Sexism wins gold at the 2020 Olympic Games

female olympic athletes
Ciara Phelan

27th August 2021


After a year-long delay, the ever-raging coronavirus pandemic, and the lack of spectators in stadiums, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were far from normal. However, this year has also seen a shift in the attitudes of the Olympians, and for the first time ever, female athletes have made it clear that they have not been happy with what was once considered the norm, and are taking a stand to change the Olympics, and international sports, forever. 


One of the ways in which sporting federations have failed to address inequalities in sports is through the continued sexualisation of women’s uniforms. The Olympics are not the only villains in this story, with almost every national and international sporting organisation holding questionable rules surrounding the uniforms worn by both male and female competitors. All of these discrepancies surrounding the tightness and shortness of women’s uniforms combine to make these athletes as sexually marketable as possible.  


In 2004, former FIFA president Sepp Blatter suggested women soccer players wear “tighter shorts” than their male counterparts in order to attract more viewers. Similarly, the Badminton World Federation tried to pass a new rule in which women could only wear skirts or dresses to play at an elite level, with no regard for the actual functionality for this new uniform. The reasoning was “to ensure attractive presentation” and increase interest.  


Arbitrary rules like this are still commonplace in sports, with the Norwegian women’s beach handball team being fined €1,500 by the European Handball Association’s Disciplinary Commission for “improper clothing” as they refused to wear bikini bottoms to compete in the Euro 2021 tournament. The team instead wore thigh-length elastic shorts, which are still several inches shorter than the looser fitting shorts worn by their male counterparts. This news caused such a stir internationally that singer P!NK has since offered to pay the fine for the team, and has also spoken out about the sexist rules within the sport. 


Similarly, the German women’s gymnastics team took a stand and wore full-length unitards, covering their thighs and lower legs, as opposed to the usual unitards worn by competitors. These full-length suits are customary for men to wear, but these women were outliers in their field as they chose to let their athleticism shine through and not their body shape. Sarah Voss, a member of the German gymnastics team, explained the decision when she said that “when puberty began, when my period came, I began feeling increasingly uncomfortable [wearing the tight gym outfits]” and that she hopes that her decision will encourage other gymnasts to wear what they feel comfortable in. The sexualisation of women’s gymnastics uniforms also has a severely negative impact on the perceived intensity of their sport. Sports writer and author Kavitha Davidson, put it perfectly when she said that “At least in the [United] States, the most prominent faces [in gymnastics] like Simone Biles are women who wear leotards, who wear makeup, and that defies what people might want to point to as toughness or as a dangerous sport.”  


Similarly, gymnast Suni Lee amazed the world when she won the all-around gold medal with lash extensions and a set of acrylic nails applied. The fact that she completed a gold-medal routine without even so much as breaking a nail is insanely impressive in itself, but we must think critically about the society we live in, in which a world class athlete felt it necessary to compete with these additional obstacles in the name of appealing to the unattainable beauty standard expected of women. 


Jaime Schultz, a Pennsylvania State University professor who studies the intersection of sex, gender, and sexuality in women’s sports epitomises the overlying issue when she said “Women athletes—we can’t win for losing … You’re either too sexy or you’re not sexy enough or you should cover up or you should show more or you should talk about mental health or you shouldn’t talk about it. You should be superhuman but don’t be too human. It’s just a range of issues that I think women athletes have to deal with, and especially women athletes of colour, that mere mortals like us can’t understand.” 


Another way in which women are diminished in the sporting world is the questioning of their femininity.”

Another way in which women are diminished in the sporting world is the questioning of their femininity. There are many ways in which athletes can have a biological advantage over their competitors, such as genetics, levels of various hormones, mentality, training, nutrition, recovery times, and even factors as simple as how the athlete feels in the morning, compared to their competitors. There is a fixation on testosterone levels by the regulatory bodies, and an indifference towards other characteristics that could be equally as unfair. 


Take for example, Michael Phelps. Phelps is a swimmer and is currently the most decorated Olympian in history, winning a total of 28 medals during his career. Phelps has exceptionally long arms, giving him a longer wingspan. He also has double-jointed elbows and large hands, which act like paddles. Phelps also has double-jointed ankles, giving him 15 per cent more ankle bend than his rivals, and large size-14 feet, which act as flippers. He also has an extremely high lung capacity – almost twice that of an average human – and produces half the lactic acid of his competitors, meaning that he recovers from gruelling training sessions far faster than others. In a nutshell, Phelps won the genetic motherlode, and this has been celebrated throughout his incredible career. 


In contrast, let’s take a look at Caster Semenya. Although she does not speak about it publicly, it is believed that Semenya has an intersex condition, meaning that her body allegedly produces testosterone at a higher level than most women. In 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that if Semenya wanted to continue to compete, she would be required to take medications to lower it.  


Similarly, two other South African runners, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, were forced to withdraw from the 400-meter race in this year’s Tokyo Olympics, after a medical examination showed that the two women have high testosterone levels. This overemphasis on the powers of testosterone is outdated, and only serves to fuel stereotypes regarding the levels at which men and women compete. Phelps’ natural biological variation is celebrated rather than regulated, while Semenya’s, Mboma’s and Masiling’s are all vilified. 


The irony of the unfolding situation is the progress that the International Olympic Committee released a statement on International Women’s Day, stating that this year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games will be landmarks in gender equality, and will be strides towards a more inclusive society. It will be the most gender balanced games in history, with 49 per cent of the participants being women. They have also edited the scheduling, in order to ensure equal visibility of men’s and women’s events, and also includes more mixed events than ever before. However, this potential is undermined when gendered microaggressions present these athletes with hurdles to overcome, that ultimately have nothing to do with their athletic abilities. The point of the Olympics should not be to see who can most successfully navigate the toxic rules of a regulation that out of step with the modern world, but rather to award the passion, dedication, and strength of these humans.  




Featured photo by Nicolas Hoizey

This article was supported by: STAND Women Editor Ellen + Programme Assistant Alex


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