rowing, sailing, swimming, equestrian sports, and soccer. This is an ambitious undertaking covering many centuries and athletes. There are problems with some of the essays. Others are better, showing a high level of research. This text was originally published in 1998 and much has changed. These writings are still relevant as a documentation of women’s challenges and struggles to get recognized in sport. A major problem with this monograph is that it focuses mostly on athletes from the West. Other countries have women participate in sport, but this is not studied as much. Reading this one can extrapolate mixed feelings. Strength sports are omitted. There is only an emphasis on Olympic sports. There are other sports played by women that are not recognized by the IOC. Despite these flaws, the text can at least be used as a reference source. Some sections could be pleasurable to certain readers, but other essays are lacking the same quality.

         Before readers begin dissecting the work, it is important to know the context of the title. Nike does not refer to the athletic gear and sneaker company, but a goddess of ancient Greek mythology. Nike was the goddess of victory. The Roman counterpart was called Victoria. According to the ancient myths she was the daughter of Pallus ( a titan) and Styx. She had siblings who were Kryatos, Bia, and Zelus. She was made a divine charioteer during the Titan War. She would be on battlefields to reward victors with laurel leaves.


Nike was not only a goddess of victory, but was also a representation of strength and speed. The reason that name is used for the more well known company is because it wants consumers to think using their products will ensure success. The first edition posted on the cover shows a statue of the goddess posted. Ancient art works of the goddess at first did not have her with wings. Gradually, they were added. The use of Nike in the title is showing how women advanced in sports and their successes.


Nike as depicted in ancient Greek art. 

At certain points the essays reveal that women were in a battle. There was a struggle for equal pay and access to training facilities. The largest challenge was to confront sexism and traditional cultural attitudes. The spirit of Nike seems to be looking over the women in a metaphorical sense. She would bless them with victory. The Nike Company understood the lasting cultural impact of mythology.


This is why they chose that name. Currently, Nike has been producing athletic clothing and gear for decades. Seeing as women’s participation in sports has increased it is only natural that women would become a major marketing demographic target. Sports bras are a major product they produce and are critical. It allowed women to do intense exercise with minimal discomfort to the chest and breasts. The text does not explain the mythology behind the goddess Nike. This could easily confuse readers with a limited understanding of the classics or Greek mythology. A statue of Nike appears on the book, which could confuse readers even more. This is only a minor issue, but an element that can be noticed immediately. Writers should never assume that their audience has knowledge about the topic discussed.

      The introduction Mariah Burton Nelson sets the tone of the monograph. It is called “Who We Might Become.” There is a feminist overtone, that generally alienates male readers. The problem with women’s sports monographs is that they cast all men as villains. Almost to a degree in which it is like a caricature of a popular action cartoon show. The essay starts off on a positive note then makes some generalizations. Mariah Burton Nelson reveals   background and how certain athletes inspired her as a young woman such as Bille Jean King and Babe Dickerson Zaharias . She was an athlete herself playing basketball while attending Stanford University. She is an author, motivational speaker, and sportswriter for numerous publications. The feminist perspective usually takes a negative view of all men. The men with power in the sports world were the worst  discriminators. They were corporate gatekeepers, owners of sports teams, coaches, and men who objected to change. What the feminist perspective fails to see is the growing number of male fans who are supportive. Unfortunately, Burton at a young age was sexually abused by one of her coaches. This traumatic experience could have effected the way she perceives men. The view seems mostly negative. Her book The Stronger Women Get The More Men Love Football  seems to have similar problems that appear in this essay. All men do not hate strong women. There is a growing number of male fans who are both amazed and attracted to women’s physical prowess. It cannot be forgotten, that without feminism women’s sports would not be were it is today. It cannot be ignored women are still discriminated against and some countries still do not send women to the Olympics. The issues of the sexual objectification of women athletes is a problem. What Maria Nelson fails to understand is that this is not solely a sexist motive, but a neoliberal capitalist model. Sexually objectifying women has been common in advertising and other media even before modern women’s sports. While sexism is an element to it, one cannot separate the exploitation and avarice of the neoliberal capitalist system.

