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The Olympics: Is there truly “Unity in Diversity”?

The Tokyo Olympics has been fraught with controversy. With rising concerns about COVID and pandemic safety, it is clear that we are in an Olympics season like no other. Apart from the long-shadow of COVID which had threatened to mar the spectatorship at this event which bore great significance in terms of the economic boost it would provide Tokyo with, there are other shadows looming large that have reignited debates about the Olympics as a brand. The Olympics is a symbol of athletic exceptionalism, honouring the best athletes all over the world. Does it genuinely honour athletic excellence or does its decision-making across a range of domains reflect deep-seated, systemic biases against particular communities of athletes who do not conform to the Olympic ‘norm’?

Increasingly, it seems that the Olympics honours only athletes who are cis, white, and male. A number of instances demonstrate ignorant and discriminatory treatment of transgender, black, and female athletes.


A transgender weightlifter's Olympic dream has sparked an existential debate about what it means to be female

Discourse surrounding the inclusion of transgender women in Olympic female competitions has once again sparked fierce debates on the imposition of the artificial binary to exclude trans athletes, only leaving space for those who conform strictly to the cisgender norms. Athletes who are the subject of these debates often face humiliating questioning and publicity surrounding their gender identity.

The IOC Rules- agreed on in 2003 and known as the Stockholm consensus - allowed transgender women and men to compete in the Olympics, as long as they had "surgical anatomical changes" (including having their testes or ovaries removed), obtained legal recognition of their assigned sex, and underwent hormone therapy for sufficient time to "minimize gender-related advantages.".

Laurel Hubbard, an Olympic weightlifter from New Zealand has qualified for the Tokyo 2021 games and is set to be the first openly transgender athlete ever to compete in the games. People are applauding her place as a win for gender diversity in sports. Others think that this shows that transgender women do not “pose a threat” to women’s sport. Nevertheless, she has faced a considerable backlash. Conservative British commentator Piers Morgan argued that being a transgender woman, or a woman who was assigned male at birth, gives her an unfair physical advantage. One of Hubbard's competitors even called her inclusion "a bad joke," saying it was unfair to cisgender women, whose gender identity matched their sex assigned at birth.

Laurel Hubbard, the first openly transgender athlete to compete in the games. Source: Reuters

Namibian female runners banned from Olympic 400 meters over high testosterone levels

Still stuck on the subject of ‘hormonal advantage’, two 18-year-old female runners from Namibia have been barred from competing in the 400 meters’ race at the Tokyo Olympics after medical tests showed they have naturally high testosterone levels. That makes them ineligible under the same contentious rules that have sidelined South Africa's Caster Semenya. Semenya, an intersex woman was banned from competing in races of 400 meters and above because of her naturally occurring high testosterone levels to ensure “fairness”. If she wanted to compete, she would have to take testosterone reducers. The two, star runners’ records attracted attention as Christine Mboma finished a 400m race in Poland on the 30th of June with a time of 48.45 seconds, which was an under-20 world record and the seventh-fastest time ever recorded for a woman in the 400m as well as the fastest time in the world this year ahead of all the event's big names. Beatrice Masilingi's 49.53 seconds at a low-level meet in Zambia in April stands as the third-fastest time of 2021 so far. According to the Namibian Olympic committee, the record-breaking times spurred World Athletics to conduct "medical assessments" on the two athletes at their training camp in Italy. The results indicated that both have high natural testosterone levels.

Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi. Source: Twitter

Policing and sexualizing of female athletes’ bodies

Olivia Breen, two-time Paralympic champion was left “speechless” after she was informed by an official at the English Championships that her competition briefs were too short. In a statement posted to Twitter, she said “tonight I felt quite disappointed because just as I finished my long jump competition at the English Championships, one of the female officials felt it necessary to inform me that my sprint briefs were too short and inappropriate.” “I was left speechless. I have been wearing the same style sprint briefs for many years and they are specifically designed for competing in. I will hopefully be wearing them in Tokyo.” Breen, who has cerebral palsy, said the briefs were specifically designed to make her feel as light as possible which is critical to competing in her sport. Breen wondered if a male athlete would be subject to a similar level of scrutiny and humiliation. She cautioned against the over-policing of female athletes’ bodies and the effect it could have on younger athletes’ self-esteem. Breen said that while she recognized the importance of regulations, she felt uncomfortable when these comments were made.

