Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
With the year-long delay, the still-raging coronavirus pandemic, and the almost-empty stadiums, there was no chance that the 2021 Olympic Games were ever going to be normal. But female athletes in Tokyo this year have made it clear that normal wasn’t working for them anyway.
Germany’s gymnastics team wore unitards that covered their arms and legs, rejecting the standard bikini-cut leotards to protest against “sexualization.” Simone Biles, the face of U.S.A. Gymnastics and the star expected to dominate the Games, abruptly pulled out of most of her events because of mental health concerns. Members of several countries’ women’s soccer teams knelt to protest racism.
These actions add up to a simple assertion: Although the athletes may have the near-superhuman skills needed to become Olympians, they’re still human. They want to be treated as such—particularly because, as women, the full range of humanity is often denied them. And, if that demand isn’t met, they’re not going to keep quiet and carry on.
“This is a moment and I think we’re paying attention to athletes’ voices, and I think people who disregard athletes, who speak out in support of themselves or others, are being rightly called out for it,” said Jaime Schultz, a Pennsylvania State University professor who studies the intersection of sex, gender, and sexuality in women’s sports.
Female athletes’ refusal to compete and act in exactly the way society expects them to puts them at odds with what Kate Manne, a philosophy professor at Cornell University, has described as a “gendered economy of moral and social labor.” In that economy, women are gladly meant to give their time, care, sex. They’re not supposed to seize the “moral spotlight” for themselves, as Manne puts it in her 2017 book “Down Girl.”
“If women are supposed to give their sympathetic and moral focus to dominant men, rather than ask for it on their own behalf,” Manne writes, “then women’s claims to having been victimized may be especially salient, and attract jealousy or envy.”
Manne’s analysis often focused on the way victims of sexual assault are treated; athletes aren’t necessarily claiming the title of “victim” when they stand up for themselves at the Olympics. But they are refusing to perform to the whims of a sexist society, while simultaneously asserting that their stance is the moral one—and so they’re threatening.
In a Daily Mail column, Piers Morgan tried to admonish Biles, writing, “You're not just at these Games for yourself, Simone.” An editorial in the Federalist was headlined “Sorry, Simone Biles, The Olympics Isn’t About You, It’s About Winning For America.” In other words: How dare a woman withhold her labor and claim that she matters. (Never mind that the woman in question, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, would be literally risking her neck to labor for America.)
Biles’ withdrawal from nearly all of her events took place as female athletes beyond the Olympics have launched protests against unequal treatment. In mid-July, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team opted for a $1,700 fine rather than wear “embarrassing” bikinis while playing in a tournament. (The shorts they ultimately wore were still skimpier than the tank tops and shorts male players get to wear.)
That same month, Olivia Breen, a Paralympic champion, tweeted that she was “quite disappointed” because an official at the English Championships told her that her shorts were “too short and inappropriate.”
Even before the Olympics kicked off, officials were accused of failing to take into account the humanity and health of runners Sha’Carri Richardson and Brianna McNeal. Richardson was barred from going to Tokyo after she tested positive for marijuana, which she said she used to handle the emotional distress of her mother’s death. McNeal was banned from her sport for five years after she missed a drug test. McNeal said she didn’t hear the antidoping official arrive at her door because she was in bed, recovering from an abortion.
McNeal’s openness about her abortion—an undeniably controversial, personal procedure—was staggering; she told the New York Times, “Right now I feel excommunicated from the sport itself and stigmatized, and to me it is unfair.” And after the news of her disqualification broke, Richardson tweeted simply, “I am human.”
“Historically, it’s been a situation where we see athletes on those occasions when they do compete. We hear about their athleticism. We may hear about their training a little bit, their reaction or response to winning, to losing,” said Akilah Carter-Francique, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change at San Jose State University. Now, she said, athletes are more willing to be vocal in other arenas. And it’s powerful.
“To have voices of our Black athletes come to the fore and hear them speak up and speak out about the acts of violence that are taking place, the water crises that are still happening in our communities, the treatment of women having babies—to understand that they’re living just like you and I, they’re having these experiences as well,” she said.
