The summer Olympics of 2012 have been paradoxical for women athletes.
On one hand, this is the first Olympics ever where every participating country sent women to compete. Saudi Arabia, for example, has never sent a woman, but this year Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani will participate in judo, and Sarah Attar will run the 800-metre race. The United Arab Emirates will send weightlifter Khadija Mohammad to compete in the 75-kilogram weight class. The inclusion of women from Middle Eastern countries that previously did not allow women athletes to go is a step in the right direction for women’s equality. It begins to open doors for female athletes that were previously closed in these countries. Women’s rights issues have obviously not been resolved there, but this is an important step in a long process. It should be noted and applauded as a small triumph.
On the other hand, signs exist this year that women athletes are still not given the same respect as the men. Several female athletes have been criticized intensely for the sizes or shapes of their bodies during the London games. One example is Leisel Jones, a 26-year-old Australian swimmer and winner of eight Olympic medals. She was subjected to speculation in the media in her home country that perhaps she’s no longer as fit as before. The Herald Sun, a newspaper in Melbourne, Australia, published photos and ran a poll asking respondents whether they thought she’s fit enough to compete at the games. Two female British athletes, Jessica Ennis and Louise Hazel, were also criticized for being “fat” by unidentified members of United Kingdom Athletics, who surely as members of a sports association should know better and should be more respectful.
This criticism and negative judgment of the bodies of women athletes is a concern for two reasons. First, it’s sexist. If these women athletes were men, there would be no discussion about what their bodies looked like. All focus would be—as it should be—on their performance: how fast they are, how good their endurance is, how well they fared in the medals. It is only because these women are women that they are being scrutinized for how they look. It’s disgraceful, especially when one considers that these criticisms were found in Western media from countries where people are supposedly forward-thinking. This sexism, especially from people in the sports world, makes it hard for women athletes to get the respect they deserve for all the time, energy and sacrifice they have put into rising to the top of their sports. This attitude says, “None of that matters. All that’s important is your appearance. And it’s not good enough.”
The second major problem is the negative impact such undeserved body criticism has on the self confidence of the women themselves and on “normal” women who are not highly trained and toned athletes. If Olympic athletes in top physical fitness—as shown by their ability to beat others in their sport and to make it to the games in the first place—are not deemed trim enough to meet this ridiculous, unrealistic societal standard, then which women are thin enough to meet it? Clearly none of us.
While it’s an important step forward that women athletes from every country are participating in the summer 2012 Olympics, women have a long way to go before we can say that they have made it to the finish line of equality in sports. For that to take place, there needs to be a stronger backlash against the media and against members of the sports world who find it acceptable to ridicule and criticize female athletes on the basis of their body shape or size not their performance. Women—athletes and non-athletes alike—need to stand up and say that this is not acceptable; we need to demand better from journalists and sports associations. Unless these things happen, nothing will change, and women’s equality in sports will remain an Olympic hurdle.