Athlete or “Athlete”23 April 2021
I prefer not to talk about athletics outside the track.
“You’re an athlete? So, are you going to Tokyo?”
“Well, not with that attitude you won’t!”
A well-intended response, but from someone who just doesn’t understand the elitism that the Olympic level demands. My attitude is not going to add an odd meter-and-a-half to my jump, and to say I have a shot at Tokyo would just be an outright lie. “No”, however, is almost always met with an awkward change of subject, a measly word of encouragement, or a weak excuse as to why I’m not there yet. It’s frustrating that this major part of my life, my identity, is so often evaluated by a measure of success that sits at the absolute extreme.
I am currently in my second season as a pole vaulter after moving across from middle-long distance running. The begrudged “Olympic question” comes up outside the track and has become increasingly frequent.
There are a few theories I have for this:
It’s Olympic Year (Again)
Everyone loves an athlete, or to be more accurate, everyone loves a winner. This year, COVID-19 is overshadowing the usual build-up of Olympic fever. However, Olympic years can usually gain the brief attention of those who don’t distinguish between football and footy. There is a surge in interest, and athletics might just make the news, even if the segment only runs for a minute before the lengthy AFL highlights. People like to point to the TV and say “I know them” as everyone cheers, even if “them” is actually their second cousin’s niece that they’ve never met. It’s exciting, inspiring and patriotic.
Not to be confused with pole dancing or the high jump. I’ve had a few people tell me they won pole vault at their school carnival “back in the day”—they definitely mean high jump. The obscurity of pole vaulting contributes to the idea that all vaulters must be professionals. Average Joe can’t decide on a whim to go for a casual vault with mates on a Sunday afternoon. As a highly technical event that engages all major muscle groups, a “successful” vault does require a decent level of athleticism or experience. Other vaulters have told me that if you’re vaulting above the men’s high jump world record (2.45m), you’re a certified vaulter (because to vault at all is hard!).
A Twenty-something Woman
Even though it’s the 2020s, competitive sport is still more readily associated with children (more commonly, boys) and adult men. This is only enforced by the lack of media coverage of female teams and athletes, dismissive comparisons to male performances and misogynistic attitudes that frame sport to be more of a “hobby” for female athletes. As I’ve gotten older, the demand to rationalise my sporting commitment is increasingly pressed. “How old are you now? Oh, I guess you have a bit of time!” A bit of time for what?
Sometimes I do feel ridiculous. Who am I to take up pole vaulting in my twenties? But then I think, how ridiculous and sad to think that being an adult woman determines me as physically limited. I am far stronger than my prepubescent self. The female body, which is built to withstand the trauma of childbirth, is not given nearly enough credit for its resilience and longevity. I am in awe of athletes at the top of my event, but am also inspired by athletes who are typically “unconventional”, like the mother who tends to her pram-bound child between jumps. Age, gender, ability or childbirth shouldn’t make you unworthy of investing yourself in sport.
So, if I’m not an Olympian, can I still identify as an athlete? Yes, in the same way a painter who doesn’t hang in any prestigious gallery should still be able to call themselves an artist. Measured success too often defines us over passion and dedication. We are multifaceted beings too often constrained by the evaluation of others. Competitive sport has always been a part of my life, routine and identity. I’ve always been drawn to pushing my body to become the strongest, fastest and most skilled version possible. Fight-or-flight adrenaline, failing lactic limbs and burning lungs. There is an addictive attraction to the grit, devastation and euphoria. This is what makes an athlete.