Four times that the Rio Olympic games broke barriers, as well as records

Rio 2016 will live long in the memory as the scene of an historic medal tally by Team GB. However, while athletes broke records during the games they also broke barriers off the track. For me, this will be remembered as the games where conversations around discrimination in sports became louder than ever. Below, we’ll look at four times that the Rio Olympics marked a change in the dialogue on inclusivity in sport.

How do you solve a problem like Semenya

Caster Semenya has had her achievements undermined and most personal, private information held up for scrutiny since she burst onto the athletics scene as an 18 year old in 2009. She faced the same in Rio. The IAAF had two years to gather evidence that proved whether hyperandrogenism gave athletes an unfair advantage. The court for arbitration in sport ruled it did not and that, quite rightly, intersex people also have a right to compete in sport as their identified gender. Yet still the conversation around Semenya continued, with her competitors vocal that she has an unfair advantage.

There is something particularly sad and disappointing about female athletes adding their voices to the discrimination against Caster and the scrutiny of her womanhood, and that’s for two reasons. Firstly, being intersex does not automatically make you an incredible athlete. Dutee Chand, the Indian sprinter for example, failed to qualify from her heat in the 100m. Secondly, Caster is not breaking world records with every race. Her best performance is only the fifth fastest 800m ever run by a female athlete. Other female athletes are also dominating their events by greater margins than Semenya without scrutiny. Paula Radcliffe, for example, has a best marathon time which is 10% slower than the men’s world record, while Caster’s best 800m time is 12% slower than the men’s record. Yet Paula is one of many voices claiming that Caster’s advantage is unfair on other athletes.

Comments of having an ‘unfair advantage’ based on a genetic difference are, to me, as empty as complaining that Usain Bolt’s abnormally high percentage of fast twitch muscle fibres gives him an unfair advantage. You also don’t see other swimmers complaining that Michael Phelps’ extraordinary wingspan, size 14 feet, and double jointed ankles are unfair. Elite athletes, especially those who go on to dominate their events, inevitably have something that makes them genetically disposed to great performance. Caster’s genetic point of difference is associated with gender and so we feel we can shame, humiliate and discriminate against her over it.

The positive from Rio is that Caster also received incredible support from her home nation in South Africa. #HandsOffCaster, a hashtag that not only speaks to the national pride in their Olympic champion, but also the terrible invasion of privacy that Caster has had both physically and emotionally, appeared whenever Caster was questioned on social media. Support from her home country was also coupled with a noticeably more informed conversation around Caster and hyperandrogenism in the media. Of course it is a complicated issue, and as soon as you accept that gender is non binary you challenge the whole foundation lines on which sport is built. For now, let’s move on and respect the privacy of Caster and other intersex athletes and their right to compete.

Golden Girls

Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh overcame a number of barriers on their route to Rio. Helen underwent two serious surgeries on her back which derailed her preparations and Kate was talked out of retirement to compete internationally again. Their performance on the pitch was incredible, winning gold in a nail biting final that drew nine million viewers in the UK on Friday night. As the first same sex married couple to compete in an Olympics, let alone to win a gold medal together, they have made history. But this was not just about the incredible achievement of Kate and Helen. There were more out gay athletes at Rio than in any previous Olympics, and more within Team GB than have represented any single nation at the games. These athletes have all broken boundaries and all become role models for young LGBT people. However, female football players in particular were still subjected to homophobic chants from the Rio crowds. Tom Daley was targeted with vile homophobic comments on social media after failing to medal in the 10m platform. While great strides are being made, there is still work to be done on homophobia in sport. 

Sexist commentary gets called out

Sexism in sport is, sadly, not new. At the original Olympic games in Athens women found watching the games were punished by death. Women were only able to compete in the marathon at the Olympics from 1984. Rio 2016 was, inevitably, still filled with narrative that undermined the achievements of female athletes. From Katinka Hosszu’s husband being credited “the man responsible” after she broke a world record in the pool, to the Chicago Tribune celebrating Corey Cogdell-Unrein’s achievements in the trap-shooting by declaring “wife of a Bears lineman wins bronze”. What was noticeable at Rio beyond previous games, however, was the reaction to these comments. Previously swept under the rug, media were held to account for their words. One of the most glorious moments of the games was when Andy Murray reminded his interviewer that he was not the first tennis player to win two Olympic golds, as Venus and Serena each have four. One would hope that at Tokyo 2020 broadcasters and journalists will give female athletes the due respect, if not because they believe they deserve it then at least to avoid facing public backlash.

Robel Habte raises the debate on male body image

Robel Habte, an Ethiopian swimmer who very few would have heard of before the Olympics, became the target of social media trolls who cruelly taunted him over his weight and performance, which saw him finish 15 seconds behind the winner in his 100m freestyle heat. The story that Habte had been ruled out of training for two months after a horrific car accident and his courageous decision to take the chance of a lifetime and compete at Rio despite his accident, was lost in the narrative over his 'paunch'. From a country where people are expected to excel as distance runners, Robel decided to take his own path and become an Olympic swimmer despite there not being a single Olympic sized pool in his home country. He did not allow his accident to stop him fulfilling that dream. However, his treatment was diabolical and Habte has since said he will not compete at an Olympic games again. Women do not have the monopoly on body insecurities and the treatment of Habte shows that impossible standards for male athletes and the male body can be as damaging for men as they are women.

A final word from Caster…

 “Sport is meant to unite people,” Caster Semenya said after her 800m final victory. “I think that’s what we need to keep doing.” Caster was quoting Nelson Mandela, who always stood proudly by her in the face of global scrutiny. The sight of Mandela's beloved Springboks, a team once associated with division in sport, supporting Semenya shows how far we are coming in making sport the inclusive and diverse force for good that the Olympic movement claims to be. I hope that in Tokyo in 2020 viewers, athletes, and the media will build on Rio and we will see a games conducted in line with the goal of the Olympic Movement, "to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind".

Emma Wright

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search