“Women should not be made to feel self-conscious about what they are wearing when competing but should feel comfortable and at ease.” - Olivia Breen

On the polar opposite end of the ‘policing women’s athletic-wear spectrum’, the Norwegian Woman’s Olympic Beach Handball team was fined 1500 euros for wearing shorts that were too long. The team wanted to wear longer shorts as opposed to the mandated bikini bottoms by the Norwegian regulatory board. While male players are allowed to play in tank tops and shorts no longer than 4 inches above the knee, women are required to wear midriff-baring tops and bikini bottoms “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg” and a maximum side width of 4 inches, according to International Handball Federation regulations. The women chose to wear longer shorts because they found the bikini bottoms too revealing and they felt unnecessarily sexualised. Furthermore, they felt uncomfortable wearing the bikini bottoms when they had to compete during their periods. When threats of disqualification were made, they were forced to revert back to wearing bikini bottoms. “We have lost players due to the suits. The players tell me they are uncomfortable, feel naked, and watched. It is a sport with a lot of movement and you are hindered by the bikini,” French national team manager, Valérie Nicolas said, backing Norway. “There is also discomfort associated with menstruation and not least religion.”

The stark difference between the uniforms of the Norwegian men's and women's handball team. Source: NY Times

Sha’Carri Richardson banned from competing in the Olympic games after testing positive for marijuana consumption

In June, Sha’Carri Richardson ran the 100-meter sprint in just 10.86 seconds and subsequently became a favourite to win the gold medal at the Olympics. Her achievement drew attention from many and she soon became a role model for young girls because of her determination and spirit.

A month later, it was announced that she would be facing a one-month ban from competing because she tested positive for marijuana in a drug test. This decision

Sha'Carri Richardson. Source: Getty Images

angered many of her fans who pointed to the drug’s recreational status in the state of Oregon where she got tested along with scientific proof that it is not considered a performance-enhancing drug. Richardson then had to speak about her personal life and how she was using the drug to cope with her mother’s loss, which she only learned about days before the Olympic trials. The whole period was extremely traumatic and triggering for her. When the news began to spread, she simply tweeted “I am human.”

Drug tests have affected other black athletes too. Last week, Brianna McNeal lost her appeal on a five-year suspension from competing in the Olympics after a missed drug test. She had to divulge that she was recovering from an abortion at the time and was forced to give up her privacy in order to clear her name. Colour of Change, a non-profit organization commented on this: “Yet again, the Olympics continue a pattern of selectively & cruelly punishing Black women.”

Natural hair caps banned from the Olympics

Swimming caps made specifically for natural Black hair were banned by the International Swimming Federation for not fitting the “natural form of the head”. Soul Caps, the Black-owned brand designed the caps along with Alice Dearing, who will be the first-ever Black female swimmer on the British Olympics swim team. “The swim caps are made to fit over and protect thick, curly, natural hair, as well as dreadlocks, weaves, extensions, and braids from chlorine damage. Black Swimming Association member Danielle Obe said that “aquatic swimming needs to do better” and that “we need the space and the volume which products like the Soul Caps allow for. Inclusivity is realising that no one head shape is ‘normal’.”


When the Olympics and other sporting bodies make decisions like this, what kind of message does it send to minority athletes?

Take a look at the rules about testosterone levels for example. The limits placed on testosterone, while purportedly race-neutral, disproportionately affect black female athletes and feed into age-old misogynoir that calls Black women’s femininity into question. As noted above, South Africa’s Caster Semenya is another athlete who was affected by these rules. Semenya was banned from competing in the women’s 800 metre race because her natural testosterone levels exceeded the maximum level permitted for a race of that distance. To compete, Semenya, an intersex cisgender woman, would have had to take testosterone suppressants, which she refused to do. Instead, she took World Athletics to court and lost. Is it appropriate for sporting bodies to impose rules based on the body composition of white, cisgender athletes, failing to account for the diversity of representations of the human body and forms as well as the unique manifestations of excellence that come with such diversity? Does imposing gender essentialism to such an extent ensure fairness, when higher testosterone levels do not necessarily guarantee a female athlete a gold medal?

