By Raiyah Butt
Maybe it’s just me, but the Olympics this year haven't felt as grand and exciting as previous years. It could be because I live alone, so I’m not as inclined to watch it every day like I would be if I was with my family, where we’d all gather together to see the events happen live. It could also be because for a Gen Z baby like me, TV doesn’t even take place on actual TV channels anymore, but instead on streaming services like Netflix, totally changing the nature of media consumption. I’ve seen more of the athletes on TikTok than the actual Olympics themselves. It speaks to how bizarre it feels this year when even the official Olympics account is joining in on trends and making fun of the Olympic village’s so-called sex proof cardboard beds. Or maybe it’s because of the overarching complications and anxieties surrounding holding the Olympics amidst a global pandemic, with Tokyo recording a record number of COVID cases last week and only 31.7% of Japan’s population is vaccinated with two doses.
Regardless of all of that, the Olympics have seen record-breaking performances and extraordinary achievements from the athletes, including some teams ending their stay in Tokyo with zero COVID cases within their bubbles.
Yet, what has stood out more this year has been the numerous incidents of “let’s overshadow this female athlete’s performance with some sexism and misogyny”.
Throughout the events, and in some cases before they had even begun, female athletes were being criticised, penalised or restricted for something. This ranged from social media users criticising An San, South Korean triple gold-medalist archer for her haircut, to banning Namibia's Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi from competing in the 400 metres race because they were apparently “not eligible for female classification”. These are just two examples out of many, as they were by no means the only female athletes who had their bodies scrutinised and policed. And it’s ironic too, because this Olympics was hailed as the first ever “gender equal” as 49% of the participants were female, yet the treatment of them was anything but that. It also prompts us to think about how such gender-based discrimination within the Olympics is essentially a microcosm of the issues faced outside of it, and how sporting arenas are just another place in the infinite sites where this can take place.
So what do us ordinary, non-Olympian women have in common with the world’s greatest athletes?
Spoiler alert, it’s not how well we can do a cartwheel off a beam and land with perfect balance. The answer is that facing barriers due to the fact that we are women is a pretty universal experience. It’s as simple as that. Within the web of misogyny that informs what a woman should and shouldn’t do, or look like, or act like, we’re often reduced to our bodies and external characteristics. Because a woman’s body and appearance is often the determinant of her worth, even Olympic competitors find themselves the subject of bodily scrutiny that overshadows their achievement as athletes. This was the case for An San, who’s three gold medals is a historic achievement never done before by an archer. But instead of being celebrated, her short haircut was deemed so unfeminine and appalling that some on social media even called for her to return to her medals. Because you can’t make your country proud and break world records if you haven’t got long luscious locks, apparently. In the eyes of those critiquing her, a short haircut is a symbol of feminism which is synonymous with man-hating.
Similarly, if you’re a member of the women’s Norwegian beach handball team, you can’t make your country proud if you're not showing as much skin as possible. The team was fined during the Euro 2021 tournament for wearing thigh-length shorts in protest of the regulation bikini-bottom design that all female players must wear according to the International Handball Federation. The team was fined 1,500 Euros, with the Norwegian Handball Federation President Kåre Geir Lio stating that it is “not appropriate clothing for the activity when they are playing on sand”. However, male players are allowed to play in tank tops and shorts no longer than four inches above the knee. The women’s team were previously threatened with disqualification after petitioning to wear thigh-length shorts from the start of the tournament, so clearly the issue isn’t whether the clothing is “appropriate” for playing on the sand, but that women have the audacity to challenge a dress code that doesn’t allow them the choice to wear what they’re comfortable with. And this becomes even more painfully obvious as the reverse happened to double Paralympic world champion Olivia Breen, who was told her high-waisted bikini bottoms were “too short and revealing” at the English Championships last month. Having worn this style of shorts for nine years, she was told by officials after competing in the long jump (which also involves sand, hmm) that she should consider buying shorts that are less revealing.
So which one is it? Why were Olivia Breen’s bikini bottoms deemed too revealing, yet female handball players are threatened with disqualification for not wearing them? Female athletes have their body's policed in accordance with the standards informed by the male gaze, constantly dictating that women should satisfy the requirements set by men. The choice to diverge from these requirements leads to women being chastised, particularly in sports that are either hypersexualised or considered “masculine”. Whilst these two categories first appear to exist on opposite ends of the spectrum, they are both branches of the same Tree of Patriarchy which demand women fit into heteronormative boxes of accepted feminity. It’s that same logic that criticises the German women’s gymnastics teams for competing in unitards rather than bikini-cut leotards and criticises silver-medalist Indian weightlifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu for participating in a “manly sport”, but also has a problem with Iran’s Soraya Aghaei Hajiagha for wearing a dress, leggings and hijab to play badminton. And it’s even more apparent that the root of it is about control and power over women’s autonomy when some of the athletes are making their choices as a protest to this very issue, for example, the German women’s team protesting sexism in gymnastics which has been a major issue for the sport after the Larry Nasser case. If the people sitting at the top of these sporting boards really wanted to make the Olympics “gender-equal”, they’d be better off focusing more on protecting female athletes rather than penalising them.
