Women and the Olympics

It’s only a few weeks now to the start of the Olympics and how women perform and are represented should be interesting.

Team GB have some incredible women competing and medal hopes are high for women like Jessica Ennis and Rebecca Adlington. Unfortunately, for Adlington at least, her performance is sometimes overshadowed by abusive tweets about her appearance. It’s amazing that some choose to judge her on how attractive they think she is, rather than how amazing she is as an athlete but I really respect her for speaking up about it, and in one case retweeting an example to her 50,000 plus followers. Jessica Ennis has had to laugh off comments about her being ‘fat’, made by a ‘high-ranking’ official. The only appropriate response to that is laughter, as it’s so far from reality.

Femininity and sport is something that comes up time and again however. The ruling dictating that women badminton players must wear skirts was rescinded after an outcry last year but attempts were made earlier this year to do the same in boxing. 2012 will be the first year that women have been allowed to compete in boxing at the Olympics, but apparently there was concern that female boxers were indistinguishable from the men – as if people would be confused about what event they were at or, god forbid, actually enjoyed the match irrespective of who was in the ring. Again, this ruling has not gone ahead but it just goes to show how concerned the moneymakers in sport are that women don’t look ‘feminine’ enough (ie attractive to men).

Femininity has taken on another dimension for women in South Africa, especially in the aftermath of the publicity surround Caster Semenya. When Semenya won the World Champtionship in 2008 allegations were rife that she was a man. Much public speculation followed and she was subjected to testing, while suspended from competing. Although the results of the tests were never made public she has been cleared to compete and all previous results stand. It’s an issue which continues to come up in South Africa in particular as ‘an estimated 1 per cent of the 50 million people [there] are born “intersex,” meaning they don’t fit typical definitions of male or female’. For more on this issue, I recommend this fascinating article on The Toronto Star’s website.

Of course, all of the above is about women who will be competing at the Olympics. For some, that remains a pipe dream. The IOC have been under pressure to sanction Saudi Arabia who have now ruled out sending any women to the Olympics at all.  This is in direct violation of the Olympic Charter, but no action has been taken against them. Women’s rights there may have come a long way but there is still clearly reluctance to treat them as equals, especially in a public arena such as the Olympics. It’s a real shame the IOC haven’t followed this through and prevented the men from competing as a result, as it would have sent a very clear message that they take this kind of issue seriously. The Saudi Olympic committee did leave it open for women to compete on their own, not endorsed by them, but they have also been refused permission to compete under the Olympic flag as officials claim there is still some hope in resolving the issue. Time is running out however.

For those of us attending as spectators instead of competitors, we can only hope that the directors of the television footage think us attractive enough for those lingering shots of women that we’ve seen during the Euro 2012 competition. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Huffington Post has assembled a gallery of the 82 most attractive women captured by the cameramen (I’m assuming men here).

In spite of my cynicism, I am really looking forward to the Olympics in London. I have tickets for events at both the Olympics and Paralympics and hope it will be an amazing few weeks in London. I will also however have a keen eye on the issues surround the women taking part, hopefully celebrating quite a few of them in the process.

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