Olympic legacy: equality for the sexes?
As all 204 participating nations included women for the first time, as well as the amazing success of our female athletes, are we finally seeing the beginnings of gender equality within sport and the Olympics? And how far do we still need to go?
The 2012 London Olympics has left behind a mostly favourable taste in Britain’s mouth, a recent poll declaring that the majority of the public believed it was worth the money spent, despite the fact Britain is in the middle of a double-dip recession. I, for one, was no fan of the Olympics but at least it achieved a landmark in an area I am passionate about: Equality.
This Olympics saw the first time every country involved included women participants with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei all allowing women to compete in the Games. This was a big step for many countries that are notoriously ultra-conservative and old-fashioned in their views on women. Many still don’t allow women to participate in sports or to attend sporting events as spectators. As such, this was an important decision in Olympic history and for equality. And the nation responded. Women from these three nations were all given the biggest cheers despite failing to win any medals. Their participation was significant and life changing.
Sadly, we still have a long way to go as some facts regarding gender equality and sexism at the Olympics reveal:
- 30 more medals were available to men than they were to women.
- Sponsorship and media coverage is still lacking. According to the ‘'Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation’', corporate coverage equals around 0.5% for women. This blatant inequality was further revealed during the Olympics by the news that BMW, one of the sponsors for the Games, gave out BMWs to all men Gold Medalists, something they quickly denied. Media coverage is also vastly in favour of the men’s sports, with only around 5% going towards women’s sports.
- The number of women’s events still does not equal that of the men's, nor the women taking part, although the latter is a major step up from 24% in 1984, but is still under half, at 44%.
- 9 sports in the Olympics still had unequal representation in regards to the sexes.
- Commentators and the media referring to the female athletes as ‘‘girls’’. This might not seem like a problem but it is, especially when you ask yourself if the male athletes were ever referred to as ‘’boys’’. Nope! It was patronising and insulting.
- The insistence that the women boxers wear skirts, to look more ‘’feminine’’, which eventually did not become compulsory. I mean, seriously?!
- Lack of women’s canoeing when there were 5 men’s events within it.
That’s not to mention the sexist nature towards how women’s sports and sportswomen in the Games were treated, in regards to sexualisation, objectification and the fact some of the women’s events were not taken seriously. The prime example is the women’s volleyball. Complete with Benny Hill music, skimpy clothing, slow-motion and photographs focusing on certain body parts – it was so blatant in its ridiculousness that is spawned a ‘'what if every Olympic sport was photographed like women’s volleyball?'’ media frenzy.
This light-hearted take on an issue that has serious undertones to how women’s sport is treated revealed just how much the media care about sport when played by women professionals, instead objectifying and demeaning the women involved.
Female athletes have also gotten abuse due to the way they look. 18 year old British weightlifter Zoe Smith was harassed by online bullies who told her that her muscles were ‘‘unfeminine’’, ‘’unattractive’’ and that she must be a ‘’lesbian’’. She responded fiercely that she did not care what they thought of her physique: ‘’we don’t lift weights in order to look hot, especially for the likes of men like that. What makes them think that we even WANT them to find us attractive?’’
Harassment obviously goes far further than the realm of sport but comments like these were still prevalent in any sporting events misogynists deemed ''manly and unsuitable for women''. Even some journalists complained about how ‘’unnatural’’ it was for women to compete in sports like boxing, such as The Telegraph’s Andrew Brown, who called women’s judo ‘’distasteful to watch’’.
Finally, there is the issue of race as well. Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen was accused of doping when she posted a personal best swim to earn the gold medal. Instead of congratulations, there was instant scrutiny and doubt about Shiwen having used banned drugs to achieve such a fast time. Branded around were accusations that women cannot swim that fast naturally; a U.S. commenter called her athletic abilities ‘’disturbing’’; and further the assumption that she must have been doping because she was Chinese.
U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas was also open to abuse due to her gender and skin colour. Despite winning two gold medals she was subjected to intense criticism about her hair; regardless of the fact all her fellow team-mates had the same hairstyle.
Despite the fact that their profession has nothing particularly to do with how they look, the obsession with the appearances of the female athletes tended to get more coverage than their abilities in their respective sports during the Olympics. All the pressure on the athletes to act and dress more ‘’feminine’’, or the media’s obsession with sexually exploiting the female athletes took away from the focus on their talents and athleticism.
All these issues obviously need to be addressed. Many hope that the Olympics in Rio in 2016 will go even further in sport’s quest for gender equality. Shadow Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell is pledging to lead a campaign to make Rio the ‘'first gender equal games’'. Perhaps this is overly optimistic, but the fact is despite all the problems still being faced, sportswomen have come far and this Olympics has been groundbreaking in its steps towards some kind of equality. The first time women’s boxing has taken place, record breaking figures watching the women’s football and Jessica Ennis mania demonstrate this.
As it is, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) hasn’t made any promises, just a ‘’reminder’’ that we will get there ‘’eventually’’. Unfortunately it will take more than an equal number of medals, events and athletes to achieve true gender equality in the Olympics and sports in general.