Sexism at the Olympics: the oldest game

Sexism at the Olympics: the oldest game

Some called the 2020 Tokyo Olympics the first gender-equal games in history. The reality is miles from it.

The Guardian

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Derry Salter

This year’s games saw a record number of women compete, making up 49% of all athletes. Despite this progressive jump towards equality, the issue of policing women’s bodies remains prominent.

Before the Olympic torch was even lit, sexism was already aflame. Two-time British Paralympic world champion Olivia Breen alleged that a UK official referred to her shorts as “too short and inappropriate”. Breen is currently participating in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics – in her chosen shorts – whilst campaigning for an end to slut-shaming. The long-jump star argued “women should not be made to feel self-conscious about what they are wearing when competing”.

It is clear that judgement is not reserved solely for the Games, but the attire of female contestants across sport. Whilst qualifying for the Tokyo finals earlier this year, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team were fined £1,300 for wearing shorts.

Despite their victory against Spain for the bronze medal, the European Handball Federation chose to criticise the Norweigan team for their “improper clothing”. Handball is one of the many sports where the stark difference of clothing regulations is particularly apparent; men adorn vests and shorts, with women placed in bikinis.

Disputes over women’s Olympic uniforms is an age-old argument. In 1900, the first women were allowed to participate in the Paris Olympics. Their clothing though was confined to modest garments that covered their legs, arms and neck. Over a century later, such regulations have drastically changed – but not for the better. In 2012, female badminton players were required to wear skirts or dresses to create a more “attractive presentation” of the sport.

It’s not just the unfair clothing regulations that have been criticised, but also the Games’ lack of effort to accommodate athletes who are also parents. Spanish swimmer Ona Carbonell battled with the rules of the Olympic Village which barred her from bringing her son, leaving her to make the difficult choice to go without her child. Many new mothers had to fight pandemic restrictions even to bring their breastfed children.

This choice, albeit difficult, did not disqualify Carbonell from the Games. Many of her fellow female athletes were less fortunate. Former hurling gold medallist Brianna McNeal was disqualified after missing a drug test whilst recovering from an abortion.

One sexist hurdle was thought to be overcome ahead of the 2012 London Olympics with the International Volleyball Federation introducing a variety of uniforms. However, this did not stop sexism from powering through. Then Mayor of London Boris Johnson cited “semi-naked women playing beach volleyball” as one of his Olympic highlights.

Both judges and audiences alike were shocked by the fierce competition at this year’s Olympics, in particular the brave new uniforms debuted. The German women’s gymnastics team took a bold stand against the sexualisation of gymnasts by unveiling a new uniform – long-legged leotards, opting for comfort instead of semi-nudity and acting as a vehicle for anti-sexism in doing so.

A gender justice group in the U.S., the Representation Project, analysed prime-time media coverage during the first week of the Games. They concluded that female athletes were ten times more likely than their male counterparts to be visually objectified by the camera. It also proved that 2 out of 3 of female athletes were adorned in revealing outfits.

It comes as little surprise that the games were fuelled by sexism this year when the former president of the organising committee Yoshiro Mori lost his job for sexist comments. It’s clear that sexism and the Olympics go hand in hand, with female athletes still being treated as hyper-sexualised objects rather than professionals. Women are not taken seriously.