When Brianna Decker takes the ice for the U.S. hockey team this weekend, she will be a woman. When Karen Chen skates into the rink to go for gold in figure skating, however, she will be a lady.
It's nothing personal. The Olympics just has a different — and puzzling — way of referring to female athletes competing in different sports.
Of the 14 categories of Winter Olympic sports that have competitions for female athletes, eight use the moniker "ladies," including skiing, snowboarding, and speed skating, while six use the term "women," including bobsledding, curling, and ice hockey. "Ladies soar in ski jumping, but women ride the luge," writes Boston's WBUR 90.9 in response to a reader's question about the discrepancy. "Is ski jumping somehow more polite than luge? Do curlers occupy a lower social position than alpine skiers?"
To many 21st century ears, "ladies" does sound uncomfortably outdated, something belonging to an era of petticoats rather than polyester and Spandex. "'Lady' once implied a proper woman who is not to be disrespected, crosses her legs at the ankle, and never talks out of turn," The New Republic writes in an analysis of how the term has evolved.
When the modern Olympics began in 1896, there was no question about how to refer to women; their very inclusion was considered improper. French founder Pierre de Coubertin claimed that "no matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks." Thankfully, the horrendous term sportswoman didn't make it long past the turn of the 20th century, nor did de Coubertin's imposition. Lady golfers and tennis players joined the Summer Games in 1900.
It would be somewhat straightforward if we could chalk up the Olympics' use of the term "ladies" to outmoded labels that were first applied more than 100 years ago. But the term keeps getting applied to new events, too. Ladies' big air debuts this year and ladies' ski jumping was added in 2014.
So what gives? Why are some sports for women and some for ladies?
As WBUR 90.9 explained, the distinction is tied to what international governing body the sport falls under. The International Ski Federation's (FIS) events all use the term "ladies," as do all events under the umbrella of the International Skating Union (ISU). The rest of the Winter Olympic governing bodies — the International Biathlon Union, the International Ice Hockey Federation, the International Luge Federation, the World Curling Federation, and the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation — all have women competitors. (Update: FIS sent this explanation after this article was published: "FIS has traditionally used British English as its standard in our style guide and the term ladies' is generally used more with British English than American English.")
Notably, the ISU and FIS are two of the oldest governing bodies to have included women at all. Men and ladies' figure skating debuted together in 1924, just as men and ladies' alpine skiing did jointly in 1936. When the organizations introduced women's events more recently, such as ladies' ski jumping in 2014, they apparently decided to carry on using monikers they had been bestowing since the first half of the 20th century.
The debate over the language, naturally, is not isolated to the Winter Olympics. "I hate that so many teams are called ladies," academic Carrie Dunn told the BBC in the context of soccer. "It's old-fashioned. Other than tennis at Wimbledon, when do we refer to 'gentleman's sport'?"
These names are not without consequences. Linguists at Cambridge University Press analyzed the multi-billion-word Sports Corpus and found that across the board there are "higher levels of infantilizing or traditionalist language for women in sport, who are more likely to be referred to as 'girls' than men are called 'boys.'" Additionally: "Women are twice as likely to be referred to as 'ladies,' compared to 'gentlemen,' who are frequently referred to by the neutral term 'men.'" This is all the grimmer when contrasted with the fact that women athletes earn far less than their male counterparts in all sports.
Some note that the term "lady" can be used to disarm the supposed "threat" or "manliness" of a powerful athletic woman. "Femininity must constantly reassure," writes feminist journalist Susan Brownmiller. Abigail M. Feder says: "The fact that female competitors are still officially called 'Ladies' under U.S. and International Skating Union rules … is only the beginning. Television coverage is framed in vignettes featuring soft-focus lights, stars in little girls' eyes, glittery costumes, and flowers from adoring crowds."
There is a grammatical argument to be made against the phrase "woman athlete," though. "As far as The Guardian style guide is concerned, it is simply wrong to use 'woman' and 'women' [in the role of a modifier], because, it says, they are not adjectives," the British newspaper writes. One Guardian subeditor went as far as to call the use of "women" before a noun "somewhere between a hypercorrection and pejoration, plus a dollop of condescending sexism masquerading as chivalry."
But "female athlete" is worst of all, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary writes in its own interrogation of how to go about referring to women. The word "female" has for centuries been considered disparaging in English, as, unlike "woman" and "lady," it makes no distinction between animals and humans. Still, in other languages, like Portuguese, Olympic athletes are described clinically: feminino and masculino.
The best argument for FIS and the ISU joining the rest of the governing bodies and updating their terminology is simply that "lady" is utterly alienating to a younger generation — which uses it, as The New Republic notes, mostly ironically. Think of the sneering phrase used to dismiss Doritos' proposal to make chips designed to be less messy for prissy women: "Lady Doritos."
Plus, as the Olympics struggle to attract younger viewers, referring to half the human population the way a chivalrous Cary Grant might is ... not helping.
One day, maybe, we won't need a modifier at all. "When we stop talking about women's sport and instead just recognize them as equal to the men and athletes in their own right," The Fawcett Society's Sam Smethers told the BBC, "we know we will have changed the terms of the debate."