By Mariah Philips
The elation of a surprise victory is universal – and infectious.
The emotion is so powerful that it doesn’t matter where in the world you are, what team it is – or the sex of the players.
Everyone loves a come-from-behind winner on the international sports stage, whether it’s America’s Cup or, as I discovered, the Thai women’s volleyball team grabbing victory by beating the Chinese and the Japanese.
When I pulled open the door of the cafeteria at Khon Kaen University in Thailand (I’m studying here for four months), the Thai women had just earned the surprise win and students, eyes riveted to the TV broadcast of the Asian Women’s Volleyball tournament, erupted in celebration.
I soon discovered that the mania was not just here. The tournament coverage seemed to overtake every TV screen throughout Isaan or the northeast region of Thailand. Even in the most rural villages, I learned, families tuned in to watch the games. My host family in the small village of Huay Ra Hong in the Chaiyaphum province watched intently while my host father bragged about the team. Even in my limited understanding of the Thai language, I could feel his deep national pride – pride that was symbolized by these talented women.
Back on campus, it felt almost surreal seeing so much energy and enthusiasm toward a women’s team (check out the Bangkok Post: “Thailand Gripped by Volleyball Fever”) I’ll admit I even I felt little envy: Why wasn’t there this kind of excitement for women’s sports in the U.S.?
But as I followed the post-play coverage, my heart sank: Everyone was talking about how attractive the players were. Men joked in interviews that they were dating a player, wanted to date a player (or in some cases, had the audacity to ask a player out in the interview).
They weren’t intentionally malicious, but focusing so much on the physical attractiveness, the sex appeal, shifted attention from their gritty victory to their feminine appearance. (My Thai roommate said Facebook was ablaze with statuses focusing on how cute the players were).
It’s a tired — but annoyingly persistent — theme in women’s sports: Are the athletes being watched for their athletic skill or their sporting good looks?
It’s one thing to note an athlete is easy on the eyes — and another to see it dominate the post-victory discussion.
But what jarred me most was seeing the Thai women’s team, after their victory, drop to the floor and bow (or “wai” as it is referred to in Thai) as a sign of respect to their fans.
I don’t want to diminish the country’s support for this team, but how incredible would it be to see citizens mirror these players’ elegant respect?