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The Experience of Female Athletes at the Olympic Games

August 5th, 2021


Written By: Sarah Kelly, LSW, CADC

Every two years, we have the global opportunity to watch elite athletes perform on the world stage at the Olympic Games. For many, the Olympics provides an opportunity to turn away from their typical routines and stressors of life to watch a select few do what feels inhuman. The Olympic Games provide a respite from our realities, but what has become clear during the Tokyo Olympic Games is that the reality of athletes competing, particularly female athletes, is not always a celebration.

Gender Disparities Still Exist at Tokyo Olympic Games

The darkness of the experience for many female athletes at this year’s Olympic Games started well before the Olympic sports. In 2018, Larry Nassar was sentenced to a maximum of 175 years in prison due to a multitude of sex crimes that were primarily perpetrated against female elite gymnasts.

Nassar was a Team USA Gymnastics lead physician and one of the survivors of his abuse is Simone Biles, arguably the best female gymnast of all time. Though Nassar was convicted and imprisoned in 2018, his crimes still impact the experiences of elite female gymnasts.

Simone Biles reported that one factor influencing her decision to withdraw from several events at this year’s games was the pressure of being a survivor of Nassar’s abuse. Biles wanted to hold the American Olympic Committee (AOC) accountable for the appropriate treatment of female athletes.

As reported by the Washington Post, the AOC continues to assert that they did not have a responsibility to keep the female American athletes safe from Nassar’s abuse. To this day, AOC still has not yet taken accountability. The pressure of perfection and advocacy impacted Biles’ mental health so significantly that she could not compete for her safety.

Unfortunately, sexual violence in the Olympic Games is not limited to Nassar. A current United States fencing team alternate, Alen Hadzic is being investigated for three reports of sexual impropriety between the years 2013 and 2015.

Instead of selecting an alternative alternate for the fencing team, Team USA chose to develop a safety plan preventing Hadzic from entering the Olympic Village and interacting with female athletes. The choice to keep Hadzic on Team USA leads many to believe that the American Olympic Committee is more concerned with winning medals than the safety of their athletes.

Gender Disparities Still Exist at Tokyo Olympic Games

Women’s War On Olympic Uniform

Gender disparities are not limited to the American team and sexual violence. Another issue that these games have brought to light is the attire that female athletes are required to wear.

Before the Tokyo Olympic Games, Norway’s women’s handball team was fined $1750 for choosing to wear athletic shorts instead of bikini bottoms. When asked why the fine was imposed, the International Handball Federation (IHF) stated, “All efforts will be taken to promote the sport further. This includes the ideal presentation of the sport and, by that, includes the outfit of the players."

Presumably, this statement reflects that the IHF believes that for the sport to have success with viewership and participation, female athletes must wear bikini bottoms. These expectations do not extend to male players who are allowed to wear loose-fitting shorts so long as they are no longer than 4 inches above their knees.

Athletic attire can influence performance, but in the case of handball, it is clear that the expectations of women are rooted in sexism and not outcomes.

Women and the Olympic Games

The female German gymnastics team is making their statement regarding sexism and attire with their unitards at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Historically, the traditional attire for elite female gymnasts is a leotard that cuts high on the athlete’s hips.

Representatives from the German team have stated that the athletes opted to wear unitards to desexualize their performances and empower female athletes to wear what makes them feel most confident. Though unitards are allowed for competition, it is only recently that athletes have chosen to compete in them as opposed to leotards.

While the message regarding desexualizing women in gymnastics has been present throughout media presentation of the Olympic Games, it seems as if that has become the center of the story for the German Gymnastics Team; not their performance. This relates to the overall media portrayal of female athletes at the Olympics.

In 2016, the media faced significant backlash as the portrayal of female athletes’ bodies was often sexualized. Additionally, female athletes were discussed primarily as wives and mothers and were negatively compared to their male counterparts.

Women and the Olympic Games

Promotion of Gender Equality at Tokyo Olympics

At the Tokyo Games, there have been efforts to change how female athletes are portrayed in the media. The International Olympic Committee is promoting, “Sports appeal, not sex appeal” to inform the framing of female athletes in the media. This promotion provides hope that there is room to change in a more equitable direction for women in sport.

Other glimmers of hope include New Zealand’s Laurel Hummel as the first openly transwoman to compete in the Olympic Games in powerlifting. In addition, 49% of the athletes competing in this year’s games are women, a 5% increase from the 2016 Olympic Games.

These improvements are valuable, but not enough for equity for female athletes in elite sports. The advocacy regarding the experience of women in sport must continue.

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