'There have been so many wonderful moments in the 2016 Olympics, and in particular this seems to be a year in which women’s accomplishments are garnering a lot of well-deserved attention. My Twitter feed has been exploding with news celebrating medals and achievements not just in prime time sports like gymnastics, swimming, track, beach volleyball, and more, but also in wrestling, rugby, boxing, actual volleyball... and more. Every two years, our screens, papers, and magazines fill up with images of strong, confident women achieving at levels most of us can’t even conceive of reaching, and it’s a wonderful, moving, and inspiring sight to see.
But my Twitter feed has also been exploding, in a way I’ve never seen before, calling out examples of sexism in the media. A commentator crediting Katinka Hossu’s success to her coach and husband. A headline about Corey Cogdell-Unrein’s bronze medal in trap shooting referring to her as “Wife of Bears’ lineman.” An animated discussion on the length of commentator Helen Skelton’s dress (noting that her male co-host was wearing shorts that also fell several inches above the knee). Countless references to Katie Ledecky as the Michael Phelps of women’s swimming (my own favourite response to this was “No, Katie Ledecky is the Katie Ledecky of women’s swimming.”) And so. Many. More.And when misogyny intersects with racism, it gets even uglier. Gabby Douglas, the target of criticism in the 2012 Olympics for, essentially, not having a white person’s hair, was once again subjected to a firestorm of negativity. As her mom said, “"She's had to deal with people criticizing her hair, or people accusing her of bleaching her skin. They said she had breast enhancements, they said she wasn't smiling enough, she's unpatriotic. Then it went to not supporting your teammates. Now you're ‘Crabby Gabby.' You name it and she got trampled. What did she ever do to anyone?" (quoted in Vulpo) Ms. Douglas, whose gymnastics career has been extraordinary, has been on the verge of tears in press conferences, while other athletes’ are getting a pass for far worse behavior (firestorm of negativity for Ryan Lochte and his teammates after covering up their own reprehensible behavior by lying about being robbed? Bueller?).
And meanwhile, we’re still trying to figure out how we determine who is allowed to compete in women’s athletics in the first place. There have been a number of sex tests of varying levels of offensiveness down through the years, from visual inspection to doctors' notes to genetic testing to testing for hormone levels, and more. Since there is no scientific proof that naturally high testosterone levels confer an advantage to some women, the Olympic Committee is being challenged to drop that test. Meanwhile, some women (generally women who have an intersex condition) have been forced to undergo genital surgery in order to be allowed to compete (no word on whether that particular requirement is being formally challenged). The fact is, as Pidgeon Pagonis and Georgiann Davis wrote in the article Bias Against Intersex Athletes Is What’s Unfair - Not These Athletes’ Bodies, “There is not a single biological sex marker found exclusively in male bodies or female bodies.” At some point in time, we’re going to need to find a more inclusive way to organize athletic competition, one that takes into account the full spectrum of both sex and gender, and ideally one that doesn’t include humiliating tests and/or mandatory surgery.
In many ways, I see the 2016 Olympics as representative of where we are as a country and as a global community these days. As my friend Pam Mulcahy pointed out in a recent conversation, in recent years, many of the illusions and delusions people of privilege used to hold have been stripped away, and it can be raw and painful at times. That said, two paths lay before us. We can beat a hasty retreat back to the days when things were simpler for most of us, and simply leave the unprivileged behind. In the case of the Olympics, that would mean accepting humiliating and invasive sex tests regardless of the lack of scientific evidence backing them up, rationalizing that they don’t really hurt that many people. That is, after all, one possibility.
Or we can do the hard and messy work of seeking true justice. We can learn about and examine nuance, face up to facts, sort through the ins and outs of what options lie before us and how they affect all of us. We can work to be fully inclusive. We can recognize that deep down, more or less all of us want to feel safe and happy and loved and respected, and that should be a basic human right. We can work to building a more inclusive, loving, and respectful future.As you will already have guessed, I’m choosing the second path. I hope and trust it will not be the one less travelled by.