Treatment of female athletes during Olympics reveals need for greater gender equality
Updated: Nov 16, 2021
Whenever I go to work, I see Simone Biles’s face. Her determined, passionate expression and 4’8 frame is printed on posters and window clings wherever customers look. I spent my summer working at the only Athleta store in all of Nebraska, and most days, I would stare in awe of Simone. Posing on the beam in the Conscious Crop, standing in the Salutation Stash Pocket leggings, and embracing her grandma and sister in the Sundown Sweatshirt.
In the midst of the Olympics, Biles, shocking the world, withdrew from the women’s gymnastics team competition after one pass on the vault. Nastia Liukin, former gold medal-winning gymnast and announcer, cited Biles as having the “twisties”. Generally exacerbated by less than optimal mental states, the twisties are when gymnasts lose themselves in the air when performing tricks, making their dismounts and landings that much more dangerous. Biles said her withdrawal would allow the team to have a better shot at the podium, and stayed at the complex, cheering her team to a silver medal finish. Biles also withdrew from three of the four individual event finals she qualified for in the preliminary competition. However, later in the week she won bronze in the individual beam final, adding a seventh medal to her lifetime Olympic total.
Following her statements and actions in the Olympics, it’s no surprise why I and many worldwide idolize her — as someone who is strong enough to put her mental health first. Yet, many were upset and critical to relinquish the U.S. women’s gymnastics team success, having had gold medal finishes in the team competition for the past two Olympic games. The vile backlash over Biles’s withdrawal from the team competition and all-around have proven that even though gender parity was reached at the Tokyo Olympics, there is still much sexism to be rooted out within the sporting world and beyond.
According to a New York Times article, out of nearly 11,000 athletes competing in Tokyo, 49% were women. This is an increase from 45.6% at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
Times writer Tayla Minsberg comments on the cause of this change: “Many countries credit the strides to broad policy changes, increased funding and promotion of female athletes in mainstream media. But for other nations, equality is far off: Men enjoy far more funding, news coverage and opportunities than their female counterparts.”
This discrepancy can also be seen in the criticism Biles received during and after competing. Spectators at home and abroad took to social media, declaring that Biles “let down her country” and she was going “soft”. Texas deputy attorney Aaron Reitz tweeted the renowned video of Kerri Strug competing with a broken ankle in the 1996 Olympics and wrote, “Contrast this with our selfish, childish national embarrassment, Simone Biles.”
Furthermore, Houston Chronicle published an article regarding Biles’s physical power headlined as “Biles finds beauty in beastly athleticism”. This racist story written by David Barron denounces Biles’s extremely difficult routines because of their lack of femininity and “artistry”.
These comments ensued despite the fact that Biles is the most decorated and dominant gymnast in history, who continued performing despite being a survivor of continued sexual abuse. Which begs the question: would the same amount of disdain be directed toward a man who chose to withdraw from competition? Even this almost seems like an unfair parallel as the circumstances in which Biles is competing are unprecedented. She performs the world’s most dangerous vault and other perilous moves on extremely hard competition surfaces, has the extreme pressure from being labeled the “Greatest of All Time”, and is still recovering from unresolved trauma.
In an interview with NBC’s Hoda Kotb, Biles explained her desire to ensure accountability regarding USA Gymnastics’s negligence associated with former team physician Larry Nassar. “If there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side,” she said. Her strength is always apparent, in the way she succinctly answers probing interview questions, in the space she occupies on the Athleta posters, and in her selfless fight for justice.
“To this day, American Olympic officials continue to betray her,” Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins wrote. “They deny that they had a legal duty to protect her and others from rapist-child pornographer Larry Nassar, and they continue to evade accountability in judicial maneuvering. Abuse is a current event for her.”
Unfortunately, Biles’s experience is not unique to female athletes and even Olympic executives and worldwide leaders that are women. The demeaning comments condemning the gymnast are only a symptom of the disease that is sexism worldwide.
“The president of the Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee was replaced this year after he publicly suggested that women speak too much in meetings,” Minsberg writes in her same article. “In March, the creative director for the opening ceremony stepped down after it was discovered that he had made insulting remarks about the physical appearance of Naomi Watanabe, a plus-size fashion designer.”
Additionally, lewd shots of female athletes are all too common at the Olympics. One of the most viewed videos under #olympics on TikTok is a camera person zooming in on the backside of 17-year-old Spanish pole vaulter, Clara Fernández, long after she completed her vault attempt. This sexualization and exploitation of a young, underage woman is celebrated in the comments of the TikTok. “I just watched this video about a hundred times, and I still don’t know the number on her back,” one user commented. Another man said, “I just laugh every time I see girls run.” Another viral video shows Australian swimmer Ariarne Titmus’s coach shouting and thrusting his hips after her win in the 400 meter freestyle final…
Even female apparel remains a point of contention at this year’s Olympics. Norway’s beach handball team was fined for wearing shorts after they were denied a request to redesign their bikini style uniform. “Women being judged on their perceived femininity rather than their athleticism is a symptom of a bigger problem,” Sharon Pruitt-Young wrote for NPR. When combatting sexist standards becomes a fineable offense, these public consequences further discourage equal female participation.
Experts reflect that although progress is being made for female competitors, the initiation of equity is not always simple. The International Olympic Committee only has a 33.3% female makeup on its executive board. When the individuals making decisions do not represent the identities that need equality, advancements aren’t going to be as effective. As an example, women were not allowed to compete in every Olympic sport until the 2012 games in London, and the I.O.C. did not make it a goal to reach parity in female participation until 2014.
Still, the I.O.C. has instituted changes that point towards progress. The 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo was the first time each country was encouraged to choose a male and female flag bearer for the opening ceremonies. Countries like China and Mongolia had their first ever female flag bearer.
Whether these gestures are truly symbolic or not, it is clear female athletes deserve the renown, pay, and equity they demand. With athletes like Katie Ledecky, one of swimming’s most decorated swimmers, Allyson Felix, the most decorated American track and field athlete of all time, and the legendary U.S. women’s soccer team, it is clear women will continue to persevere and perform until the status quo catches up with their prestige. I see it every day as I fold tank tops. Young girls gaze up at the decals of Simone Biles, reveling in her athleticism and beauty. She is their inspiration, and they are the future.