At the same time that McNeal and Richardson have been blocked from competing, a male fencer facing an investigation for at least three allegations of sexual misconduct nabbed a spot as an alternate on the U.S. team. At the Olympics, members of the men’s épée team wore pink masks in an apparent protest against the inclusion of the fencer, who has denied wrongdoing.
These developments seem to fall under the grand tradition of affording white male athletes forgiveness that’s rarely granted to female athletes and, in particular, female athletes of color, according to Carter-Francique.
“Sport is a microcosm of society,” she said. “The farther you are from the white, male, heterosexual, upper-class standard, the more differential treatment seems to occur. Once you start understanding that—my head hurts.”
What happens on the field, the court, and the gym reflects the larger dynamics at play in courtrooms, schoolrooms, and living rooms. Female athletes’ growing willingness to publicly protest may then be partially attributable to the broader #MeToo movement, which washed over social media in late 2017 and promised to take women’s fight against unwanted sexualization, as well as their pain, more seriously.
Athletes have also been pivotal in promoting the Black Lives Matter movement and, as calls mounted to let them publicly support the cause, the International Olympic Committee agreed this year to expand athletes’ ability to protest in favor of social movements. (Although there are limits: After Raven Saunders commemorated her silver medal by crossing her arms in the form of an “X,” in a gesture that she called “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet,” the IOC opened an investigation into it.)
Schultz also pointed to the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal as a potential turning point in female athlete’s ability to tell off the organizations that ostensibly control them. More than 100 gymnasts, including Biles, accused Nassar of abusing them—and the adults and officials in their lives of turning a blind eye to the once-celebrated former doctor’s misconduct.
“I hope it has given some legitimacy to when an athlete says something’s not right or speaks out against the system, that we say there’s something there worth listening to,” said Schultz. “It empowers other athletes to speak out against a flawed and damaging system.”
Much of the reaction to Biles and to the other protests have been supportive. Pink offered to pay the fines for the Norwegian handball team; Taylor Swift recorded a promo praising Biles as a hero. “The outpouring love and support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before,” Biles tweeted last week. Black women, in particular, have praised Biles’ decision to prioritize her health.
“One thing that’s been great is just a lot more awareness on the part of Americans that girls and women, as they come up through the sport system, they’re dealing with a lot of mental, emotional, and physical aspects at once, and that it’s important to listen to their concerns, to allow female athletes to be allowed in their own development,” said Anne Blaschke, a lecturer in the Department of American Studies at University of Massachusetts Boston. “With a lot of athletes, I think the use of their Instagram and social media generally has given them a way to express themselves that you did not see in earlier generations.”
It wasn’t, however, all positive vibes on social media. Jacqueline Dubrovich, a member of the U.S. Olympic fencing team, took to Instagram to denounce the pink-mask protest as “performative activism.” In her view, it didn’t address the real issue at hand.
“Female athletes were not protected and our safety was deemed unimportant,” she wrote in her Instagram story, USA Today reported.
And as much as media coverage has largely tilted in favor of these women’s protests, it’s clear that sexism and racism can still shape headlines about female athletes. The Houston Chronicle headlined a story “Biles finds beauty in beastly athleticism.” (Tropes that compare Black people to animals are racist.) A recent USA Today story trumpeted, “A fencer lost her Olympic match. Her boyfriend drew her a cat and proposed,” and portrayed María Belén Pérez Maurice’s post-loss engagement as a complete victory. The headline and story echoed stereotypes that frame marriage and family as being women’s real prize, and their natural lot in life.
The joyous framing of the story also glossed over the fact that Pérez Maurice’s new fiance is her coach of 17 years, and that he’s 15 years older than her. The pair—who do seem to be over-the-moon happy in the story—began dating when she was just 20.
“Women athletes—we can’t win for losing,” Schultz said. “You’re either too sexy or you’re not sexy enough or you should cover up or you should show more or you should talk about mental health or you shouldn’t talk about it. You should be superhuman but don’t be too human. It’s just a range of issues that I think women athletes have to deal with, and especially women athletes of color, that mere mortals like us can’t understand.”