Black women and the unnecessary attention drawn to their bodies. Source: Chelsea Charles

We see similar exclusionary treatment meted out to transgender athletes, who face a number of invasive, bureaucratic hurdles in order for sporting organizations to ‘affirm’ their identity as conforming with the rules set by the Committee. This ‘affirmation’ falls along binary lines which necessarily ignore the fluidity of gender in line with an expanded understanding of gender around the world. Transgender female athletes who have tried to go through the Olympic verification process in the past have called it “humiliating” and “traumatizing”. Kristin Worley, a Canadian cyclist described the process she had to go through. In 2005, She had a physical examination in a room with four men: two sport administrators, one lawyer, and one emergency doctor, Worley wrote in her book "Women Enough". That followed an earlier physical examination with an endocrinologist, who asked about her sexuality. "They viewed me as a threat to sport," she wrote. "At best, I was trying to cheat; at worse, I was a freak. They felt utterly entitled to ask me embarrassing, intimate questions about the details of my surgeries, and talk openly about my body in front of me, as if I wasn't there." Worley says these rules have no basis in science, and she felt violated after the process, causing her to quit cycling. She says she lost her career and her Olympic opportunities due to the disrespectful way in which she was treated.

Transgender athletes and the hurdles they face. Source: Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated

The sexualisation of female athletes and their bodies is an abysmal reality that stops many women from continuing their careers in professional sport. The objectification of women to “bring in ratings” by insisting they wear short, revealing clothes that impede their athletic ability and excellence exposes professional sports bodies’ sexist and misogynist standards, which continue to objectify women. By mandating rules that force competing female athletes into attire that sexualises them, these professional bodies are sending a message that they see such athletes as women first, athletes second. This has a tremendous impact on athletes and their self-esteem if they are not seen for their athletic exceptionalism but rather as sexualised objects, always subjected to the male gaze and for their entertainment. This also dissuades women from pursuing a career in sport. These norms and this culture bring disparate burdens for female athletes who sit at the intersections of multiply marginalised identities. For example, Muslim female athletes have to navigate and renegotiate their identities in sporting competitions due to rules relating to attire, prohibitions against the hijab, or other adaptation inspired by their faith amid these trends of sexualising female athletes. These are just some factors that explain the low participation rate of Muslim women athletes in competitive sports. At the same time, however, female athletes also face the brunt of criticisms and hefty consequences of sexualisation when they are singled out for purportedly wearing revealing clothing which distracts from their athletic abilities. Women somehow have to suppress their bodies’ own needs to ‘fall in line‘ with the demands of the patriarchal gaze, however contradictory, oppressive, and offensive they may be.

Athletes should be free to wear what makes them comfortable. Source: Lucinda Alvarez-Johnson

In terms of sporting bans related to marijuana, it is very telling that Black people continue to be disproportionately affected by drug-related rules and laws, even within the sporting community. For American athletes, it points to the systemic racism that has “long-driven” anti-marijuana laws, dating back to the war on drugs. While it has been shown that marijuana does not have any performance-altering properties, drug testing agencies continue to follow these outdated guidelines. Furthermore, it also shows how these agencies lack compassion in refusing to exercise discretion, prompting questions from athletes of colour if they would have been “met with some consideration” if they were White or European.

Evidently, The International Olympic Committee and most sporting commissions’ rules rest on racist, transphobic, and sexist parameters that police athletes’ bodies in line with white, cisgender normative standards. It comes as no surprise, however, when sporting boards themselves do not reflect the diversity of the athletes they govern. In the UK, only 4% of sporting board members are non-white while non-White athletes represent 18% of athletes. Women only hold 30% of board membership positions on boards of sporting bodies in the UK. The number of women in senior leadership roles within these sports associations is much lower. The lack of diversity on sporting boards invariably leads to numerous blind spots which are manifesting as the racism, sexism, and transphobia that we see time and again. The Tokyo 2021 claims to promote “Unity in Diversity”, a slogan that purportedly underscores the importance of diversity in achieving the vision of the games. It seems as if they’ve lost their way.


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