Inequity of Olympic Proportions

I used to love the summer Olympics. I did gymnastics, track & field, and long-distance running as a kid (none of them well) and once felt a personal connection to those athletes. I love the tear-jerkers, the close calls, the underdogs, and the obsessive physical commitment to a goal: I’ve always been a little in love with the idea of sacrifice, if not the reality of it. However, it’s been decades since I’ve seen more than one or two events – I forget they’re happening when they don’t fit into my schedule, and I don’t like watching competitive events if they’re not live.

Hence, my experience of the Olympics this year has been through the radio and the computer, in other words: news. Because of the algorithmic circles I run in, I get a lot of news about inequity and various -isms occurring in and around the sports and rules this year. I doubt 2021 is worse than usual: more likely the coverage is better, the equity is improved, and there is still plenty of injustice to go around.

I can’t help but start with Sha’Carri Richardson. Yes, she broke the rules, blah blah, by taking a performance-inhibiting drug, whatever whatever, but don’t stop there. Rules have history, and history has racism. Marijuana was only listed as a banned substance in 1999, because, being illegal almost everywhere, it was “not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world,” and therefore not in the “spirit of sport,” one of the 3 criteria that can get a drug on the list. (The others being performance enhancement and harming the athlete’s health.)

Keep going – why was pot made illegal? Because of racism (anti-Mexican and anti-Black) and outright lies about the drug’s contribution to violent crimes. The government response was jacked up in the sixties for all the reasons you might think – it brought different kinds of people together and “…you see, homosexuality, dope, immorality in general. These are the enemies of a strong society. That’s why the communists and left-wingers are pushing the stuff, they are trying to destroy us,” from Tricky Dick himself. I won’t say he’s wrong. Mind-altering drugs, particularly hallucinogens, do encourage people to question capitalist society, war, and mores, which is why they’ve been an enemy of the state for more than half a century. I don’t know much about drug policy in other countries, but the US influence and homegrown paranoia undoubtedly had a global impact on policies. Sha’Carri Richardson is only the most recent, public victim of the ridiculous drug war. Millions more have been literally destroyed by it. (Not to diminish Ms. Richardson’s pain, just facts).

Lesser-known inequities of The Games

Did you know that a swimming cap designed to hold in African-origin (or “thick, curly, and voluminous”) hair was banned from Olympic use? Since the main feature of the cap is it’s greater size, there is no performance-enhancing excuse: a larger object slows one’s movement through the water. Did you know White people used to think there was a biological difference that made African-Americans unable to swim? The purported biological difference wouldn’t have been an excuse for the brutality that led Africans to leap to their deaths from slave ships or to drown when people threw rocks at them for floating into “White” beach areas, or excluding them from public swimming pools, would it?

Meanwhile, women deciding to literally cover their asses are getting a lot of attention for it. Germany made headlines for choosing full bodysuits over leotards that can creep into your ass crack or the folds of your labia while jumping, flipping, and stretching your body into exceptional positions – and don’t forget all the shaving or waking or electrolysis that an adult woman likely has to perform to remove the titillating pubes otherwise peeking out of leotards, swimsuits, etc. While not in the Olympics, the Norwegian women’s handball team was fined by their sport for switching from bikinis to shorts for competition. Meanwhile, paralympian Olivia Breen was reprimanded by an official that her briefs were “too short” though she has been competing in them for years, and they are specifically designed for competition. Could it be that they don’t like seeing “too much” of the body of a woman with Cerebral Palsy? Is that just too icky? We like to believe that sartorial rules are minimal in liberal societies, but the policing of women’s bodies just won’t die.

The worst single equity offense in my opinion is the case of Becca Meyers, a multi-medal winning, Deaf and blind paralympian who had to withdraw from this year’s games because she was not allowed to bring her mother as her Personal Care Assistant “due to COVID restrictions.” Tokyo is allowing only one PCA for the 33 American swimmers, many of whom are visually impaired. What is the point, really, of hosting an Olympics for people with disabilities if you refuse to accommodate those disabilities? Once again, we are forcing people with different needs to fit into the world we have designed – one based on an ancient, narrow conception of what is reasonable and acceptable – instead of recognizing that everyone has need for accommodation, everyone is the beneficiary of accommodation on a regular basis (elevators, chairs and desks, Zoom, etc. etc.), and that reasonable accommodation is a human right.

