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Racism, Sexism, and the Olympics

The Olympics, one of the most celebrated sporting events in history, have increasingly diversified in terms of participants over the past few years. In the Tokyo Olympics held this year, a record number of 32% of participating LGBTQ+ athletes took home a medal, according to Outsports. Additionally, some of the most popular Olympians in the public eye were people of colour. The concept of the Olympics struggling with proper inclusivity of all groups is one that should have been obsolete by this point. In 2021, though, that is a far cry from reality. With the rise of faster media coverage, it is no surprise that the Olympics’ issues with sexism and racism are rising to the surface. When specifically considering such issues, one must regard them with an empathetic eye, especially considering how long-standing and impactful the following instances have been. From sexist comments from staff to nonsensical and potentially racially driven, policies, much is to be said about the Olympics’s contribution to discrimination within sports.

The Olympics and Sexism

Olivia Breen, a British athlete, was told by a female official that her shorts were “too short” at the Olympics after finishing her jump competition.

“She was like, ‘your briefs are too revealing. I think you should buy a pair of shorts,” Breen said during an interview with Sky News. “I didn’t know what to say. I just looked speechless and I just said to her, ‘are you joking?’ And she said ‘no, I think you should consider buying a pair of shorts.’ I just looked at my teammate and I just didn’t know what to say. [The officials] just shouldn’t tell us what we can and can’t wear. I’ve been wearing these for nine years of my career and I’ve never had a problem like this before.”

Though this highlights the issue of sexualization of women in sport in one way, the German women’s gymnastics team helped highlight this issue in another: by wearing full-body suits instead of leotards to protest the sexualization of gymnastics as a sport. As a sport known for tight-fitted attire, gymnastics as a sport has been widely regarded as less than others. With a voluntary change in outfit, the German women’s team has been able to enjoy their sport with more comfort whilst simultaneously encouraging others to do the same, regardless of the opinions of others.

The Olympics further presents a notorious problem regarding camera angles and objectification of female athletes, as stated by The Representation Project, a US-based gender justice group. Through studies made by the group, it has been proven through the analysis of Tokyo 2020 media coverage that it is about 10 times more likely for female athletes to be objectified via camera angles than male athletes.

Additionally, the Norwegian women’s handball team was even fined by the European Beach Handball Championships of 150 Euros per player for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms. Men, however, are free to wear shorts four inches above the knee. As pointed out by many, this rule makes essentially zero sense in its implementation, as wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms do not give players a competitive advantage. Fundamentally, the Norwegian women’s handball team is being fined for an illogical policy that does not affect the game or its reputation whatsoever. One could even go further to say that the European Beach Handball Championships had tried to enforce the rule for less professional reasons, namely being the audience response. In response, Norway’s Handball Federation (NHF) has announced that the team’s fees would be paid for and that the team has their support.

As quoted from their Instagram, the NHF says, “We are very proud of these girls who are at the European Championships in beach handball. They raised their voice and told us that enough is enough. We are the Norwegian Handball Federation and we stand behind you and support you. We will continue to fight to change the international regulations for attire so that players can play in the clothing they are comfortable with.”

This is not the first time that women’s sports teams’ attire was unreasonably monitored. Concerns of women's bodies being distracting during the Olympics (when they were allowed to join back in 1900) were at an all-new high. Forced to wear ankle-length dresses with long sleeves and high necks, this rule was only slightly modified by 1908 when women were permitted to show the bottom halves of their legs. For the most part, women’s gymnastic teams attended games to “display” their skills and were not permitted to compete. In 1912, women's swimming teams were allowed to compete, and they had to wear loose unitards with “thigh-length shorts and tank top style upper bodies.”

In the year 2012, Boris Johnson, Mayor of London at the time, published a column in the Telegraph stating: “20 reasons to feel cheerful about the Olympics”. One of his reasons was the “semi-naked women playing beach volleyball”, according to Mail Online. “They are glistening like wet otters and the water is plashing off the brims of the spectators’ sou’westers. The whole thing is magnificent and bonkers”, he wrote. Instances of men in media degrading, sexualizing and entirely undermining the accomplishments and talents of women are unfortunately not uncommon, as proved by this quote.

The sexualization of women in sports is not a modern issue, nor is it one that one can see disappear anytime soon. Not only are women widely disregarded in sport as a whole, but they’re also consistently degraded and overlooked, and the sexualization of their bodies, outfits or even sports only proves to contribute to this issue. It is important to consider how policies or even the opinions and perspectives of staff play a role as well, and adjust training or said policies accordingly.

The Olympics and Racism

In the 1968 Summer Olympics, athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in solidarity with the Civil Rights movement at the podium after winning their respective medals in the 200-meter race. With this, they were met with boos and racial slurs by the audience, displaying the general sentiments towards the Civil Rights movement at the time. In his own way, Peter Norman had displayed his camaraderie with social justice through wearing a badge for the Olympic Project for Human Rights. These actions, however, left a dark and never-ending stain on their careers. Smith and Carlos were suspended by the US team and removed from the Olympic Village. Back home, they faced death threats. Norman, however, was punished more severely. While Smith and Carlos were able to pursue their careers in football before retiring, Norman was snubbed by his team in 1972 and was “severely punished” by the Australian sports establishment.

