From the first Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece in 1896 to the most recent Olympics to be held in Tokyo from 23rd July 2021 (probably), one thing has remained constant over more than a century-long history of the prestigious event- Sexism.
Nothing has stopped the global event that is the Olympics in the celebration of international cooperation through sports (well, except the two world wars and the ongoing pandemic). It is one fine space for literally the entire global community – Asians, Africans, Europeans, Americans- to show themselves to the world through a myriad of sports.
But the Olympics weren’t always the benchmark for inclusion and cooperative global representation. There are cracks that run deep into the history. Yoshiro Mori, the 83-year-old former Japanese Prime Minister, set off a social media storm by saying that women talked too much, in remarks made in a meeting with the Japan Olympic Committee (JOC) this week.
Talking about his time as chairman of the Japan Rugby Football Union, here’s what he said:
The Rocky Start
If this seems outrageous, back in the day, women were excluded from participating in the Olympics as the tournament’s founder, Pierre de Coubertin, thought it would be “inappropriate” to let them participate in a man’s world.
Pierre de Coubertin said, “An Olympiad with females would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and improper” (he’d be so cancelled, and rightly so, if he were alive today).
Women Entered Olympics in 1900s Paris Games
In the year 1900 in Paris, women were allowed and accepted in the event for the first time since the beginning of the Olympics. For the first time, it was believed that a woman could “endure” and sustain in the sporting event just as much as men did.
Out of the 997 athletes that participated at the Olympics of 1900, only twenty-two were women, i.e., 2.2 per cent of the total participants. They were allowed to compete selected sports- tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf. Later on, they were also permitted to participate in archery, gymnastics, skating and swimming.
This change came about only because some national sporting bodies and federations put immense pressure on the International Olympic Committee to let women enter the tournament- it wasn’t because any of the board members of the IOC wanted it.
Continued Challenges to Change in the Olympics
At the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992, out of the 169 countries that participated, 35 countries had no woman participants, and one of the teams flat out refused to walk behind a Spanish female athlete at the opening ceremony.
Female athletes of the time were criticized for appearing “too masculine”. They were accused of not looking like how the idea of a feminine woman imagined them to be. Therefore, the International Olympic Committee launched a mandatory sex testing in the 1968 games to confirm that the athletes were actually female.
Even if some athletes were suspicious, the rule obviously shouldn’t have been compulsory for all female athletes.
It wasn’t the first time that women were forced to undergo sex-testing. During the 1920s and 1930s, Olympic officials would carry out the onsite test for women they deemed too robust, thriving and masculine.
In 1998, after must protest from the IOC Athletes’ Commission, Olympics officials stopped their compulsory verification. In between 2000- 2010 the IOC continued to test any athlete that violated the Western norms of femininity.
Stopping Women Just Because They Are Better
In the 2012 Olympics, Ye Shiwen, a 16-year-old Chinese swimmer, won a gold medal in the 400-meter individual medley in a world-record time. The last 100 meters of her freestyle swimming was completed in a whooping 58.68sec. Since she was faster than Ryan Lochte, the then-record holder, suspicions born out of prejudiced principles were raised. She was accused of doping by the executive director of the USA Swimming Coaches Association.
Just because Ye Shiwen was a 16-year-old young girl and had managed to beat Ryan Lochte, she became suspicious. If in place of a little girl had it been a ‘man’, would anyone have raised suspicion?
In 2014, NBC was covering the 2014 winter Olympics at Sochi. The way the commentators and analysts covered the event was incredibly annoying for many feminists around the world. The commentators were heard repeatedly, and in a sexist context, calling “women” as “girls”. A lot of people took to Twitter and said, “Please stop calling “women”, “girls”; you don’t call “men”, “boys”.
Not-So-Subtle Olympic Sexism
The 2016 Rio Olympics, even though the most successful, was the year of sexist comments. A lot of female athletes were unnecessarily compared to male athletes. There were instances where the credit for all the blood, sweat and tears shed by the female athlete was given to her husband.
Simon Biles faced one such instance. The woman who has 5 Olympic medals, is the most decorated American gymnast and is also the world’s third most decorated gymnast, yes, her. Even she wasn’t spared from facing this sexist world of athletes.
When she won five medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics, she was compared to many previous Olympic medal holders, especially male Olympic Champions. She was compared with Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. She clapped back by saying “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles.”
Deeply Settled Yet Blatant Olympic Sexism
Let’s talk about the most recent sexist comment passed by Yoshiro Mori, the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee’s head. He said, “If we are to have more women directors, someone has outlined, then meetings go on for a long time unless we restrict the comments.”
The former Japanese prime minister apologized for the comment later. Mori told a newspaper that his wife, daughter and granddaughter scolded him altogether for the comment. Many people demanded that Yoshiro Mori resigns from the post as the IOC has become less sexist, and more accommodating towards transgender athletes. Also, comments like these make it extremely difficult to do so.