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  • Writer's pictureThe Feminist Times


‘No matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks’ - Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the first modern Olympic Games, 1896

The first recorded Olympics Games originated in Athens (ancient Greece) in 1896, in which 280 male participants from 12 different nations competed in a total of 43 events. The next Games in Paris four years later saw the induction of female participants; 22 women competed in the games (compared to 975 men). Hélène de Pourtalès (born Helen Barbey), An American-Swiss citizen, was one of these. De Pourtalès was a crew member of Switzerland’s sailing team. Her and her team won gold in the 19km, 1-2 ton class sailing race. De Pourtalès became the first ever woman to claim gold at an Olympic Tournament on May the 22nd 1900, after her inspirational participation in the world’s first ever mixed-sex Olympics.

Charlotte Cooper, an English tennis player also made history in these Games; Cooper became the first ever woman to win gold in an individual event at the Olympic Games, as well as the first British woman to return home with a medal, after beating American player Marion Jones on July the 11th 1900. So, can women not ‘sustain certain shocks,’ or can a man as ignorant as Pierre de Coubertin not sustain the shock that women can perform just as well as men in the world of sport?

Despite such success of female athletes within the early Olympic Games, only in the 1976 Montreal Games (three quarters of a century later) did we see the participation of women surpass 20% of the overall number of competing athletes. Today, over 100 years after the first modern Games, there has undoubtedly been a positive increase in the participation of women. Before the Tokyo 2020/21 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) looked forward to a long-overdue inclusivity of the Games: ‘With 49 per cent female participation, Tokyo 2020 will be the first gender-equal Olympic Games ever’

Sounds hopeful, right? However, undoubtedly, there still remains the gender gap. In recognition of this, the IOC charter (as of July 2020) has committed itself to ‘encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels’ since ‘every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport.’ Yet, by their own admission, women’s participation in the Olympic movement’s leadership remains admittedly ‘low’. Although opportunities and equalities are rising for the female athletes of the Olympics, it may be false to say the same for the actual leadership of the Olympic movement; only 4/15 (27%) IOC Executive Board members are women. With the mission in their 2020 charter to ‘act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement,’ maybe the IOC need to practice what they preach.


The sex-binary classification of athletes has been an on-going issue for professional sports bodies and their reputations. Chromosomal tests replaced the physical examination of female athletes (introduced in the late 1960’s), but the 1988 Olympics faced great confusion after a female athlete was found to have a Y chromosome (the athlete had androgen insensitivity syndrome). In response to this, to update their methods of classification between the sexes, sports bodies began to look at hormone balances and concentrations (especially that of testosterone). Caster Semenya is a female South African runner with higher endogenous testosterone concentrations (that she was born with) than other women, and her case outlines the flaws in the updated classification methods; in order ‘to ensure a level playing field’ for competitors, The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in 2018 reinstated testosterone limits in women athletes who have differences of sexual development. Such regulations mean, unless interventional hormonal therapy is implemented to decrease testosterone levels, women such as Semenya are banned from competing against other females in certain sporting events.

Traditionally, stereotypically feminine traits and events have been assigned to women, while stereotypically masculine traits and events have been assigned to men. However…

femininity ≠ female, and masculinity ≠ male, in the same way that gender ≠ sex.

So, how are such social norms and stereotypes harmful and what progress would be made without them?

As mentioned previously, the conclusion that certain hormonal concentrations in someone of a certain sex is a valid reason to prevent their participation in a sport they’ve spent years playing and training for is unfair and simply contradictory; if such regulation was to implement ‘fairness’ in a ‘level playing field’, why was Caster Semenya kicked off the field completely? Isn’t that unfair?

Similarly, the traditional feminine events such as floor gymnastic routines and synchronized swimming have historically been exclusive to women, with expectations that female participants will be feminine, elegant and sophisticated. On the other hand, so-called men’s events display masculinity, physical power and strength, such as weightlifting and combat events.

Without set-in-stone expectations, without society’s casts that it tries to force us into, won’t we achieve more? The little girl who wants to play with cars and the little boy who wants to play with Barbie dolls, won’t they achieve more if they feel as though they can be themselves without owing people an explanation, without carrying that debt? Instead of being ridiculed, outcast and discriminated against, the extraordinary can be celebrated, whether it be higher-than-expected levels of testosterone, the towering height of a basketball player or the incredible lungs of an Olympic swimmer? There’s no equality without acceptance; they are mutually inclusive.

- Lucy Bradley

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