Four examples of subtle sexism at the Olympics


The IOC announces that the 2022 Olympic Games are “the most gender-balanced Olympic Winter Games in history, with women representing a record 45% of athletes”. Additionally, the IOC reports that 10 out of 15 sports had full gender parity, and the IOC says they aim “to progress towards full gender parity at the next Olympic Winter Games, Milano Cortina 2026.”

The IOC may be tackling the numbers problem, but there is still work to be done. From the no-check rule in women’s hockey to new weight limits for bobsledding, subtle sexism still permeates games.

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No Check Rule in Women’s Hockey

Spectators at Olympic ice hockey competitions have probably noticed a stark difference between the men’s and women’s games. Female hockey players are not allowed to check while male teams are allowed (and encouraged) to collide with their opponents. Body checking is a defensive tactic that separates an opposing player from the puck with a forceful body collision. It is considered an integral part of the men’s game but is currently not permitted for women. The no-control rule in women’s hockey sends the message that women can’t handle the more aggressive aspects of the game.

Historically, women’s hockey players have controlled their opponents just like men. But after the 1990 Ice Hockey Women’s World Championships, officials removed body checking from the women’s game. The claim was that North American women dominated the sport because North American female players were taller than their opponents. Eliminating body checking would help level the playing field and attract more women to the sport.

Some question this logic. Kenya dominated the marathon, China dominated table tennis and the United States dominated basketball, but no rule changes were proposed in those sports. Charlene Weaving, a professor of human kinetics at St Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, argues that getting more women into hockey isn’t about protecting women from dangerous rules; it’s a matter of funding. “The real reason you don’t see other countries in the mix is ​​that those countries don’t fund their women’s programs like we do in North America,” she says.

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Additionally, Weaving thinks the no-verification rule is condescending. This suggests that other female players need protection from the big North American women. In a publication examining the scrutiny of women’s hockey that Weaving co-authored with Austrian professional hockey player Samuel Roberts, they state: “Women’s hockey is often overlooked because it is not seen as ‘real’ hockey, which is played by men, involves body checking. , and further embodies traditional masculine traits such as explosive strength and aggression. Such characteristics do not correspond to the stereotypical feminine ideal. Additionally, they write about the consequences of the rules for female players: “We argue that they cannot participate in the physique that the game requires. They are not offered the experience of using their bodies in a way that exudes strength, power and dominance.

Helmet cages and the myth of fragility

In addition to protecting women from testing, the IOC requires female ice hockey players to wear helmet cages to protect their faces. Male hockey players are not required to wear these cages. Once again, the different rules potentially send a message to female athletes and spectators that women need more protection than their male counterparts.

The idea that women are more fragile and need more protection than men dates back to the Victorian era, according to Weaving. From rule checking to helmet cages, this myth of frailty is still present in Olympic rules today. “While we’ve come a long way from the days when doctors warned that running could cause a woman’s uterus to fall off, the legacy of this type of medical discourse is the idea that we keep thinking that women are more susceptible to damage, they’re somehow more valuable,” sociologist Ellis Cashmore told the New York Times almost two decades ago.

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In 2005, IOC member Gian Franco Kasper said that ski jumping “does not seem medically appropriate for women”. Kasker was referring to the idea that women’s reproductive organs were somehow more vulnerable to jumping. Women’s ski jumping was not added to the Olympics until 2014.

Bobsleigh and women’s bodyweight

In addition to keeping women safe, women at the Olympics must adhere to female stereotypes in their appearance. This year, the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF), the governing body of bobsleigh, has reduced the weight limits for the bobsleigh event to two. “I really think there’s a major problem when you lower the weight limit in a sport that feeds on strong, powerful women who tend to be naturally taller,” Canadian bobsledder Cynthia Appiah told Reuters.

New bobsled weight rules require the sled to weigh at least 170 kg, and the total weight of the sled and two women must be less than 330 kg. Weaving says, “I think the bobsleigh that drops the weight is a subtle example because it says, ‘we don’t want big, muscular women.’ They don’t want massive women because that goes against the ideals of how women should be, and it also reduces opportunities for larger women to participate.

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American bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor, who has championed women’s bobsledding, penned a proposal on behalf of Team USA calling for a relaxation of weight rules. His proposal will go to the American federation and the IBSF.

skating pants

Even where there are no rules governing appearance, women still feel they must adhere to female gender stereotypes to score points with judges. In figure skating, women are allowed to wear pants, yet this winter Swedish skater Josefina Taljegård was the only skater to wear pants in the short program. Ice skaters say they usually practice in pants but prefer not to wear them in competition.

Purdue University professor Cheryl Cooky explained that figure skaters want to look feminine. She told NBC, “People here, especially the judges, know that what they find aesthetically pleasing is somehow wrapped up in a feminine image.” Judging in figure skating is very subjective, and half of the scoring is based on how the judges perceive the overall feel of the performance. It’s not worth the risk of losing points for an unfeminine appearance.

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Despite the subtle sexism, there was plenty of positive news for women at the Olympics this winter. More women participated than ever before and female athletes are increasingly recognized. The women’s gold medal game between Canada and the United States drew 3.54 million viewers, more than any NHL game televised in the United States this season. In fact, it was the second most-watched hockey game in the United States since 2019. And the final Saturday of games featured nine hours of women’s events, up from five hours on the same day in Pyeongchang four years ago. As attention increasingly shifts to women’s sports and gender equality at games, it is important to remember the more subtle forms of gender bias and their impact on athletes and spectators.

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