           The essay “Somewhere to Run” did an excellent delineation of  women in track and field. This was written by Kathleen McElroy. The essay discusses notable figures such as Babe Dickerson, Wilma Rudolf, and Jackie Joyner Kersee. Track and field had existed as far back as the ancient period, but the modern version of this sport did not appear until 1837. The first modern track meet was held in England at Eton College. Women could not participate. Women were not even allowed as spectators. Vassar College in 1895 organized the first track meet for women.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee
Jackie Joyner-Kersee of Team USA posing with a javelin. Northridge, California 5/21/1992
Babe Dickerson Zaharias

 When women began to become competitive and skilled, detractors from different parts of society began a crusade to stop  them. Doctors made the claim that women will harm their fertility. Social scientists claimed competition harmed the female psyche. Journalists and the press made similar accusations. Moralists and religious figures objected to the idea of women displaying their bodies. There was an attempt to diminish women’s athletics, by reducing competition. The idea was that women showing a competitive nature made them masculine.Women entering the new competitive opportunities came from athletic clubs or industry teams. One example of this was the Prudential Insurance Company. Women’s participation in track and field goes back as far as the ancient world. While women could not compete in the Olympics, they had a separate competition known as Hera Games. These games of ancient Greece only allowed young unmarried women to enter them. When the 20th century approached women also organized their own games, even when the IOC condemned it. Alice Milliat  who was head of Femina Sport organized international competitions for women in 1917.   The IOC wanted the International Amateur Athletic Federation to hinder this progress, but it seemed futile to stop women from organizing. Around 1926, Milliat was in negotiations  with the International Track Federation. This was a mixed victory, because women lost control of their organized competition, but were allowed to compete in track and field in the Olympics. Women athletes now had a new opportunity to display their skills. One of the first global women’s champions was Kinue Hitomi. She was a world record holder in the 200 meter and long jump. Often monographs such as these exclude non-whites. This deserves praise, due to the fact most sports history focuses on the West or Europeans.

Kinue Hitomi  (1907 – 1931)  was one of the early track and field champions in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

 While there was high quality athletes, most were not trained sufficiently when they entered the 1928 Olympics. Reporters were generally negative when covering women in track competitions. This was the first time some saw women compete seriously in an international arena and many still held their traditionalist views. Some women completing the 1000 meter run collapsed and many took this as evidence that track was too vigorous for women.The IOC voted in 1929 to remove track and field competition. Seeing as there was resistance to this, it was negotiated that women could compete in 100 meter events.    The 800 meter events would not be reinstated until 1960.Even with these restrictions women continued to break barriers. The 1936 Olympics was significant because it was the first time African American women competed. Jesse Owens humiliated Hitler by winning gold medals and making a mockery of his racial ideology. Tidye Pickett was another hero of the games that discredited Nazi racial ideology through her athleticism. African American women were showing they could be just as talented as their white counterparts. The best element of this essay is that it discusses athletes that are normally not mentioned in sports history.  Alice Coachman for example was the first African American woman to win a gold medal. American racism was a challenge and it added an extra burden on African American athletes. African American women had to face both sexism and racism in their struggle to play sports. Coachman’s efforts allowed the door to open for other track and field athletes later on in the 20th century.

Alice Coachman (1923-2014)  open the door for many African American women in track and field.

Wilma Rudolph, Jackie Joyner- Kersee,  Florence Griffith Joyner ,  Gwen Torrence, and Marion Jones became notable talents.Although this is one of the strongest essays in the text, but there are disputable presentations. It seems to be a bias against the Eastern Bloc nations in regards to performance enhancing drug use. While it acknowledges that they were talented they present it as if only the Communist East was doping their athletes. The book should be lauded for mentioning  controversial  topics such performance enhancing drug use and sex testing, some statements are not correct. McElroy states “women who use steroids to shorten recovery time  needed from high-stress activity to develop more muscle at a faster pace, and have a greater capacity for muscle growth,  can use a small dose that is hard to detect, especially since the drug flushes out a woman’s system much faster than a man’s.”Steroids do not “flush out the body.”Many times athletes use other substances to mask the steroids depending on the drug test. While a small dose can improve performance due to the fact women are extra sensitive to it, it can still be detectable. The biological passport has grown more sophisticated over the years.The author should have done more research in terms of the science of drugs. The text then states that “sex testing only effects a few women.” That is not true. This practice is a form of discrimination against women, but it also effects people who are intersex. Making it seem as if it is not a problem only further marginalizes women in sport. Although this part of the essay is objectionable, it does return to strong form. It describes the success of Florence Griffith Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Yet, it did not have trepidation in revealing the racism and sexist media coverage both athletes had to face. Jaoaquim Cruz referred to Kersee as a gorilla. Cruz was from Brazil a country with a long legacy of racial hate. Joyner was subject to more drug testing, because of her athletic success. She never failed one and other accused her of use due to the appearance of a stronger looking physique.


The essay has minor flaws, but it is an excellent summery of the history of women in track and field. This essay ends on a positive note. It praises women’s advancements and resilience in the faces of many challenges. The essay can best be described by one of its quotes: ” women were allowed to fall, scream, strain, sweat, cry, show off their abs, and flex their muscles.”

