This month the biggest sporting event we have — The Olympics — entertained the entire world and women comprised 45% of all athletes. That nearly equitable percentage was not always so high. Women first competed at the Olympics in 1900, comprising just 2% of the total athletes. They were only allowed to compete in five disciplines: tennis, croquet, equestrian, golf and sailing.
Over the years, many women fought to join the Olympics. In 1922, Alice Milliat, a rower from France, launched the first Women’s Olympic Games in Paris. There were 11 athletic events and a 20,000 strong crowd. This demonstrated interest in women athletes pressured the official Olympics committee to include women in more disciplines at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.
In 2016, over a hundred years later, even with the highest representation of women at the Games including from India, there is not complete equity.
- There is still poor acceptance of the entire gender spectrum and female athletes who have a higher testosterone are viewed with suspicion. As in daily life, we tend to break down gender into binaries and have no space for those who don’t fit in. As a result, athletes like India’s Dutee Chand and South Africa’s Caster Semenya who have a unique condition called “hyperandrogenism” are constantly under scrutiny and it is doubtful that they will be able to compete in the women’s category.
- Sexism is very much alive. Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszú’s husband was given the credit for her 400 m win. American trap shooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein, a three time Olympic athlete, was referred to as the “wife of a Bear’s linesman.” Why can’t women have an identity of their own? This mirrors real life where you are either someone’s wife, mother or daughter.
- Women athletes were expected to conform to gender stereotypes when it comes to makeup and fashion. The dedication and commitment of these athletes and their physical prowess and skill was severely diminished by the trivialising and over-scrutinizing of their looks and bodies.
- When women are in a league of their own and don’t conform to gender stereotypes, they are siloed into acceptable labels that everyone can digest. A BBC commentator actually called a judo bout a “catfight”. Meanwhile, other commentators said Katie Ledecky “swims like a man”.
- Women are not always giving credit where credit is due. Andy Murray had to remind everyone that he was not the first person to ever win two Olympic gold medals in tennis and that the Williams sisters had won four each.
But the female athletes were strong and resilient and would not let any of the above take away their shine and glory.
- Simone Biles said she is not the first Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, as commentators tried to say, but the first Simone Biles. This shows confidence in herself and her sport and that she will not be compared with any male athlete.
- The Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui spoke casually about her periods and in that moment broke several taboos about menstruation the world over.
- The women from the Middle East broke down stereotypes about Muslim women and wore body suits and competed in several disciplines including volleyball, judo and field athletics, amongst others.
- Sakshi Malik won the first Olympic medal for India at these Games. This is significant as Sakshi comes from a state, Haryana, with the highest number of female infanticide and femicide rates, where the “girl child” is always at risk and unwanted.
- American runner Abbey D’Agostino helped New Zealander Nikki Hamblin in the 5,000 meter race. There were a few other instances of good sportswomanship among the athletes, like that which our very own silver medal winner PV Sindhu showed at the end of a well fought final where she hugged her opponent Frenchwoman Carolina Marin who won her the gold in over a billion hearts.
They serve as an inspiration for us all.