Sexism at the Olympics: A History

If you’ve been on the internet recently, you won’t have missed the (unsurprising) news that sexism has been rife at the Rio Olympics. From the language used to describe women athletes, to debates about their clothes, the media has been a big culprit of sexist coverage. The Games themselves also deserve an honourable mention. Exclusion of trans athletes and horrific ‘sex verification’ is still a common occurrence. But how far have we really come? Let’s find out.

Women athletes
Some of the badass women of the Olympics. Credit: Howard Schatz


Unequal treatment of women, PoC, trans folks, and people with disabilities at sporting events is not new. In fact, we can trace these back to the origins of the Olympic Games.

The first Olympic Games were held at Olympia. These games were only for men, but there was a separate event for women held in honour of Hera (the wife of Zeus). But, only unmarried women were allowed to take part. Married women could not compete, or even watch the men’s and women’s games, under pain of death. Women’s relationships with men have been restricting and defining their activities for centuries.

Foot racing was the main event. Other activities may have included javelin, chariot racing, and nude wrestling. There is some evidence that the women competitors would dress as men during the Heraen Games.

Not much is known about the women’s games in honour of Hera. Is this because historical study of the Ancient Olympics has focused only on the men’s games?

Early Modern Games

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was founded in 1894, and the first ‘modern’ games took place in 1896 in Athens. But women were not allowed to take part. The founder of the IOC felt that their inclusion would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect”. Yet, one woman, Stamata Revithi, ran the marathon course the day after the men had competed. She was not allowed to enter the stadium at the end of her race, but finished the marathon in about five and a half hours.

Tennis and golf were the first Olympic sports including women, added in 1900. Until World War II, women accounted for less than 10% of all competitors at the Games.

World War II-1980

Athletes with disabilities did compete in the Olympic Games before the Paralympics. But, the first precursor of the Paralympic Games was in 1948. A doctor at an English hospital organised a competition for WWII veterans with spinal cord injuries. These were called the 1948 International Wheelchair Games, and coincided with the 1948 Olympics. The games were held again in 1952, and Dutch veterans took part alongside the British. This made it the first international competition of its kind.

Paralympics 1960
Opening ceremony of the 1960 Paralympic Games in Rome

The first official Paralympic Games, open to athletes who weren’t war veterans, was in Rome in 1960. 400 athletes from 23 countries competed. The Games were only open to athletes in wheelchairs until 1976, when athletes with different disabilities were first included.

During this period, the number of women athletes increased to just over 20% of athletes in 1980. But, women were still unable to compete in most sports, even those popular with women. For example, men could compete in field hockey at the Olympics since 1908. Women were not allowed to compete until 1980.

Sex verification for athletes first took place at the 1968 Olympics. Since then, women athletes have been humiliated, excluded, and suffered human rights violations as a result of sex verification testing. A report by the UN found that athletes have undergone procedures to alter their anatomy, despite no medical need. This is also an awful example of the exclusion and oppression of gender non conforming folks from sport, and sadly affected so many athletes.

1980-Present Day

At the 1992 Olympics, there were 159 sports for men to compete in, 86 sports for women, and 12 sports for both men and women. The 2012 Olympics were the first Games in which women competed in all sports. It’s pretty astounding how long it took to get to this step. But, the exclusion of women from the Games is structural. In the UK, women’s sport only receives 0.5% of sponsorship funding. This has consequences for facilities upkeep and the ability of women to recruit the best coaches.

This is also linked to media coverage. 97% of media coverage of sport relates to men’s games. Sponsors don’t want to fund teams that receive no attention. And a lack of media coverage has ramifications beyond funding. Researchers at Birmingham University believe this is impacting our public health. Twice as many men take part in sport as women do.

Wife of a Bears Lineman
The Chicago Tribune’s tweet about Corey Cogdell-Unrein

The 2016 Games have seen a different kind of problematic media coverage (not for the first time at the Olympics). Casual sexist remarks have been rife by commentators and the wider media. From describing a Bronze medallist as “wife of a bears’ lineman”, to describing a group of athletes as looking like they were “at a mall”, women’s achievements have been consistently minimised.

And women of colour have been held to different standards altogether. In one example, there have been excitable debates about women wearing the hijab. These conversations have been full of Islamophobic undertones, focusing on one woman’s choice to wear a hijab while ignoring that German competitors were forced to wear bikinis.

And Gabby Douglas, US gymnast, was dragged on the internet for supposedly being “unpatriotic”. This seems particularly awful next to the reactions to Ryan Lochte’s behaviour in Rio. Lochte and his teammates got drunk, pissed in a shop, and then lied about it. They played on racist stereotypes of Brazil, claiming they had been held a gunpoint. But commentators, and the IOC, are dismissing this as “mistakes” made by “kids” (even though Lochte is 32).

Is there anything positive we can take from the 2016 Games? Well, for the first time trans athletes have been allowed to compete without surgery. But people identifying as neither a man nor a woman are still excluded. The Paralympic Games have been hit by major funding cuts, excluding some teams from non-white countries.

Exclusion of women, PoC, people with disabilities and trans and gender-non-conforming folks at the Olympics has a long way to go. Most formal barriers to participation have been removed, but cultural and structural barriers remain. Until media coverage and funding is equal, and women’s achievements the focus over their clothes or relationships, sexism at the Olympics will continue.


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