The Tokyo Olympics were an Olympics like no other for more than one reason. Not only were they delayed by a year, taking place with very limited spectators, but they have also shone a light on multiple issues. The issue I would like to touch on that has been highlighted by these Olympics is the sexualisation of female athletes, the power dynamics between men and women, and how this is amplified in the world of sport.
It was the German Women’s Gymnastics team that first drew attention to this issue during the Tokyo Olympics when they decided to wear unitards rather than leotards explaining that it made them feel more “comfortable” and that the more traditional leotard was too sexualised. The Norwegian Women’s Beach Handball team later drew attention to this issue again after they chose to wear lycra shorts rather than bikini bottoms, citing that it again made them feel more comfortable, especially given that they were playing a sport on the sand.
However, it wasn’t just the current sportswomen drawing attention to this issue. Jessica Ennis-Hill also weighed in on it, writing an article in the Telegraph about her experiences of the sexualisation of female athletes in the athletics world. She explained that she often found that she would feel uncomfortable wearing running knickers rather than shorts, pointing out that a wardrobe malfunction would distract her from her performance.
Ennis-Hill also highlighted that it wasn’t until she was a more experienced athlete that she felt comfortable enough to complain about this to the men who were designing the kit. Sadly, this sentiment is nothing new. It is unfortunately very common for women to feel they need a certain amount of power within their career in order to stand up for themselves. We saw the same thing during the #metoo movement. It was only once the young actresses had become successful 20 years later that they felt they could stand up for themselves, for fear of career failure. Fear of losing a sponsorship deal, from speaking out too much, I imagine must be a common feeling amongst younger athletes.
Personally, I think it, like so many other issues surrounding women, is down to choice.
Like so many other situations I would argue this one is about power. Society traditionally has put men into positions of power, and women were told to be submissive, to be silent and not to speak out. This makes it difficult for women to speak out as we have been conditioned to be silent. Additionally, if women do speak out, we are often branded as “difficult”, “too political” or “too outspoken” as both sexes struggle with the idea of a more equal power dynamic in society. This is amplified in the world of sport, where there are unique and delicate power balances (or imbalances) between coaches, sponsors etc. and athletes.
Simone Biles has been another point of controversy in Tokyo this year, having pulled out from various events for mental health reasons. She is the only known survivor of assault from Larry Nasser competing on this year’s USA Olympic Gymnast team. She, like so many other athletes on that team, found it incredibly difficult to speak out against this assault, it being a very competitive environment and there being a difficult power dynamic between the coaches and the athletes. Like Ennis-Hill mentioned, it takes an older athlete to speak out, and in the case of USA gymnastics it was an athlete who was no longer on the team who spoke out first. It took Biles some time before she felt comfortable enough to speak out against this abuse. Strangely, there are many that argue that the power dynamic has now completely shifted on the USA gymnastics team with Biles being their last hope of changing the image of the coaching environment given her unique talent and personality.
Women in the past have existed for men’s pleasure - they were the other. Their worth being defined as how appealing they were to men. So it makes sense that kit designed by men for women, whether consciously or subconsciously, is designed to be more sexually appealing, as women, including female athletes, in the past were there for pleasure of men.
This, I believe, is the premise behind catcalling too. Some men, who view women as objects there for their pleasure, believe they have the right, and we would be flattered by it, to be cat called, given the history of a woman's worth. Olympic marathon runner Mara Yamauchi has had her own experiences with cat calling whilst out training. Sadly this catcalling is something the vast majority of women can relate to. I have mentioned it in a previous blog post but to me cat calling was so normalised to me in my own training that each member of my female squad would expect it.
Sometimes it also feels like women can’t win. They can cover up to make them feel less sexualised but when they don’t, they are told off for being too sexual. Paralympic Champion Olivia Breen was approached by an official to be told her shorts were “too revealing and told to buy another pair”. Once again, women are being asked to adapt their behaviour for men, so they can control themselves. This is something that most women have their own experiences with. I remember many hot summer days when I would be outside training for 4 hours and I would take my top off and train in a sports bra and shorts. My male counterparts had also taken their top off. But the female athletes were told to put their top back on, being told this was “too revealing and inappropriate” and consequently I would be seething with anger about this.
So what is the answer? Wear shorts rather than bikinis because you feel too sexualised or don’t and get told off? Personally, I think it, like so many other issues surrounding women, is down to choice. If a female athlete would like to wear bikini shorts and feels she will deliver her best performance in them then I believe she should be able to wear them. If she would like to wear shorts, then equally go for it. Simone Biles, I think put it nicely; whilst supporting the German team’s choice of attire she personally prefers to wear bikini bottoms because it makes her appear taller. In all honesty, I am sure most women, especially those female athletes performing would like to put this issue to bed and let the focus be on their performance at the Olympic games they have put so much work into rather than their outfit. But I am sure they would want some choice and input over their attire.
Equally, whilst it must be infuriating for the athletes for the focus to be on their outfit rather than their performance, I believe we are seeing progress within women’s sports. Simone Biles has shown the world that she is more than just her abuse. The abuse on the USA gymnastics team has been widely condemned and Larry Nasser is facing life imprisonment. The conversation about the sexualisation of women in the media and in sports is being had. More and more women are speaking out to create safer environments for other female athletes in the future. We are seeing the comeback of female athletes who have had children in the past Olympic cycle - Ennis being one of the first high profile athletes achieving this in 2016 and winning a silver medal. Helen Glover is the first female rower on the British team to achieve this at Tokyo this year and placed 4th. We are seeing the first gender balanced Olympics with 49% of athletes competing being female. Hopefully this will help encourage and inspire younger girls to see that they too can be athletes and do not need to drop out of school sports for fear of being too muscly. So whilst these conversations can at times be infuriating for many women I think it is also important to see how far we have come and change is happening, although at times can feel frustratingly slow.
Hopefully this has been some food for thought!
Lots of love as ever,
Your GINA Sister xxx
PS: I have recently created a Spotify playlist with all my favourite songs that make me feel strong and powerful so please do check it out - it should be linked at the bottom of the Blog page xx