There’s a lot going on at the Olympics, which took place from 23rd of July until 8th of August. E&M‘s Friederike is revisiting the lows of Tokyo 2020 and concludes that not even British diver Tom Daley can knit us out of this shit show.

The Olympic flame and its patron

As any Olympics since 1936, the event is being set off by igniting the Olympic flame, which always takes place in Greece, at the Ancient Olympia, and is then being transported for months by different people across different means of transportation to the country and place where the Olympics are held. (Read up on it, it’s wild.) For the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, “for the first time in history, a woman will carry the Olympic flame first (…)”. Way to go, Olympic Committee. It only took you a century. The woman was Olympic shooting champion Anna Korakaki.

The patron of the Olympic flame is Hestia, the Greek goddess of hearth, of domesticity, the family, the home. Ok. She sounds a bit 1960s. 

Sexist scandals before the Olympics even began

The Olympics always make news, it’s in the nature of events which occur only ever so often – and it is undeniably exciting when the best of the best from all sports around the world meet to perform. Not only that – according to the Olympic Committee, sport is one of the most important means to fight for gender equality and female empowerment – “(…) yet when the president of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee and former Japanese prime minister Yoshiro Mori was asked earlier this year about increasing gender diversity on the Japanese Olympic Committee board, his response was that women talk too much.” Mori eventually resigned under public pressure over his sexist remarks. Mere weeks later, another high ranking official of the Olympic Committee in Japan made news: “Hiroshi Sasaki, the creative chief of the Tokyo Olympic games, resigned from his position on Thursday after suggesting Naomi Watanabe, a popular plus-sized female entertainer could wear pig ears at the opening ceremony”. 

So, the Olympics already started out under a sexist premonition. And it got worse.

Sexism and racism: Olympic sports that won this year

Here is a non-exhaustive list of what else has happened: 

Simone Biles, the queen of this gravity-defying stunt and many more, took a break during the Olympics for mental health reasons. Biles is one of the 150 gymnasts who came forward in 2018 against the USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. Journalist Maura Hohman writes: 

“​​The 24-year-old athlete said before the Games back in April that part of the reason she wanted to compete in Tokyo was to advocate for change in her sport. Because many of the other survivors of Nassar’s abuse, including McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, are retired from gymnastics, she said at the time that she hoped her continued presence in competitions given her large following would make officials feel like “they have to do something. (…) she said that this pressure weighed on her “a little bit.”

Understand this: A 24 year old sexual abuse survivor sets out not only to be a positive guidance and symbol of hope for people who had to live through similar experiences but to furthermore in doing so hopes to increase pressure on the responsible instances and institutions – by risk of her own mental health. The kicked and marginalised have to carefully and delicately pick up the pieces and live through the same trauma over and over again in the hopes to be accepted and heard. The affected have to do the explaining, the guiding. It is mental to wrap your head around that. 

(For more reporting about mental health, read our article in this issue’s heart section.)

On the subject sexual abuse, a “safety plan” had to be created for US fencer Alan Hadzic because, even though he was suspended due to allegations of sexual assault from multiple women, was still allowed to compete in the Olympics. The so-called “safety plan” kept Alan away from women and out of the Olympic Village. He also travelled in a separate plane from his teammates and stayed at a hotel 30 minutes away from the other athletes, and wasn’t allowed practice alongside women teammates. This safety plan was, in short, a loud message to women athletes everywhere: we don’t care.

German penathlete Annika Schleu and her coach have made news (in Germany), as during the equestrian show jumping the horse named “Saint Boy” just… wasn’t in the mood, and the coach was overheard shouting to “really really hit it hard”, which athlete Schleu immediately set out to do. It’s harrowing to watch, really. 

Another German coach, Patrick Moster, who trains the German cyclist team, has been caught on tape shouting at cyclist Nikias Arndt, what he felt was positive reinforcement, but was blatant racism: “Go get the camel jockeys, go get em” – ahead before Arndt where cyclists from Algeria and Eritrea. 

Also the Olympics themselves have a history of systemic racism and sexism. 

U.S. Sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was banned to compete after testing positive for marijuana – though she could have made it back in time, but USA Track and Field have demoted her from the team. This sparked conversations about double standards, as footballer Meg Rapinoe talks very openly about her use of CBD products. Two Namibian women, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masiligni were banned  “because of their naturally occurring high testosterone levels.” It doesn’t stop there: “Three-time 800m World Champion and Olympic gold medallist, Caster Semenya – a cis South African woman – was disallowed from participating in her signature event unless she began taking medication to suppress her hormone levels.” Gal-Dem has an excellent article on this (thanks for pointing me towards it, Nicoletta!), which sums all of this up:

“The claims of World Athletics that, by excluding predominantly black athletes, they are “protecting” women’s athletics, cannot be seen as anything other than reinforcing the notion that black women are a threat to hard-working white women, who try as they might will never have the same amount of strength.”

Another outrage? The Soul Cap swim cap, “designed to accommodate natural Black hair was banned from the Olympics because the caps don’t follow the natural form of the head. Say what? 

And, last but not least, the Norwegian beach handball team was fined for not showing up with the ‘appropriate’ clothes (in bikins) and instead wore shorts and tops. Columnist Sally Jenkins put it perfectly in the Washington Post: 

“So where is the dividing line between athletic glorification and sexualization? And why is the line for women so often set by aging male functionaries who seem to have an eye for smirking voyeurism?”

This list doesn’t even include the backlash tennis star Naomi Ōsaka endured when she cited mental health reasons to skip press days (read about her journey here, she wrote a beautiful piece about it) and felt under immense pressure during the Olympics. The list furthermore doesn’t include Novak Đoković who angrily destroyed his tennis racket and received a chuckle, whilst we all remember Serena Williams being fined at the 2018 US Open for speaking up about sexist remarks from the chair umpire and, also, destroying her racket (she had lost to Naomi Ōsaka.)

The athletes deserve a better Olympics

Yes, there have also been immensely great and adorable news coverage of the Olympics, such as Tom Daley knitting his heart out, Simone Biles’ return and the insinuation that she’s excited for 2024 (meaning the Paris Olympics but the internet turned this into her running for President of the US in 2024) and the moment when “Qatar’s Barshim and Italy’s Tamberi decided to share a gold medal in the high jump”

But in the face of casual and systemic racism, blatant sexism, abuse and animal cruelty, it’s just one scandal after the other. When, actually, sport is a way of bringing people together. The Olympic Committee however, is not living up to the standards that the athletes deserve. 

It’s time to rethink Hestia’s attributes. According to greek mythology, she kicked up a loud fuss when another god tried to rape her and also according to Greek mythology she’s one of the 12 Olympian gods – but has sometimes been left out and replaced by Dionysos. And every women knows what that feels like. Let her be the goddess of fire, of safe homes and destruction of sexist, racist and heteronormative gender roles at the same time. 

Cover photo by: Sam Balye on Unsplash

  • retro

    Friederike Sandow loved her studies at the University of Bath and Berlin, she would study forever if she could. Once she quit her job as a flight attendant and thus, with a heavy heart, was not constantly off travelling the world, she started to roam the streets of Neukölln, Berlin. She is now working as a consultant at a Berlin based agency and still struggles with the regular office hours. Once the morning grumpiness has been cured with a big cup of coffee, she‘ll tell you all about her undying love for cats, octopuses, Italy and Leslie Knope.

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