Despite some early hiccoughs, the London 2012 Olpymic Games have been branded the most successful of all time. They have, most importantly, been branded “The Women’s Games”; sportswomen such as Victoria Pendleton, Jessica Ennis, Beth Tweddle, Anna Watkins and Katherine Grainger, have deservedly been enjoying the attention, praise and admiration that they have earned after winning Olympic medals. In fact, Olympic medals won for Team GB by women count for 36% of the overall medal haul; the first Team GB medal was won by Lizzie Armitstead in the women’s road race and women on the U.S. Olympic team outnumbered men for the first time in history- 268 to 261.
This, of course, is excellent news for female sporting achievement, bringing the issue of women’s representation in sports media and the gendered perception of women as being weaker, less competitive and mere sporting spectators in to the public consciousness. However, in a world where gendered identities run so profoundly and so dangerously deep, can the Olympic Games leave a lasting legacy for women in sport- in both encouraging more girls to be physically active and providing greater coverage for current sportswomen- or will the media and sporting organizations slip back in to its old ways of perpetuating polarized gender constructs that posit men as the primary focus for sporting achievement?
In many ways the 2012 Olympics have been seen as a leap forward for women’s equality; it was the first time that every single country sent at least one woman as a representative. Even Saudi Arabia sent two women and Tunisia’s Habiba Ghribi was the first woman to win her country a medal- despite Tunisia’s constitution stating that women are “complementary”.
However, despite these steps made to guarantee sporting gender parity, the status of women in sports still suffers greatly from deeply entrenched gendered behaviours that posit “femininity”- softness, delicacy, attractiveness- as the primary characteristic that women should posses. Let us look, for example, at the case of Belarusian shot put winner, Nadzeya Ostapchuck, whose strong figure- which she needs to be a champion- was ridiculed by many over social media, with calls for gender testing, comparisons to Road Dahl’s Matilda villain, child abuser Miss Trunchbull and relentless comments on her appearance and weight. This consistent barrage of abuse is in keeping with the large-scale proliferation of images that sexualize and objectify the female form; it is seem as an inanimate object to be judged instead of a powerful machine that can achieve. Turkish columnist, Yuksel Aytut even described the appearance of the female athletes as “pathetic”; he commented how, “their breasts- the symbol of womanhood, motherhood- flattened in to stubs as they were seen as mere hindrances to speed. I am not even talking about female javelin throwers, shot-put athletes, weightlifters, wrestlers and boxers. Their appearance is just pathetic.” The fact that Ostapchuck falls out of the gendered ideal has lead to endless abuse, suggesting that a woman is seen first as an inanimate object and secondly-if at all- as a professional. Another example of this is Caster Semenya, a South African athlete who was forced to go through a humiliating 11-month trial to prove that she was a woman due to her muscular physique.
Added on to this is the ingrained notion that women are inherently weaker, delicate and fragile; when Ye Shiwen, a 16 year-old Chinese swimmer won gold at the 400m, beating her personal best by 5 seconds and swimming the final 50m faster than Ryan Lochte, America’s fastest man, her power was described as “disturbing” and she was immediately accused of doping. The fact that Shiwen’s talent is described as such is disturbing in itself; it reveals deeply engrained sexist attitudes that claim women’s natural inferiority, showing incredulity that a female could ever go faster than a male.
Images of feminine fragility were further perpetuated by Andrew Brown, who wrote an article in The Telegraph after having watched Gemma Gibbons win a silver medal for Great Britain in the women’s judo; “with those judo contestants- and I realize this will probably sound appallingly sexist- I couldn’t help wondering about their soft limbs battered black and blue with bruises,” he pondered before going on to compare the athletes to “two drunken women bashing ten bells out of each other outside a Yates Wine Lodge on a Friday night”. Brown has perpetuated the idea that women are weak and delicate, and instead of applauding their sporting prowess, condescended them.
Perhaps the best legacy of the 2012 Olympics is that women have finally emerged from the shadows of male sportsmen; they have proved that they are no longer mere spectators but as determined, ruthless and above all, talented, as men to be able to sprint across the finish line. However, there are still deeply ingrained, toxic attitudes towards women in sport that must be toppled.