       “The Battle Against Time and Gravity” is an essay that by Jane Leavy discussing women’s participation  in gymnastics. Gymnastics dates back to ancient Greece. This was part of the education of young men and was also part of the ancient Olympics. Women were not allowed to participate, but were able to dance. Dance has in a sense been incorporated into gymnastics. Fredrick Jahan  developed modern gymnastics in the 1800s. Women began to participate in the sport at Vassar College in 1886. Women’s gymnastics appeared at the Olympics in 1904, but these were not hardcore competitions. Exhibitions featured women performing exercises with wands and barbells. While the women were talented, they did not have an outlet for competitive expression. The individual competition that is more recognizable today came into existence in 1952.The US and Russia produced many talented athletes. Gymnastics is extremely competitive and the essay does not ignore the possible health dangers that go with it. There were cases of eating disorders and attempts to have the thinnest body possible. It was believed this body type made it easier to master complex movements. Coaching became close to abusive and it had to be addressed. Young children as early as age 14 were entering the Gymnastic Olympic games. Around 1996 it was mandated that competitors be at least 16 to participate .  The reason young girls were preferred  was that they were thought to be more flexible and easier to coach.

Mary Lou Retton became a major success in the sport.

   The sport has an issue with the health of its athletes. Many women become victims of compulsive dieting, poor nutrition, and eating disorders. The sport also has another challenge of being subjective. Scoring systems are highly politicized, which during the 20th century generated controversy. Retton suggested that scoring should be based on “originality and creativity, not pure daring.” There are cases in which athletes paralyzed themselves attempting to do dangerous maneuvers.  The essay describes this as sport that women are not allowed to age. From childhood to young adult are the span of competitive years. A larger woman would have difficulty in this sport, due to biomechanics. Many Olympic gymnasts retire in their early twenties. The great aspect of this essay is that it shows women can be competitive in their sport. There was a claim that was made that women never desire to be competitive. This writing shows the pain and sacrifice that athletes endured. Nadia Comaneci was a force to be acknowledged. Women can be very competitive as this sport demonstrates, but the question of putting young girls into it generates controversy.

          The essay “From Suburbs to Sports Arenas” has major problems. Ellis Pettus’s writing has factual inaccuracies and seems to favor white women of a middle class background. Women all over the world are now playing soccer, but she sole examines it through the context of a Western perspective.The essay reveals that while British women during World War I played soccer during breaks while working factories, there had been existence of soccer like games present in other parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Games similar to soccer were noted as far back as 300 B.C.E in Chinese civilization. An informed reader would have a problem with this essay’s approach. Solely focusing on the US and the West ignores the dramatic impact the game has had on other nations. It also favors a middle class outlook. She almost in subtle manner implies the best soccer players come from the suburbs. Soccer has been a tough sport for Americans to get excited about compared to the traditional favorites of baseball and football. Women began to get interested competitively in soccer in the 1970s in the United States. Title IX allowed for the development of athletes who would lead the way in forming professional women’s teams. This essay has to be the weakest written in the book. If it was researched better and presented differently it would have been more substantive. There are some positive attributes about this essay, but they are too diminutive. The struggle to get women’s soccer included reveals how sexism is still very much a part of the IOC. Then there are interpretations that are not entirely true. Pettus states : ” unlike male players, female players found a bond in the struggle to advance their young sport.” While it is true there was a level of international exchange it was between mostly European nations like Italy and Sweden. Japan was the only non-white country in which there was an exchange. This did not advance far as the author would have one believe. It exposes a level of racism and ethnocentrism. One can make the argument that it was 1998 when this text was printed and attitudes changed. This is not the case. The Women’s World Cup of 2011 saw racist abuse directed at Japanese players online through Twitter.

This rhetoric is not from the 1940s  it is from 2011 :  World Cup Final vs. Japan Brings Out the Racist, Ugly American

 The author seems to be under the illusion of solidarity and inclusion. This is the trouble with white feminists who ignore or do not care about racism. This piece needs some revision in many respects.

         The essay “Nets Profits” was a great delineation of women in tennis. Women have according to Lichtenstein’s words ” playing tennis for 125 years on the highest competitive level as well as for fun.” Women’s entry into modern tennis came in 1884, when women began  having championships at Wimbledon. Wimbledon was the most recognized of the championships for tennis ( others included French, United States, and Australia).Women had a little more freedom in this sport, because it did not cause as much gender role conflict. However, women were still criticized for not behaving in a feminine manner. Even though sexism was still present women were able to perform at high levels. Suzanne Lenglen was one of the first major women’s tennis athletes. Similar to the amazing success of the Williams sisters in the 21st century, she was a Wimbledon champion that remained virtually undefeated. Except for the years of 1919 and 1925 she won many other Wimbledon Championships. Although not considered ” a classic tennis woman” meaning graceful and beautiful she captivated audiences with her performances. Besides that, she brought her native country of  France prestige in the Tennis world. Sadly, her life was cut short by anemia. Players like Alice Marble and Helen Wills would later become notable figures in tennis. The essay does mention that tennis was an elitist and racist sport. This changed with Althea Gibson’s entry.

