The International Olympic Committee claims that sport is “one of the most powerful platforms for promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls.” Yet in the past few weeks, at least three notable injustices against women have occurred at the Tokyo Olympics, calling into question the IOC’s commitment to those goals.
On July 19, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team was fined for not playing in bikinis. On July 20, blind and deaf American swimmer Becca Myers had to withdraw from the games after the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee denied her request to bring her mother, who serves as her personal care assistant. And on June 28, U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended for marijuna use in a state where it was legal, barring her from even attending the Tokyo games.
Although each of these events is troubling due to the sexism, racism and ableism that underpins them, they are also troubling as they detract from what is supposed to be the main attraction of the Olympics: the competition. The IOC must follow through on its promise to promote gender equality, or fans and athletes alike will concentrate more on the injustices than the competition itself.
In Norway, male beach handball players are allowed to choose their outfit and are allowed to play in tank tops and shorts if they so desire. Women are required to wear bikini bottoms “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle” — a very skimpy and sexualized outfit for the dynamic sport. When the Norwegian women’s team protested the “embarrassing” bikini bottom design by wearing thigh-length elastic shorts during their bronze medal match against Spain, the team was fined 1,500 euros on the grounds of “improper clothing” from the European Handball Association’s Disciplinary Commission.
In the 20th century, women who wished to compete in sports had to wear long skirts in tennis matches and full body suits in swimming races to preserve their modesty. Today, women are required to bare their abs and cheeks. The circularity of this progression lies in the fact that women are repeatedly deemed incapable of deciding for themselves what to wear within the bounds of fair competition. The power — in a field dominated by men — lies in policing women’s bodies to increase athletic viewership.
Another incident, concerning 26-year-old six-time paralympian medalist Becca Myers, is problematic in terms of its discrimination against sex and disability. Since the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, where she won three gold medals, she’s been training hard to reach the podium in 2020. Myers wrote to the USOPC requesting that her mother, who has acted as her personal care assistant at all her international meetings, serve in this capacity again in Tokyo. The USOPC refused her request due to COVID-19 restrictions, knowing full well that Becca would not be able to compete without her mother’s help. Meyers noted in a public statement that the USOPC is only providing one PCA to assist the entire 33-member Paralympic swim team, which includes nine members who are visually impaired.
The final incident, which has garnered much interest around the blurred line of substance use, lies with Sha’Carri Richardson. She finished first in the Olympic trials heats for the women’s 100m dash, making her the fastest woman in America. Despite these victories, Richardson did not make the United States team roster due to a 30-day suspension after she tested positive for THC, the intoxicant found in marijuana. Richardson confirmed that she used marijuana to cope with overwhelming emotional turmoil following her mother’s death mere days before the trials.
Yes, THC is a banned substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency, whose rules set the standards for competition at the Olympics. However, Richardson used the drug before she left for Tokyo in Oregon — a state that legalized marijuna use in 2015. Why should the rules that regulate the Olympics be used to police her behavior before she even left the country? Moreover, why should these rules punish her for using a drug that was legal in the state she utilized it in when the drug doesn’t provide any competitive advantages? To me, Richardson’s case, wherein she received a life-altering sanction for a substance unrelated to her performance, highlights the work that still needs to be done to improve anti-doping rules and make them more fair.
Based on these events, the Olympics are off to a bad start; however, change may be in motion. Even though “great progress has been made in terms of gender equality,” the IOC acknowledges that “many other challenges and gaps remain.” Since 2006, Norway has been campaigning for shorts to be officially considered acceptable in beach handball, and the country’s sporting council plans to submit a motion to change the rules of the International Handball Federation in November.
In Congress last week, New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, spoke up for Meyers in a hearing for the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. She stated that she wants the USOPC “to work immediately to address this issue… to ensure that all of our athletes are able to compete safely at this summer’s games, including by providing them the basic support that they need just to navigate the world.”
Nonetheless, the supposed goal of the Olympics and elite athletic competition is to empower people through sport, practiced “without discrimination of any kind.” The Olympic movement advertises a mutual understanding of solidarity, friendship and fair play for all international competitors. If rules barring our nation’s best paralympic athletes from competing, or a team’s decision to wear more modest clothing earns them a fine, then the Olympic spirit, which seeks to instill and develop the values of tolerance and understanding in extreme competition, is really just a sham.