The Current

Despite more female competitors, sexism remains prominent in women's sports

The International Olympic Committee has been trying to push gender equality at Tokyo 2020, but sports writer Kavitha Davidson and Michele Donnelly, an assistant professor of sports management at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., say there's still a long way to go.

Sexualized uniforms, institutionalized views on motherhood make sports problematic: experts

Germany's Kim Bui competes in the artistic gymnastics balance beam event of the women's qualification during Tokyo 2020 at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 25, 2021. Gymnastics is one of the sports where uniforms have been sexualized, according to experts. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images)

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Canada's performance so far at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics can be described using two words: girl power.

Of the 14 medals Canada has accumulated, all but one of them have been won by female athletes. 

With Canada's women's soccer team guaranteed a medal later this week, team member Quinn will also become the first non-binary transgender athlete to earn one.

Canada's performance is representative of ambitions by the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) to make the international event more inclusive. Prior to Tokyo 2020, the IOC released new guidelines to ensure gender-equal, fair and inclusive representation at the Olympics.

Guidelines include practical checklists, advice to support broadcasters' attempts to diversify coverage, and competition schedules made to give equal prominence to men and women.

Overall, 49 per cent of Tokyo 2020 athletes are women — an all-time high.

But according to Michele Donnelly, an assistant professor of sports management at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., numbers alone don't tell the full story.

"There are differences in uniform requirements in some sports, there are actually differences in the rules sets that men and women play by or the distances that they compete over," she told CBC guest host Rosemary Barton.

Donnelly said the increase in the number of women's Olympic athletes, both on Canada's teams and abroad, are important. But they should not be the be-all and end-all of a discussion on gender equality, especially when roughly two-thirds of IOC executive members are men.

"When the discussion about gender equality is limited to numbers, as it really has been by the International Olympic Committee, you're not actually addressing equality in a substantive way, and that's really what remains to be done," she said.

'Sexually marketable uniforms'

One way some sports federations and organizations have failed to address equality is through the continued sexualization of women's uniforms.

Sports writer and author Kavitha Davidson recounts an event involving Australia's women's basketball team where female players — not male players — were forced by their own federation to wear skin-tight, swimsuit-style uniforms.

"[The players] had to wear them, but … they were very outspoken about how uncomfortable they were, about the fact that it didn't actually help them perform better on the floor," said Davidson, who's based in New York. 

Australian basketball players, in green, vie for the ball with Korean players during an April 23, 2008, game in Beijing. Sports writer and author Kavitha Davidson says some Australian players have been outspoken about how uncomfortable their skin-tight uniforms made them feel. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Davidson claims some officials admitted the uniforms were a marketing push to make female athletes "as sexually marketable as possible."

Unfortunately, this is not a one-off story.

In 2004, former FIFA president Sepp Blatter suggested women soccer players wear "tighter shorts" than their male counterparts in order to attract more viewers.

A few years later, the International Boxing Association asked female boxers to wear skirts instead of shorts in preparation for the introduction of women's boxing at the 2012 Olympics in London. Poland even made the wardrobe change mandatory.

Really, what it requires is an overall review to understand athletes more fully as people who are elite level athletes, but who have families and who have other responsibilities beyond their sport.- Michele Donnelly, Brock University

This doesn't mean athletes are not pushing back against what they perceive to be sexist uniform regulations, though. Last month, Norway's women's beach handball team protested a mandatory bikini bottom law by wearing shorts instead during a European championship match.

A few days later, members of the German women's gymnastics team wore full-length unitards, instead of the standard, more revealing leotards, while competing at the Olympics. 

Still, those are exceptions rather than the norm. Unfortunately, Davidson said, the sexualization of some female athletes' uniforms has negatively impacted how some incredibly dangerous sports, such as gymnastics, are perceived.

"At least in the [United] States, the most prominent faces [in gymnastics] like Simone Biles are women who wear leotards, who wear makeup, and that defies what people might want to point to as toughness or as a dangerous sport," she said.

Female athletes push back against revealing uniforms

2 months ago
3:30
Some female athletes at Tokyo 2020 are fighting to be recognized for their athleticism instead of just having the cameras ogle their bodies. Adrienne Arsenault shows us how change begins to happen. 3:30

Motherhood or the Olympics?

The sexual exploitation of women's sports isn't limited to uniforms, though, with Donnelly saying female athletes also face sexism through their ability to bear children.

"You still have these institutionalized practices in sport that really don't allow space for mothering alongside being an elite-level athlete." 

In the past, some federations and organizations saw motherhood as a liability in a woman's sporting career more so than a normal part of a female athlete's journey. 

In 2019, for example, U.S. Olympians Alysia Montano and Kara Goucher spoke out about their former contracts with sportswear giant Nike. They claimed their contracts did not guarantee protection from reduced sponsorship compensation for pregnant athletes and new mothers.

Prior to this year's Olympics, Canadian boxer Mandy Bujold was initially ruled ineligible to compete because she was pregnant and postpartum with her daughter in 2018 and 2019 — the period the IOC used to determine qualification to Tokyo 2020. 

Canadian boxer Mandy Bujold, shown before travelling to Tokyo 2020, was initially ruled ineligible to compete because she was pregnant and postpartum with her daughter in 2018 and 2019 — the period the IOC used to determine Olympic qualification. (Michael P. Hall/COC)

Donnelly said these decisions and rules set a problematic pretence that only women have a responsibility for child care and child rearing.

"There are a lot of men ... who have left small children at home and families at home, and because there's never been an expectation to make space for that with men athletes, that lack of attention to family responsibilities has continued along to women athletes."

Just recognizing the athlete as a holistic human being, their identities and their demographics and their flaws as well is really important."- Kavitha Davidson, sports writer and author

Some sports officials have taken  positive steps towards normalizing motherhood and childbearing. 

Ahead of this year's Olympics, for example, the IOC announced it would allow breastfeeding moms to bring their children to Tokyo.

That, however, came after some athletes, including Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher, pleaded with officials to not make her choose between her baby and the Olympics.

Olympian, mother Kim Gaucher seeks exception to bring infant daughter to Tokyo

3 months ago
1:16
The Canadian basketball player is asking for an exception so that she can breastfeed her daughter Sophie during the Tokyo Olympics. 1:16

Donnelly said appeals and pleas are not enough; more must be done to increase the normalization of motherhood and athletes.

"Really, what it requires is an overall review to understand athletes more fully as people who are elite level athletes, but who have families and who have other responsibilities beyond their sport."

Davidson agrees athletes need to be viewed as human beings, not just athletes. 

"Athletes don't stop being Black women when they step onto the gymnastics floor, and that burden comes with them. They carry that burden with them as well," she said.

"Just recognizing the athlete as a holistic human being, their identities and their demographics and their flaws as well, is really important."


Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Kaity Brady, Samira Mohyeddin and Alison Masemann

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