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Olympic Games | It’s 2021, but the sexualisation of women in sports continues

Seriously, if you’re a woman in competitive sport, there’s really no winning. It’s a classic ‘damned if you do, and damned if you don’t’ scenario. On the one hand is Norway’s beach handball team that was fined for wearing less revealing clothes at the Euro 2021 tournament. On the other is Olivia Breen, a Paralympian from Wales who was reprimanded by an official (a woman) because her briefs were “too short and inappropriate” at the English championships last week.

But it has now come to a point where none of this is surprising. It is just becoming tiresome.

The sexualisation of women who play sport is not new. Women in sports are seen either as pin-up girls to be ogled at or as masculinised and, therefore, to be ridiculed. Remember when Australian Open presenter Ian Cohen who asked reigning Wimbledon champion Eugenie Bouchard to ‘give us a twirl’ in 2015? Or when FIFA President Sepp Blatter thought women should wear tighter shorts in order to ‘create a more female aesthetic’. None of these things have anything to do with sport.

Even as the Olympic flame was lit on July 23 by Naomi Osaka, once again we find ourselves wondering about the place of women and other genders in sport.

Sport is, in many ways, one of the last bastions of the gender binary. It is now universally acknowledged that gender is a social construct, and there is great diversity and multiplicity in gender identities, but sports bodies still recognise sex as measured by hormone levels in order to determine who can compete in which category. Nowhere else in today’s world is it acceptable to make such a clear distinction between the sexes. Yet most sporting events are clearly divided into two clear sex-based participations; even competitions such as archery have distinct competitions for women and men (although it does have one mixed team event).

Historically, anyone who was not male was not expected to take part in ‘serious’ sporting events. Women were expected to participate in only those events that were deemed ‘suitable’; such as floor exercises and gymnastics. Sports such as football or boxing, on the other hand, were seen as typically male. In fact, sports have always been a celebration of masculinity — not necessarily of the capacities of the human body or the power of humans, but specifically of men.

As more and more women have come into sport from the 1950s onwards, these attitudes have certainly shifted, but, as we continue to witness today, not significantly. Women are still considered the ‘weaker sex’, and every attempt is made to keep women’s sports ‘feminine’. The presence of androgens in female identifying athletes is still seen as an ‘unfair advantage’, and has caused great distress to female athletes with hyperandrogenism such as South Africa’s Caster Semenya and India’s Dutee Chand.

The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) has ruled that female athletes with high testosterone levels must ‘regulate’ their conditions, and cannot compete until the hormone is brought down to more ‘acceptable’ levels. This is in spite of widespread scientific acceptance that testosterone is an arbitrary measure; and is unfair to use it to determine gender.

The unsaid thing in all of the above is that all of these regulations are for women. Be it in terms of clothes worn during competition or hormone levels, the amount of sexualisation, humiliating gender determination tests, judgement of clothes worn — men endure none of these things.

he uniform codes try to insist that uniforms are to help athletes increase their performance, but as women athletes have said many times, there is always a fear that they may expose themselves mid-routine. German gymnast Elisabeth Seitz summed it up as, ‘If only a little something slips, then everyone sees more than they should see’. The skin tight unitard/cat suit that the German women’s gymnastics team has worn in the Tokyo Olympics to much attention solves that problem.

The attention paid to women’s bodies and the way they ‘look’ while performing feats of endurance, strength and beauty is, to say the least, disproportional. Men simply play sport; women must play sport while looking amazing. It is these double standards that have once again come into the glaring spotlight in these Olympics. Women who play sport are obviously still considered interlopers in a male space; and must fight misogyny, patriarchy, and appalling beauty standards while going faster, higher and stronger.

It is 2021, and it is really tiresome that women are still living the life of Ginger Rogers, of whom it is said that she did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.

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