But it’s not just about how we look or what we wear, it’s about who we are.
Whilst so much of this is because of the value placed on women’s exteriors, the policing of women’s bodies is boundless in that it extends to our biological make-ups too. You know that old cliche, “it’s what’s inside that counts”. Well, World Athletics took this quite literally, banning Namibian athletes Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi from competing because their testosterone levels were higher than the typical range for women. Therefore, they were not eligible for “female classification”, since it’s men that normally have high testosterone counts. The same hormone regulation rules passed by World Athletics in 2018 are affecting South African two-time Olympic gold-medalist runner Caster Semenya, Burundian runner and Olympic silver medalist Francine Niyonsaba, Nigerian runner Aminatou Seyni and Kenyan bronze-medalist runner Margaret Wambui. Caster Semenya, probably the most well-known case, has been in a legal battle with World Athletics over the issue, especially as she became sick from taking medication to reduce her testosterone levels.
World Athletics argues that it is committed to fairness for women in sport, rejecting allegations that “biological limits in the female category are based on race or gender stereotypes”, and instead state that they “provide an objective and scientific measure to define the female category”.
This statement seemingly ignores that “defining the female category” is riddled with transphobia and misogynoir, mirroring the biological essentialism that justified the colonisation and exploitation of African and Asian people.
The justification that athletes must fall into accepted ranges of hormonal purity to classify as women within the sport inadvertently defend gender binaries, contributing to squeezing the box of accepted femininity even tighter. This of course disproportionately affects marginalised women, particularly Black women who are already dehumanised and hypermasculinized for characteristics that are not only outside of heteronormativity but whiteness too. Meanwhile, Michael Phelps was celebrated for his genetic differences, as he produces half the lactic acid of his competitors meaning he recovers quicker and has a disproportionately vast wingspan, giving him an advantage in swimming.
The crux of it is that many of these rules and regulations operate on defined notions of gender that use weak biological arguments to measure who exactly belongs within the two categories, not only excluding intersex people but reinforcing racism too. And anyone who does happen to be within the “defined female category” is then objectified and scrutinised further as to whether they’re upholding all of the requirements on the embodiment of womanhood and femininity that they’re supposed to. It’s clear with all of these instances that female athletes have their bodies policed in ways that male athletes don’t, and the misogyny that fuels this is no different to the world outside of the Olympic stadiums.
It’s no different to the amendment passed by the French Senate earlier this year that banned girls under 18 from wearing the hijab in public, mothers from wearing hijabs on their children’s school trips and the full-body swimsuit “burkini”. The amendment was passed under the guise of “anti-separatism”, rather than the continuously Islamaphobic policies pushed by the French government that discriminates heavily against Muslims. Muslim women having their freedom of choice to wear religious garments restricted and regulated is reflective of the lack of autonomy given to female athletes, but also similarly demonstrates how the policing of women of colour remenates from colonial-era subjugation.
It’s also no different from an anti-transgender sports bill passed in West Virginia in April that prohibited trans girls and women from competing in sports teams in any public secondary school or state institution of higher education. Signed into law by Republican governor Jim Justice (what an ironic surname, huh), it’s one of many recent anti-trans legislative bills passing all over the US. But 11-year old trans athlete Becky Pepper-Jackson sued the West Virginia State Board of Education, seeking an injunction, and was granted a temporary victory that means the state must pause enforcement of the new law. Becky can now compete in the girls’ cross-country team, but it really says something when an 11-year old has to put up this fight.
And honestly, fighting for women’s rights to autonomy over our own bodies feels like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, as soon as you’ve dealt with one pesky thing, another three pop up. But the resistance to these arbitrary demarcations of womanhood and femininity shown by athletes, campaigners, and supporters on social media is hopeful. We’re seeing more and more women saying “no, we’re actually not going to accept this”, and pushing for change, from young athletes in high school all the way up to Olympic gold medalists. And as we continue to whack the moles down one by one, with enough force, the machine will start to break.
About the author
Raiyah is an International Relations graduate and one of TLP’s writers and editors. Follow her on Instagram @raiyah.blog