Over the last few weeks, sports enthusiasts around the world have been in awe. We’ve seen superhuman feats of athletic prowess, strength, and endurance at the Rio Olympics, with several world records shattered. But at the same time, we’ve been witness to pervasive and blatant sexism—maybe more than we’ve ever seen before at a major sporting event.
When talking about female athletes, time and time again commentators focused on their appearance, rather than their skill, discipline, commitment, and performance. Much of the talk was about their hairstyles, makeup choices, physiques, or “girliness.” An NBC commentator said the U.S. women’s gymnastics team “might as well be at the mall” during downtime between events.
Conversation often centered on the men in female athletes’ lives—their coaches and husbands. Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszú’s husband/coach received credit for her victory. The Chicago Tribune’s headline about trap-shooting Bronze medalist Corey Cogdell-Unrein described her exclusively in relation to her husband. Or, female athletes were overshadowed by their male counterparts; Michael Phelps’ silver medal took top billing to swimmer Katie Ledecky’s record-breaking gold.
There were some high points, though; a few champions broke through the often sexist narrative. When the sports broadcaster John Inverdale asked tennis star Andy Murray about being the first person to win two Olympic tennis gold medals, Murray corrected him, pointing out that both Venus and Serena Williams had won four gold medals each. Inverdale’s question was a stark reminder that the world judges men and women differently. Male athletes tend to receive full credit for their own performances and far less commentary on their looks or personal lives.
In what may have been a major breakthrough moment, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui declared that her slower than expected race time may have been due to the fact that she had her period and was fatigued. Given the taboos around the world about menstruation—especially in sports—this was a truly significant public statement. She was heralded on social media for her refreshing candor.
We know that many cultures stigmatize and marginalize girls and women during their periods, confining them to the home, or even sending them away. This natural physical occurrence is highly associated with shame. A survey IWHC collaborated on earlier this year found that misconceptions and stigma around menstruation stubbornly persist in many, if not most, parts of the world. As the writer Abby Norman explains, period-shaming is rooted in fear of women: “They had power and not just any power: a power that men couldn’t understand. An experience that men could not match… Powerful women frighten and disgust a patriarchal society, and menstrual stigma doesn’t serve and protect women — it exists to serve and protect men.”
So what will it take for us to overcome the oppressive structures that dehumanize women and uphold men’s experiences as the paragon of normalcy and achievement? For starters, we need more young women speaking out and breaking barriers. One of the best ways to enable this is to provide comprehensive sexuality education. I’m not talking about stereotypical junior high health class with human reproduction lessons and scary images of sexually-transmitted infections. I’m talking about lively classroom discussions on gender roles and norms, power dynamics in relationships, human rights, and leadership and life skills.
Through IWHC’s work in countries like Nigeria and Peru, we’ve seen how powerful and effective such education can be. Young women who have access to this kind of education not only have stronger knowledge about their bodies, sexuality, and reproduction, but are more confident and able to speak out. And, this learning does not always have to be in a classroom setting. In India, our grantee partner CREA runs a program called It’s My Body that uses sports to improve girls’ ability to make decisions about their bodies, challenge gender norms, and assert their rights. Such initiatives don’t just help women and girls, all of society benefits when girls are empowered.
I’m hopeful that programs like It’s My Body are helping to create a new generation of empowered youth, who can disrupt the trends that have subjugated women for far too long—including our beloved Olympians. Superstar Simone Biles put it perfectly when she said: “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, I’m the first Simone Biles.”
Photo: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil