Jesse M Cox
The Olympics provide the world’s greatest stage for sporting excellence. The inauguration of the modern Olympics in 1896, however, shut out a huge pool of talent by banning women from competing. Founder Pierre de Coubertin felt their participation would be inappropriate, going as far to say that women competing in sport was “against the laws of nature.” Thankfully, the games have come a long way since then.
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Women were first able to compete in the Olympic games in 1900. However, with only 22 women competing across five sports out of a total of 997 athletes, the share of female representation was a measly 2.2%. This dropped even further in the following 1904 games, with just 37 female athletes out of a total of 1,908 resulting in less than a percentage of female participation.
The share of female participants at summer Olympic games has steadily increased year on year since 1970 and at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, it is now close to reaching parity. Countries such as the US, Britain and China sent more female athletes to Tokyo than men, leading the representation of women at the games to reach 48.8%.
This includes greater visibility of all types of women. Mothers are showing they can still compete on an elite level, with Lindsay Flach participating in the heptathlon trials while 18-weeks pregnant and Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher successfully lobbying the committee to reverse bans and allow her to bring her breastfeeding son to the tournament with here.
Age norms are even being broken by successful women. Gold medalist Sue Bird is proudly competing as the oldest female in the WNBA and Hend Zaza, a 12-year old Syrian table tennis player, became the youngest to compete in the games since 1992.
These changes have been aided by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who stated they were committed to gender equality and included a number of new events that aimed to further encourage and increase female participation. And with athletes receiving the same financial award from their country regardless of gender, the Olympics provide some hope that gender inequality in sport may be on its way out.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Recent coverage of the games have highlighted that sexism is still embedded in sport.
In July, Norway’s women’s beach handball team were hit with a 1,500 Euros fine for ‘improper clothing’ at the European Championship in Bulgaria. The team refused to play in the usual bikini bottoms, instead opting for thigh-length elastic shorts. They received the financial punishment, despite the fact that their male counterparts are permitted to play in loose-fitting shorts and tank tops.
The Norwegian team weren’t the only ones to take a stand against the policing of women’s appearance in the Olympics this year. The Germany women’s gymnastic team rejected the bikini cut unitards which are a standard in the sport and competed in full body versions which cover the full legs.
This was a statement against the “sexualization in gymnastics”, according to the German Gymnastic Federation, but to the competitors, it’s more about comfort, freedom and equality. “It’s about what feels comfortable,” said German gymnast Elisabeth Seitz, “We wanted to show that every woman, everybody, should decide what to wear.”
Male athletes at the Tokyo games have also shown solidarity, with competitors like British divers Tom Daley and Matty Lee donning tight navy briefs to compete. Winning gold in the men’s synchronized 10m platform, their attire didn’t go unnoticed. Controversial British broadcaster, Piers Morgan tweeted: “Shocking & shameful that male divers have to wear such overtly sexualizing skimpy briefs at the Olympics. I demand full body unitards to protect & respect their dignity. “
While some public figures were quick to demand more coverage in male athlete’s sportswear, women in sports have been dealing with the policing of their appearance for years.
In contrast to the Norwegian female handball team who received criticism for covering up, in July, double Paralympic world champion Olivia Breen was criticized by an official at the English Championships for wearing briefs that were “too short and inappropriate”. Stating she will be making a formal complaint, Breen said: “[the officials] have no right to say what I can and can’t wear”.
This is unfortunately not a rare occurrence, with research by Cambridge University Press in 2016 finding that sexualization of women in sports by spectators and commentators is common. In response to this issue, the Olympic broadcaster indicated not to sexualize or focus on the body’s of female athletes. The IOC issued media guidance to broadcasters, advising them to treat all athletes with integrity and to “not focus unnecessarily on looks, clothing or intimate body parts.”
Yiannis Exarchos, CEO of the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), stated: “As broadcasters we do not give directives about what the athletes should wear. What we can do is to make sure our coverage does not highlight or feature in any particular way what people are wearing and whether the clothes they are wearing highlight particular parts of the body that have to do with stereotypes.
“You will not see in our coverage some things that we have been seeing in the past, with details and close-ups in parts of the body or elements that speak about sexuality or any other type of stereotyping of gender.”
The brave stances taken by female athletes in Tokyo have helped highlight the areas where work is still needed before gender equality in sport can be fully achieved. The importance of prioritizing “mental wellness over all else” was also crucially highlighted by American gymnast Simone Biles, after the 24-year-old pulled out of the event.
Biles – an outspoken figure against coach Larry Nasar and the failure to properly launch an independent inquiry into accusations of sexual abuse against him – received praise from many for withdrawing. Although, there were critics.
While Piers Morgan may have seemed passionate about the British diver’s attire, he did not pay the same concern to Biles, tweeting: “sorry Simone Biles, but there’s nothing heroic or brave about quitting because you’re not having fun – you let down yours team-mates, your fans and your country. “
The criticisms of athlete’s mental health, unfair policing of appearances, sexualization, and failure to receive adequate support for abuse means many female athletes are still having to work hard to overcome barriers in their sport. Despite the games in Tokyo moving towards equality in representation of athletes, there is still work to be done. Only a third of the IOC executive board members are female, meaning there are still areas of the Olympics where women are unrepresented. Until these issues are addressed and outdated views are discarded, female Olympians will still have to jump a few extra hurdles.
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