Sexism at the Olympics

Let me first admit to a bias. I am a Musical Theatre director, and I work with a lot of dancers of all ages. I have always been astounded and upset at the design of the costumes some ten-year-old girls perform in, and some of their choreography, which is frankly sexual in nature. If you want to look at systemic sexism, that’s where it begins.
Moving up the line to the top, we have the professional sports federations and the Olympics. I recall being…well, not exactly shocked, but disappointed…in the eighties when the American girls gymnastic teams started wearing the outfits with the high, high thigh cutouts, leaving very little material below waist level. It’s bad enough sexualizing any competitor, and when you consider the young age and prepubescent body form of many of the gymnasts, it borders on perversion.
And if you want to look further back in history, the standard body form of the ballerina for the last couple of hundred years has been similar. Perhaps for similar reasons.
The Modern World Intrudes
Recent events have shown a movement among athletes to take more control of their own costuming. The Norwegian women’s beach handball team wore shorts instead of bikini bottoms in a recent European championship and were fined for it. The German women’s gymnastics team wore leotards in their Olympic qualifying match.
Reasons and Excuses
When asked to explain the rules demanding sexually explicit costumes, the answer is always that it makes them more marketable for television. It amazes me that these national sports federations have the gall to admit outright that they have such a sexist objective. I guess that’s the difference between a reason and an excuse. Marketing is the reason. There is no excuse.
On the Other Hand
Just to muddy the waters a bit, those of you who think this is a simple case of sexism need to rethink. There are actually two issues here, and they can work at cross purposes. The CBC article from which I got my information brings up the opposite problem, where an athlete was censured for wearing a pair of shorts that were too revealing. In this performer’s opinion, she was wearing a standard form of sports brief that she had been wearing for years It was designed with freedom of movement in mind. Her point was that she should be allowed the freedom to wear whatever she wished, despite the fact that some people might call it sexually revealing.
Canada has a similar divide in Quebec, where the government has rules against wearing hijabs in certain circumstances because they are symbols of sexism, but hijab wearers cite their right to wear anything they choose. And both sides are right.
The Necessity for Rules
Which goes to show that this is not an easy problem to solve. There have to be rules for competitions to make everything fair. Sports like gymnastics and diving, where the positioning of the body is an essential element in the judging, need tight-fitting costumes (I’m not so sure about figure skaters. They’re pretty creative at times.) For swimming, the hydrodynamics of modern fabrics have made any kind of body covering problematic.
However — and again I admit to bias from personal experience — the International Olympic Committee is a venerable organization. Its leaders show “von,” “de la” and “lord” in their names more than one would find in the general public. It is an autocratic, authoritarian, old-boys-driven, antiquated organization, and it’s going to take a lot of work to change anything.
The Bottom Line
For most sports, the criteria for scoring have nothing to do with clothing, and I think that would be a good place to start a two-pronged reform calmpaign. The athletes can work from within their associations, and the general public can put pressure where it will do the most good: the companies who pay for the advertising. It might also be worth checking on the status of a sports organization that receives government grants and has different rules for men and women, based on sexist ideals.
The international sports system is one of the places where systemic sexism is most obvious. It’s a good place to start fixing the problem.

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