The father of the modern Olympic movement, Pierre de Coubertin, argued, in 1912, that “the Olympic Games must be reserved for men.” The Games, he wrote, were for the “solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism,” and they had “female applause as reward.” By then, women were already competing at the Olympics, though they were shut out of many events, something that persisted for decades. There was no women’s marathon at the Olympics until the nineteen-eighties, for instance—and there is still a shorter roster of endurance events for women—because some men believed that female bodies could not withstand the mileage.
Shot put has been part of the modern Olympics since the beginning, in 1896, but women did not compete in it until the 1948 Games, in London. And that wasn’t the last barrier for the sport, either. Michelle Carter, the Americans’ best hope for a shot-put medal this year, believes that there’s a stigma in the United States for women who compete in events, like the shot put, that require enormous amounts of brute strength and the bodies that go with it. No American woman has medalled in shot put since Earlene Brown at the Rome Olympics, in 1960.
“It has been a long time,” Carter told me at the Olympic trials in Oregon earlier this year. “And it’s something I think a lot of girls and women shy away from because it’s not looked at as something a woman would want to do or a woman should do.” She believes that things are improving, though. “I think now, it’s like, ‘You know what? We’re girls and we can throw heavy balls and be in the dirt and we look good while we’re doing it.’ I think it’s bringing more attention to the sport and girls are realizing, Hey, I can do this and it’s O.K. to do this as a girl.”
Carter, who is a certified professional makeup artist, is a stylish presence on the field. “For a couple of years, being professional, I kind of questioned myself,” she said. “Should I wear my false lashes or take the time I want to take so I can feel good when I go out on the field? Because nobody else was really doing that. And I thought, No: I’m not going to change what I believe I should look like to fit anybody else’s standards. I believe if you look your best, you’re going to feel your best, you’re going to do your best.”
At the Olympic trials, with her reddish-pink hair tied up in a ponytail, she licked her palm, cradled the shot between her neck and shoulder, and spun her body in a dizzying circle, releasing the four-kilogram ball into the air with the force of a cannon. The ball flew 19.59 metres away, setting a new meet record and securing Carter, the current American record-holder, a spot on her third Olympic team.
“You have to understand everyone’s body was built to do something,” Carter said. “I was built to do something, and that’s how I was built. I think the world is realizing we were promoting one body type and there have always been many.”