The Olympics are Sexist: Here’s why
Rio’s over now — and I’m left sorely disappointed.
In a day and age where the strongest female characters in pop culture are brave warriors who embrace impractical (if not demeaning) beauty standards, I look forward to seeing little boys and girls watch real women fight for the gold every couple of years. But this year I couldn’t help but notice — female athletes are plagued by the very stereotypes which the Olympics should dispel.
A range of rules require female athletes to promote themselves as stereotypically feminine and sexual — in contrast to their male counterparts.
Take uniforms. The double-standard for men and women is perhaps most apparent in beach volleyball. Women run across the court in bikinis while men do so in tanks and shorts.
The Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) states that male bottoms must be at 20cm or longer and that women’s bottoms must be 7cm or shorter. Rules also stipulate that if women do not wear the default uniform they need to make a case on cultural or religious grounds. Men can’t opt out.
Read: women are required to appear sexual while men are prevented from doing so. The U.S. male gymnastics team’s sexy Instagram campaign sheds light on the discrepancy. While women are required to be sexually appealing to heterosexual men in competition, men are given the freedom to be sexually attractive in the manner they wish off the court. If they win the right to compete shirtless the objectification is going to be on their terms. Today, only one sport requires that men wear more revealing uniforms than women — swimming.
It doesn’t stop at clothes. There are athletic requirements which require females to put in effort to act more stereotypically feminine when they compete. While male gymnasts do their floor exercises in silence female gymnasts must perform with music and dance choreography. This means that, for female gymnasts, narrow victories can be missed or achieved through shimmies. They must train not only as gymnasts — but also as dancers. To make things worse, music and choreography have become more significant for official scoring of the floor exercise over the past 4 years.
Olympic rules often assume that men have greater endurance than women — a belief grounded in stereotype rather than evidence. There is no physiological justification for shorter events for female athletes. Yet, the men’s cycling road race is 62 miles longer than the women’s race. In tennis, women play best out of three sets while men play best out of five.
To even qualify for competition, athletes have been repeatedly forced to prove their femininity. In 1968 the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) established sex chromatin testing for all female athletes — originally to catch men disguised as women. But, despite the fact that no man was ever caught through the test, testing continued. Since 2011, the IAAF and International Olympic Committee changed the rules to require that certain female athletes found to be questionable (usually because of physical characteristics) take testosterone level tests which could disqualify them from competition. They could be banned for testosterone levels crossing into the average male testosterone range — even when their hormone levels were naturally occurring.
In 2012, Indian track athlete Dutee Chand was 1 of 4 female athletes asked to undergo medical procedures to become “more female” because she exceeded testosterone limits. In a groundbreaking act, she challenged the decision. Her case led the Court of Arbitration of Sport to conclude that, while higher levels of testosterone in women do give a competitive advantage, the advantage does not prove to be more significant than other biological and environmental variations between female athletes. As a result sex-testing was not required in Rio.
For better or worse, we’re going to need some Chand-style bravery to combat biased rules and norms — from uniform design and choreography to event duration.
2 years from now, or 4 years from now, when you watch the Olympics with your daughter or kid sister and she dreams about competing, tell her: “Absolutely, but don’t be afraid to change the game.”