Peter Norman went on to suffer from depression as well as an alcohol and painkiller addiction, later passing away without acknowledgement. Though Carlos and Smith were pallbearers at his funeral in 2006, it was only in 2012 when Norman got his well-deserved apology from the Australian government. This was only the start of the long-time affair of racism, that was not only done by but also brought about, through the Olympics. The Olympics have also been infamously known for banning political actions, such as taking a knee or posting said actions on social media, during sports events. The lack of Olympics intervention, as well as recognition for Norman’s actions yet again, proves Olympic attitudes towards activist causes.

Recently, the event of the one-month suspension of Sha’Carri Richardson for testing positive for marijuana use went viral. According to BBC, marijuana use is banned due to the belief that it is performance-enhancing, despite the numerous reports that do not support this claim. This was seen as rubbing salt into the wound of a black woman in grief after the death of her mother. Considering the long history between the targeted criminalization of the black community in America and the War on Drugs, this highlights one of many instances where the Olympics were perhaps racist. This further plays into the well-known trope of black women needing to be seen as stronger than their white counterparts. Though Richardson had publicly apologized on Twitter, many have come to both support as well as to oppose her. "I am human," she states. Unfortunately, Richardson was not permitted to compete in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, news that has been devastating especially for the black community. The entire situation not only highlights the sexism and racism behind the Olympics but also the lack of well-deserved empathy for Sha’Carri Richardson, considering the context of the situation.

This is not the only instance where the Olympics singled out black women or the black community at large. Soul Caps are known as specially designed swimming caps made for black hair, owned by a black brand. Just recently, Soul Caps were also banned from the Olympics, citing the reason that they “did not fit the natural form of the head,” according to The Guardian. Black hair has unique needs, considering the difference in texture compared to other races. This then calls for the need for the implementation of more appropriate equipment and headwear such as Soul Caps. This ban, amongst others, is another that does not make sense to be implemented. Considering that the policy directly targets those of the black community for no apparent reasons, it is to be said that the ban should be considered not only harmful but also racially motivated. One must take into account the lack of understanding and research regarding the needs of black folks that went into it. It is most certainly inappropriate for such a diverse event to ignore the requests of a marginalized community, especially one that has already been discriminated against for reasons pertaining to the exact issue of the needs of black hair.

Black Olympians being banned from sports begs the question of why they’re being barred from sports. Richardson getting banned for marijuana is lackadaisical, especially with the substantive evidence that marijuana is not performance-enhancing.

A similar incident occurred when several female athletes from the global South (Christine Mboma, Beatrice Masilingi, Caster Semenya, Francine Niyonsaba and Margaret Wambui) were disqualified due to their testosterone levels. Not only is this simply racist as a rule (as many people of colour can naturally have higher testosterone levels) and has been used to discriminate against black folk in sports but also based on “questionable science.” Claims that higher testosterone inherently means better athletic ability has been notoriously used against people of colour, whose efforts then went unappreciated and overlooked.

As stated by Cara Ocobock, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, the implication that higher levels of the primary male hormone testosterone boost athletic performance is simply false and not scientifically backed. Athletic performance is based on many other factors, such as but not limited to genetics, hormones, training, nutrition, social conditioning/upbringing, and even mood.

To add on, multiple studies have been done on testosterone levels and its impacts on athletic performance; most studies have had inconclusive and unreliable results, as the issue of hormone levels cannot be studied as simply as others. Peter Sonksen, a retired professor of endocrinology at St. Thomas’ Hospital and King’s College, has similarly concluded that there is “little or no credible science to answer the question” of questions regarding the role testosterone plays in athletic performance, specifically in women.

The instances as mentioned above greatly contribute not only to general racial discrimination but also to the mindsets of its audience through portraying people of colour in certain lights in comparison to those who aren’t people of colour.

With sensitive topics like racism, sexism, or overall discrimination, it’s crucial that one stays informed. The spotlight the Olympics are under has blinded many in regards to the several controversies they’ve been involved in. From the lesser-known instances of racist commentary throughout Olympics history to nonsensical rules and regulations, the Olympics have much to apologize for, and more importantly, to work on. Simply discussing these issues only scratches the surface of discrimination issues behind the Olympics as well as their real-life consequences. All one can do as a bystander is stay informed on said issues, and use their platform the wider audience to speak out against instances of discrimination. Said instances can be regarded with careful consideration on the side of the Olympics so that racial biases or sexism can be avoided as well as repaired. Pressuring higher authorities to change discriminatory policies in order to equalize the world of sport is paramount to the spirit of fair competition. Not only should most policies be decided deliberately but also with the opinions, perspectives and contributions of marginalized groups in mind.

Written by Harshvir Chahal

Edited by Eshal Zahur and Adi Roy



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