At Tokyo Olympics, a crystallisation of sexism and policing of women's appearance that persists across all levels of sport

Who dictates the physical appearance of female athletes? This debate, that seems frozen in the early 1900s when women first started competing in the Olympic Games, raged on at Tokyo 2020.

Swareena Gurung August 09, 2021 12:18:22 IST
At Tokyo Olympics, a crystallisation of sexism and policing of women's appearance that persists across all levels of sport

Pauline Schaefer-Betz, of Germany, performs her floor exercise routine during the women's artistic gymnastic qualifications at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. AP Image

Two weeks ago, South Korean women stormed Twitter with pictures of their short hairstyles. Using the hashtag #women_shortcut_campaign, these women stood in solidarity with An San, the 20-year-old South Korean archer who won three gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics alone. Instead of being celebrated for her feat — that no other archer in Olympic history has achieved — she was attacked by thousands of South Korean social media users. The reason? Her short hair.

Male detractors criticised her for being a feminist, with some going so far as to demand she apologise — and even return her Olympic medals. Such critics represent that faction of South Korean society which associates feminism with 'hating men'. During the Games, social media users also harassed other South Korean volleyball and air rifle athletes who had similar short hairstyles.

In another statement, the German women's gymnastics team competed in unitards that covered their entire bodies instead of the bikini-cut leotards that women gymnasts are expected to wear. It was to protest “sexism in gymnastics” — an issue that came to the fore when long-time US team doctor Larry Nassar was convicted for widespread sexual abuse shortly after the Rio 2016 Games.

Only last month, in the run-up to the Olympics, the Norwegian women's beach handball team was fined for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms at the European Beach Handball Championships. On the other hand, British paralympian Olivia Breen posted about her disappointment after she was told by a female official that her “sprint briefs were too short and inappropriate” after competing in the long jump competition at the English Championships.

“It made me question whether a male competitor would be similarly criticised,” Breen posted.

The truth is, they wouldn’t have.

Amanda Schweinbenz, Associate Professor at the School of Kinesiology and Health Sciences in Canada’s Laurentian University, argues that sport works to strengthen the gender binary between male and female athletes — in turn forcing the female athletic body to be scrutinised in the maintenance of a ‘desired feminine appearance’.

Such logic demands women handball players wear bikini bottoms while men wear loose-fitting shorts (handball isn’t an Olympic sport yet). It is the same logic that chastises women when they choose to wear briefs.

On the one hand, women must subscribe to restrictive dress norms to be truly ‘feminine’ or attractive. On the other hand, if they chose to wear clothes that reveal more than what is palatable for the male gaze, they are ‘un-feminine’ or distractive.

In any case, the bodies of female athletes have been subject to a longstanding tendency — of the media and the sports authorities — to hypersexualise.

Particularly in sports that are considered to be more ‘masculine’, Schweinbenz notes, female athletes are encouraged, and, in some instances, forced to display overt femininity. In the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics, when women boxers were allowed to compete for the first time, the International Boxing Association of Amateurs suggested that they compete in skirts instead of shorts to distinguish them from men. This suggestion was swiftly put down, but reveals how sporting authorities habitually attempt to squeeze women into the contours of traditional heteronormative femininity.

The Tokyo Olympics were hailed as the “first-ever gender-balanced Olympic Games in history”, with female athletes making up 49 percent of the participants. But the run-up to the Olympics was anything but a display of ‘gender balance’. Only last February, the Tokyo Olympics Chief, Yoshiro Mori, resigned after he complained during a meeting of the Japanese Olympic Committee that talkative women tended to make meetings “drag on too long”. In March, the Creative Director for the opening and closing ceremonies, Hiroshi Sasaki, resigned for saying that popular Japanese entertainer and body positivity advocate Naomi Watanabe could play the role of an “Olympig”.

In June, Australian swimmer and two-time Olympic silver medallist Maddie Groves announced her decision to quit the Australian swim trials for the Olympics. “Let this be a lesson to all misogynistic perverts in sport and their boot lickers – You can no longer exploit young women and girls, body shame or medically gaslight them and then expect them to represent you so you can earn your annual bonus. Time’s UP,” she posted.

Recently, former Olympic swimmer and advisor on gender equality to the Tokyo Olympics, Naoko Imoto criticised the Japanese media’s coverage of the Olympics. “You should see female athletes as athletes,” she said. “In recent years, the number of gold medals in the Olympics has been higher for women. I want them to be treated equally. I would like to argue that it is strange to focus on things that are not related to competition, such as appearances and personal life.”

To curb sexualised images of female athletes in Tokyo, the Olympic Broadcasting Services updated their ‘Portrayal Guidelines’, underlining the importance of “gender-equal and fair portrayal practices in all forms of communication”. “You will not see in our coverage some things that we have been seeing in the past, with details and close-ups on parts of the body,” Yiannis Exarchos, Chief Executive of Olympic Broadcasting Services, said to reporters.

The Tokyo Olympics — the biggest stage for global sports — crystallised the sexism that persists in each level of sports, be it a world championship or a playground match, and generally, in all facets of a woman’s existence.

At Tokyo Olympics a crystallisation of sexism and policing of womens appearance that persists across all levels of sport

Iran's Soraya Aghaeihajiagha in action. Facebook/badmintonphoto_official

The most decorated Indian female Olympian, PV Sindhu played all her matches in Tokyo wearing a dress. She beat China’s He Bingjiao, who wore a loose polo shirt and shorts, to clinch the bronze medal. In the same event, Soraya Aghaeihajiagha of Iran competed in a hijab and leggings under her dress. In badminton, women athletes seemed to have worn whatever they were comfortable in. This is a triumph over the rejected suggestion back in 2012 that female badminton players had to wear skirts “to attract more fans and sponsors”.

“I'm lucky that we can wear whatever we want," PV Sindhu remarked to Reuters. Female athletes in Tokyo have resisted sexist dress norms, but the problem persists.

Consider the underlying assumption that Sindhu’s statement betrays. It is 2021: Should female athletes deem themselves ‘lucky’ to have the basic right to wear what they are comfortable in – be it a hijab or briefs?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone.

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