Suzanne Lenglen (1899-1938)

      World class tennis was completely segregated. Besides challenging the color barrier, Gibson also developed a new model of playing style. It was fast, explosive and powerful. She was so good, that it caused some criticism. The 1950s was an era in which extreme conservative ideas about gender and race were prevalent. Gibson as a woman was criticized as being “unfeminine” for performing well and despised because of her race. That did not stop her from continuing and being successful.

Althea Gibson (1927-2003)

 As the 1950s and 1960s passed there emerged an out spoken and talented tennis athlete who did much to promote women’s sports. Billie Jean King was exposed to tennis at a young age and grew to love the sport. When she entered tennis her strokes were not impressive and she needed work on stamina. Taking lesson from Davis Cooper she then was able to improve her performance. She became a dominant force in tennis from the 1960s to 1970s. She spoke out against unequal pay and discrimination against women in professional tennis. Billie Jean King is also remembered for playing in “The Battle of the Sexes Match. This match which Riggs set up was an exhibition match and became a media sensation. They challenged each other in 1973 at the Houston Astrodome. Booby declared that no woman could ever beat him. The 55 year old Riggs was no match for the strong 30 year old King. She won the match and it generated an audience of 55 million television viewers.

'The Sporting News 100 Years of Sports Images'
Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in 1973.

The question remained did this have a huge impact on tennis or women’s sports in  general? This was a media spectacle, but it did have positive benefits. It demonstrated that women could be just as good entertainers in sports. Tennis got more media exposure, which was reviving a sport in a decline. King’s most important contribution was the founding of the Women’s Sports Foundation and the magazine Women’s Sports. The essay does a great job documenting the change and challenge in women’s tennis over the 20th century. This is one of the stronger essays in the monograph.

      The book continues with other essays about basketball, swimming, equestrian sports, kayaking, canoeing, rowing, and sailing. The game of golf is also discussed in the monograph. While a great number of sports are covered some are excluded. Weightlifting, bodybuilding, football, rugby, and martial arts are not written about. There are reasons for this. The first is that the monograph focuses solely on Olympic sports. This is limiting if one is attempting to examine women’s participation through out the entire sports world. Readers also have to consider the text was published at the end of the 20th century. Since then there has been progress. Women’s weightlifting had been added to the Olympics in the year 2000. It is important also to see what women are doing in less mainstream sports. It would not be until the early 2000s that mixed martial arts became popular. This phenomenon of women entering smaller sports deserves at least some attention. This shows that his text is a product of its time and why scholarship needs to be updated regularly. Changes in society and a field make a difference in historical perspective. There are a few women who are attempting now to form professional American football teams for women. This is the only sport that women are struggling to break into. The Women’s Football League has emerged, but gets limited press coverage compared to the NFL.

Since 2001 the DC Divas has been an active women’s professional American football team.
It’s unfortunate that ESPN never covers these events or games.

These recent develops may become too immense to ignore in future historiography of women’s sports. It seems strange that weightlifting is not added, considering the clearly feminist message that is conveyed in multiple essays. The emphasis on strength and power was once considered to be a male only attribute has been disproved. Women were flexing their muscles in the traditionally “male sports”  and demonstrated high levels of competence.  Not mentioning these sports, makes the book seem incomplete.

           Lucy Danzinger writes the conclusion to this compilation of essays. It celebrates that there has been a cultural shift to more of an acceptance of the female athlete. She also praises that there is a new generation of women who are confident in their sports abilities. Danzinger also states she is thankful she was able to witness such dramatic changes. The progress that has been made cannot be underestimated, but it seems she ignores the more harsh realities. There still is racism, sexism, homophobia,  and an unfair media surrounding sports culture. Although women and non-white groups have entered sport, the corporate gatekeepers and a portion of fans attempt to isolate people who are not white males. The experience for non-white women differ considering they do not have white skin privilege. It explains why the media criticizes Serena Williams more or why athletes who are not white get less press coverage. Then it cannot be ignored that there is division among class. Women who are born into working class households may have to struggle to realize their sports dreams. Combined with lower pay for professional women athletes it only adds to the burden. Homophobia still is prevalent and their are women athletes who may reject their fellow teammates just because of their sexual orientation. These are challenges that must be addressed if women are to advance in sport. Danzinger seems to miss this point and acts as if the battles have been won. Title IX has been under attack since its inception. The struggles are far from over, but it it is important to document the history of events. It can be used as a tool for future generations on how to combat injustice or discrimination.  Nike Is A Goddess   may not be the best monograph on women in sports, but it provides a general survey of women’s participation in sports.









Nike Is A Goddess The History Of Women In Sports Edited By Lissa Smith

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s