Can we un-stereotype the Olympics? - Women In Sport

Can we un-stereotype the Olympics?

July 2021

Important to Women in Sport is sharing the voices of women and girls. Our ‘Mum on the Sidelines’ offers a real, authentic and often funny observation of what is stopping girls from taking part in sport by exploring the everyday inequalities that occur on the sidelines and ask you to share yours too. We start with the Olympics……

As the Olympics approaches, I get excited about the opportunity for my kids to watch different sports. Part of the magic of the Olympics is that it showcases a wide spectrum of sports and physical pursuits. We are allowed into new worlds of sports we might never have heard of, let alone played. The Olympics are a gift. This year too, Team GB makes history by sending more women (53.5%) than men (46.5%) for the first time in its 125-year history. These games are heralded to be the first ‘gender balanced games’ in history.  

I celebrate this because it fills me with optimism that my daughters and my son are more likely to grow up in a world where everyone is equal. 

It’s really exciting to see the levelling up on competitive opportunities for women and men. Some mixed events are new to the Tokyo games, such as relays in swimming and athletics. And in swimming, we will see women being able to compete in the 1500m for the first time (historically being limited to the shorter 800m).  

We are seeing sport diversify and set examples for a myriad of different children which is super exciting. I’m going to make a point of getting my kids to watch these races to showcase the journey to equality. Such a simple step.  

Despite my optimism, if you scratch a little deeper, things still aren’t totally equal. 

Thankfully, the Olympics has moved a long way since the founder of the modern games Baron Pierre de Coubertin said the inclusion of women would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.”  

There is an irony in him saying that women’s events would be unaesthetic, given the two events where only women compete are the ones where aesthetics appear to matter a great deal. Synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics remain Olympic sports for women only, despite activism from men’s teams to be allowed to compete. As a society (or perhaps as an Olympic Committee), do we not think men can look beautiful dancing, whether in water or on a floor?  

In Olympic gymnastics the events men compete in differ somewhat to the women’s events. Men compete in events which show ‘strength’ like pommel horse, vault, rings. Women on the other hand compete in events where balance and artistic skill are more on show, like beam and floor. The women’s floor events are also set to music a bit more like a dance, again a big focus on the aesthetics. I find this perplexing. Yes, men are on average substantially bigger and stronger than women, but I find it hard to believe that women couldn’t ‘pommel’ well and men couldn’t keep a rhythm.  Surely we are stereotyping here?   

As global problems go, these aren’t major, especially given the 18 months we’ve all been through. Some minor tweaking of the schedule could solve the issues (I have my pen ready!). What concerns me as a parent is that it’s 2021, and the past world of sport still lingers on pegging women as smiling, make-up wearing objects of beauty whereas the men are judged on the basis of being hammer throwing strength busters  

I often wonder about the experience that my son gets within sport versus his sisters. I know parental guilt comes with the territory, but I do wonder whether I have inadvertently given my son more than my daughters simply because he’s a boy and expectations have been different for boys and girls for millennia. I’ve definitely had to fight harder to give my daughters equal opportunities to access grassroots sports compared to how easily and ubiquitous it was for my son. I haven’t always succeeded for my daughters because the infrastructure hasn’t always facilitated it. That is, aside from… dance… which goes back, to that old chestnut, ‘aesthetics’.  

I see how stereotypes play out in grassroots sport – less than in my day, but sadly still shaping the experience kids have. These roots spawn from the fully fledged, grown up versions of sport, and grownups themselves who have a controlling interest in how these sports access youngsters and role model equality to the country and the world.   

At the moment, for me, the Olympics despite being so nearly there, just falls short of role modelling gender equality. We are close, but some stereotyping hangs in there. What would it take to close that gap?