Has the Olympic Games caught up with the modern world?

Posted by ap507 at Aug 12, 2016 01:50 PM |
John Williams discusses how the Olympics still has a way to go before all athletes are treated equally

Think: Leicester does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Leicester - it expresses the independent views and opinions of the academic who has authored the piece. If you do not agree with the opinions expressed, and you are a doctoral student/academic at the University of Leicester, you may write a counter opinion for Think: Leicester and send to ap507@le.ac.uk 

The founder of the modern Olympics movement, French aristocrat Baron de Coubertin, was a man of his time who, in the late-nineteenth century, actually sourced many of his key sporting principles about amateurism, fairness and equality from both the Ancient Greeks and the English public schools. He was especially influenced by the latter’s modern traditions of sporting practice and heritage.  Where de Coubertin differed from the British elites, however, was in his views about the rights of working class people to compete in sport as amateurs, with agreed compensation for loss of work time.

The British and other countries have continued to build on their own classed advantage and privilege in certain Olympic sports – equestrianism, rowing and sailing are obvious examples – and have also provided the required funding to ensure an expanding haul of medals. The average ‘cost’ of a medal earned in London 2012 – public funding for athletes measured against medals won – was estimated at around £4 million. Many GB Olympic medals in Rio will also have been forged in the nation’s public schools and their excellent facilities. However, de Coubertin’s own rather enlightened early notions of equality and fairness in social class terms did not cut it with the IOC. Nor did it apply quite so easily in early international sporting circles to another largely excluded group - women.

Famously, de Coubertin was against female involvement in the Olympics from the very start. He cited organisational problems involved in staging separate events during the Games, the inappropriateness of viewing women as sporting competitors in public, and the limited physical capacities of women which allegedly made them ‘incapable’ of performing in intense sport, such as in the early Olympics.  No women competed in Athens in 1896 because their presence, according to de Coubertin, would be, "impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect." Victorian male doctors happily confirmed that sporting exertions for women could not only compromise their child-bearing functions but, in some cases, might also lead to promiscuity or even prostitution.

Pioneering women set up their own early Olympics as a response, but in 1928 women competed in the international Olympic Games track and field events for the first time. However, extraordinarily, it was not until 1960 that women were sanctioned to compete in the 800 metres and 1972 before the women’s 1500 metres was accepted by the IOC. In 1984 it was finally time for the women’s marathon.  

Things have changed since of course –  44% of all competitors at London 2012 were female and, transgressive this, Britain’s Nicola Adams became the first female boxer to win an Olympics gold medal. Female sevens rugby players competed, alongside the men’s competition, for the first time in Rio 2016. But anachronisms and gender divisions remain in the Olympics.  If beach volleyball and synchronised swimming, for example, are good enough for women in the Games, why not for male competitors too?  And if men can use the rings in gymnastics, why can’t females do the same?

We do know, however, that today’s Olympic Games does briefly focus more of our attention on women as athletes. It has been estimated that women’s sport, for example, typically attracts between 5-7% of all UK sports news coverage. But, during the Olympics, successful GB women will often be centre stage for once; it is as if for a short time national identity trumps the usual excluding impact of gender in sport. The kind of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ that typically applies in sport – reassurances that top female athletes are conventionally feminine, for example by depicting them in glamorous evening dress or with their children – may also be a little more relaxed for the Games.  

Just this week, as a pointer, a Brazilian women’s rugby sevens player, Isadora Cerullo, become the first athlete to receive a marriage proposal at the Games -  from her girlfriend and fellow player, Marjorie Enya. The two women were widely shown kissing after the medal ceremony.  The modern Olympics meets the modern world?  Perhaps.

Nevertheless, there was still plenty of space in the British press in the run-up to the Games for ‘reassuring’ stories that Olympic champion Jessica Ennis was actually much more concerned about caring for her young son, Reggie, than she was about repeating her 2012 success in the heptathlon.  (Do any such stories typically apply to men?)  And routine complaints soon emerged about the casual sexist language used by some commentators in describing female athletes in Rio. Has anything really changed?

According to the BBC, researchers for Cambridge University Press recently analysed millions of words relating to men and women and Olympic sports in the Cambridge English Corpus (CEC) and the Sport Corpus. This huge study revealed common word combinations for female athletes included: aged, older, pregnant and married or unmarried. In contrast, top word combinations for male athletes more often included fastest, strong, big and great. The Cambridge study also found that the language used around women in sport focussed disproportionately on their appearance, clothes and personal lives.

This sort of thing might be depressing, but none of it is especially surprising in a world in which celebrity culture and the popular press pump out highly conventional and conservative views about gender inequality and difference, and interest or involvement in sport simply confirms conventional heterosexuality in men but does the opposite for women. Such ideas echo much of what was said more than a century ago in de Coubertin’s day.

Women and girl’s sport, in this country and elsewhere, needs to be considered on its own terms and it requires much more encouragement, funding and support of a kind that does not rely on the reproduction of traditional conventions about gender, or commercial interest and market forces. Then, perhaps, we can finally begin to see all our sporting stars for what they really are – exceptional, talented athletes. And national heroes.

Share this page: