The fact that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics took place at all – albeit without fans, and a year late – could be considered a success in itself. But in many ways, it also proved to be a real landmark games for equality. 49% of athletes were women and Laurel Hubbard become the first openly transgender woman to compete in the Olympics. However, that’s not to say the games were without their challenges. Investigo’s DEI committee held a discussion on participation and intersectionality in the Olympic and Paralympic games, and where we need to see improvements in the future.
49% of athletes in the Olympic games were women
The Oxford Dictionary defines intersectionality as, “The interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class and gender, creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination and disadvantage.” It’s important to recognise that we don’t exist in siloes – the various aspects of our personalities and backgrounds intersect to make us who we are – and we must therefore take into account people’s overlapping identities.
“A good starting point for D&I is to make sure it’s gender neutral.” Melanie Robinson
At the same time, governing bodies need to do a better job of understanding and catering for athletes’ individual identities. The International Swimming Federation banned the wearing of swim caps designed for black athletes on the grounds that they did not follow “the natural form of the head.” There was also the controversy of six female athletes, all from Africa, being banned from their events as their natural testosterone levels were too high.
Perhaps a single mode of classification does not cater sufficiently for people’s complexity. As well as testosterone levels, should we also consider bone density and muscle density? Former swimmer Michael Phelps produced less lactic acid than other swimmers, which gave him superior stamina. Was it fair to allow him to compete?
Quite often, the decisions made by a governing body will be dictated by the makeup – and, to a degree, the scope of understanding – of the people who comprise it. As in the business world, men often make decisions on behalf of everyone. Mothers competing at the Olympics were not allowed to take their babies to the games in order to continue breastfeeding. If there was greater female representation at board level, perhaps this situation would have been avoided. More diverse boards would certainly result in a greater understanding of these issues.
“If the people making the rules are predominantly male, we’re not creating an environment for diversity of thought. By not including females and members of diverse communities, not much is going to change.” Marie Cuffaro
It’s harder to avoid categorising people in the Paralympics, where athletes are grouped into one of 10 impairment categories – eight being physical, one intellectual and one visual. This means it’s unrealistic to expect equal functionality from athlete to athlete across Paralympic events. There have been occasions where athletes have purposely aligned themselves to a particular category in order to gain an advantage, making strict grouping necessary for the games’ fairness and credibility. Spain’s basketball team at the 2000 Paralympics were stripped of their intellectual disability gold medals when it was discovered that most of them hadn’t undergone medical tests to ensure they had a disability, an extreme example of class manipulation.
“As a race, we’re so intent on categorising people that it’s hard to have a non-binary way of thinking. We’re trying to lump people into boxes when they fit into many different boxes. Everyone’s still learning and trying to identify the right way to go about things.” Melanie Robinson
The importance of accessibility
With 49% of the athletes being female, the Tokyo Olympics were the most gender equal in history. It’s expected that Paris 2024 will see total parity. While men would have traditionally enjoyed most of the TV spotlight, there is now a far greater focus on female led or mixed events – there were 18 in these Olympics, compared to nine in the previous games – giving women a larger stage on which to shine. Welcomely, though belatedly, the games are now truly showing allyship to female athletes. However, it should be noted that the Olympics’ increasing proximity to gender equality is not yet being mirrored at the Paralympics, where 40.5% of athletes and only 10% of accredited coaches were women.
Women’s sport is experiencing a significant increase in coverage outside the Olympics, which is crucial for the profile of female athletes. In March, the WSL signed a landmark broadcast deal with Sky and the BBC, and The Hundred ensures equal coverage and pay for female cricketers.
Language is also important in changing perceptions. Traditionally, we were more likely to refer to boys as powerful and brave, and girls as pretty and kind. But by changing the way people are spoken to, we can help to change not only external perceptions, but also their own view of their capabilities. This is systemic change we all need to be responsible for.
One of the biggest challenges for para sport is its accessibility to potential viewers, with coverage not always readily available. This is gradually changing; Japan’s main Olympic broadcaster showed 540 hours of coverage of the Tokyo Paralympics, more than any previous home nation broadcaster. Channel 4 showed 300 hours of round-the-clock coverage and over 1,000 hours on its streaming service All 4. Its coverage was viewed by over 20 million people, including over a fifth of the UK’s young people aged 16-34. To form new habits, behaviours and perceptions while creating role models for aspiring Paralympic athletes, it’s important to target those younger people.