Finally, there is the gender issue itself, sexualization aside. This impacts not only transgender athletes post-transition, but cis-gender women with intersex characteristics or a Difference of Sexual Development (DSD) who may have never been perceived as or seen themselves as anything but female. Five women (all from Africa) were disqualified from Tokyo this year because of their testosterone levels. They are some of the top middle-distance runners in the world. Women used to have to undergo a physical exam to be allowed to complete in the Olympics, then there was chromosome testing, and now testosterone testing.[i] All tests have gender grey areas and no one thing defines a person as male, female, or other but the person themself; however if we are going to distinguish between women and men for competitive and lucrative sports, there has to be some distinction. It does seem the IOC is trying to keep up with the latest science (only setting hormone guidelines for the specific distances in which greater testosterone has been shown to give a competitive advantage), and I don’t have the knowledge to say precisely what they should or shouldn’t do. I can say it sucks for those exceptional competitors.[ii] As complicated as it is, I’m personally more interested in the larger questions it unearths, if you’re willing to dig in with me.

The Bigger Issue: Fairness

The gender debate is about fairness, right? So what does that mean? And how important is it? As gender equity advocate and former competitive runner Bruce Kidd argues, “Most outstanding athletes are outliers. Most outstanding athletes have longer reach or more fast-twitch fiber or they’re taller. And we admire them for that. We admire them for what they’re able to accomplish. But it’s only in the case of women’s sports where this drive for biological sameness is carried to this extent.” Right. And it’s not just about women’s visible bodies, clothing, and hormones. Many, many, inequities still exist in women’s sports,[iii] including a massive pay discrepancy that makes the sacrifice needed to perform at the highest levels a decision that could wreck a woman’s financial future. The highest paid WNBA player makes .005% the wages of the highest paid NBA player. Not enough for most to live off of after age and injury push them into retirement, no matter how investment-savvy they are. I know how popular and well-sponsored men’s basketball is, and I’m not going to argue over the specific pay gap here. It is simply an example of how women are far, far less likely to be literally repaid for their hard work than men are, so the incentive to compete is far smaller.

Let’s pull the camera back just a wee bit more to get eyes on the larger context: fairness in the Olympics is a fantasy. It’s not just a question of whether people were born with more or less testosterone or a longer reach or greater strength, it’s also about how much encouragement and support they were given by family and society’ exposure to and access to the sport when they were young enough to grow & excel in it; how much expectation and value was placed on their achievement; whether they had the money to pay for the facilities, equipment, and trainers to level up; and beyond that, who had adequate nutrition and lead-free water to drink growing up, so their brains would develop properly; who grew up far enough from polluting industries and highways that their lungs would be undamaged; who was arrested or killed while committing a near-universal infraction like smoking weed or speeding because they were racially profiled?

The issue is always bigger than we think, and is often rooted in basic institutional prejudice: against women, the disabled, people of color, and the poor in particular. I enjoy the Olympics, but I can’t kid myself that this is the best of the best, it’s only the best of those who had both the luck and determination (a quality which I would argue is also the product of luck) to unlock or climb over each gate that blocked their path. We weren’t surprised that a person of color had the physical ability to win PGA tours or Wimbledon or international gymnastic competitions. The anomaly was that of Black people, systemically deprived of equal opportunity in the US for centuries, having exposure to those sports at a young age and the financial resources to advance to the best of their ability.

The Olympics will never be “fair” in a broader sense; at best they will succeed only in the narrowest of definitions: equal opportunity for all who jumped all the literal and figurative hurdles to qualify for competition. Much like Capitalism, the system eliminates most of the competition before the games even begin.

[i] If you’re interested in a deep dive on Testosterone, This American Life did a fascinating show on it a while back.

[ii] For the deeper harm gender testing inflicts, especially in less progressive countries, check this out.

[iii] Inequities in women’s sports well analyzed here

2 thoughts on “Inequity of Olympic Proportions

  1. Cherie

    Nice synthesis of all these Olympic inequities. And then there’s this peek behind the curtain at another country:
    (I’m trying to paste a NYT piece from 7/29 about China’s method for finding and training athletes but I can’t seem to paste into these comments)


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