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Tokyo 2020

Hey! Mr. Coubertin, the Olympics mo(ve)ment has finally arrived

When seen through critical lenses of gender and inclusion, the Tokyo Olympics have proved to be a milestone in breaking barriers and ushering in a new era of change.

Gymnast Simone Biles at Tokyo Olympics (Source: Getty)
Gymnast Simone Biles at Tokyo Olympics (Source: Getty)

Dr Piyush Kant

Published: 11 Aug 2021 4:31 PM GMT

"I personally do not approve of feminine participation in public competitions, which does not mean that women should not go in for a large number of sports, but I mean to say merely that they should not seek the limelight! In the Olympic Games, their particular role should be that of crowning the champions, as in the tournaments of olden times." (Coubertin, 1935)

These infamous lines coming from the founder of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and, by extension, the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre De Coubertin. To remain a testament to the exclusionary nature in which modern Olympics were originally envisaged. A supposedly boys-only club that banned female participation when held for the first time in Athens, 1896. Not that it was anything new, considering how women in Ancient Greece (birthplace of Olympics) were also forbidden from competing. Even with such an exclusionary start, Charlotte Cooper rose to become the first-ever female athlete to win a gold at the 1900 Paris Olympics in Tennis where only 19 women were allowed to participate (slashed even further to eight in 1904 Olympics) in contrast to 1318 men.

From then to now

This background becomes necessary in order to understand the significant shift in gender representation, both numerically or symbolically as well as substantively, from those early times to Tokyo Olympics, 2020. Firstly, going roughly by the numbers, Tokyo 2020 witnessed around 48.8 per cent of women's participation. With a further commitment to reaching full gender equality by Paris, 2024. All the 206 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) along with the Olympic Refugee Team were mandatorily asked to have a minimum of one female and one male athlete at this and later editions. Further visible during the opening ceremony of Olympics where one female and one male athlete of each NOC jointly carried their National flag, made possible through a change in IOC's protocol guidelines.

Inverting the logic of Physicality

Aside from these symbolic yet important changes. Tokyo Olympics will especially be remembered for inverting Coubertin's idea that,

"Whatever the athletic ambitions of women maybe, women cannot claim to outdo men in running, fencing, equestrian events, etc. To bring the principle of the theoretical equality of the sexes into play here would be to indulge in a pointless demonstration bereft of meaning or impact." (Coubertin, 1912)

To test this hypothesis of Coubertin, we need not look beyond Athletics as a case study. An arena that was so male-dominated esp. during the 1920s, that women had to organize an alternative Olympiad exclusively for women, under the stewardship of Alice Milliat of France. Following the whose success, the IOC was forced to negotiate with Milliat about allowing women into Olympic track and field. But due to the mishandling by IOC of the given situation. The world witnessed the only instance of a feminist boycott of the Olympics by the British Athletics team in Amsterdam, 1928.

Florence Griffith Joyner of the USA

Fast forward to the marquee event of 100m sprint at Tokyo 2020. An event that, for the first time in its history, generated maximum interest amongst fans for its Female participants in place of Men. With 6 out of 8 finalists registering a record sub-11-second timing. Plus saw the smashing of a long-standing track record established during the Cold War era by Florence Griffith Joyner of the USA in Seoul, 1988. A sporting era largely tainted by its alleged dope induced records. So, when Elaine Thompson Herah of Jamaica ran that phenomenal 10.61 seconds. She was not only giving a befitting reply to Baron Coubertin. But was alongside establishing a cleaner and more respectful legacy of athletics in the times of the World Anti-Doping Agency (formed in 1999).

Talking about legacies, when star female athlete Allyson Felix from the USA won a gold and bronze in the women's 4*400m and 400m, respectively. She not only became the most decorated Olympic female athlete of all time (participating since Athens 2004) but overtook the legendary Carl Lewis in becoming the most decorated US athlete of all time, male or female. And now remains one short of Finland's Paavo Nurmi's record of 12 medals in athletics.

A further masterclass in endurance sports was showcased by Sifan Hasan from The Netherlands. Competing in women's 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m track racing, she won a gold in the last two and a bronze in the first one. To further put things in perspective, Hasan covered more than 33kms by running six long-distance races in eight days in the gruesome hot and humid environs of Tokyo. A feat so rare in long-distance running that no other man or woman tried it at Tokyo 2020.

Mixed-gender events

Another novelty at Tokyo 2020 was the 18 mixed-gender events. Even though Rio 2016 saw mixed-gender participation in 4 different disciplines. In Tokyo, we saw women participating and acing different disciplines within endurance sports like Athletics, Swimming and Triathlon. Something that would have surely mortified Baron Coubertin's fragile soul. Exemplified through another of Coubertin's weird hypotheses regarding women's physical prowess that,

"women possessing limited physical abilities which made them 'incapable' of producing records in a highly competitive form of sport such as the Olympics."

Swimmer Caeleb Dressel

In that regard, a unique symbolic/substantive win of sorts was achieved by Anna Hopkin of Great Britain. While completing the final anchor leg in 4*100m mixed swimming relay, where she got pitted against the more celebrated male swimmer, Caeleb Dressel of the USA. Hopkin not only won the event by beating Dressel but along the way helped her team set an Olympic and World Record.

Activism, both overt and covert

Whenever sports-related activism gets discussed Male athletes with their overt political gestures have gotten a fair share of publicity. Like the iconic Black Power salute involving Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman at Mexico Olympics, 1968. So, when a young 18-year-old Luciana Alvarado from Costa Rica ended her gymnastics floor routine by taking a knee and raising a fist in honour of the Black Lives Matter campaign. She was not just innovatively circumventing the existing restrictions imposed by IOC on Olympic athletes from making any political protests. But was also asserting herself politically in full public glare.

Following this act closely was Shot Put silver medalist Raven Saunders of the USA, who crossed her arms overhead while receiving her medal. The gesture apparently representing, "the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet."

Capitalist exploitation and mental health issues to the fore

Another watershed moment in Olympics history was when one of the greatest gymnasts of all time, Simone Biles of the USA withdrew midway from the competition citing mental health concerns. Considering how she had been billed as the face of the multi-billion-dollar Tokyo Olympics by the media industry. Her walking away from competition like this also signified an open act of defiance against the predatory capitalist, consumerist and patriarchal culture promoted largely through corporate-owned media. An act that has already started showing a domino effect with athletes like Noah Lyles, Anzhelika Sidorova, Maria Vicente among others; coming out with their own stories of battling depression, anxiety and media fatigue. No wonder it took another female star Naomi Osaka to start this given round of discussions; through her own consistent engagement by championing causes relating to mental health, race relations and media overkill. Even facing the financial repercussions through a boycott of media during major Tennis events. Thereby both literally and figuratively lighting up a new era in sporting history, just like she lit up the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony.

In conclusion, one may argue that things surely seem to be improving on the gender front with each successive edition of the games.

Laurel Hubbard at the Tokyo Olympics

Yet the struggle for inclusion is far from over, like in the question involving transgender athletes. Laurel Hubbard from New Zealand made history as being the first openly transgender athlete at Olympics. And Canadian footballer Quinn becoming the first openly transgender athlete to win an Olympic medal (Gold for Canada in Football). These achievements aside, IOC further needs to evolve scientifically proven parameters for including gender minorities on an equal footing with all other athletes across various disciplines. In order to firmly shut the critics down with evidence-based research and decision making. But surely newer horizons have gotten opened for succeeding generations of athletes across the gender divide during Tokyo 2020.

So then Mr Coubertin! the winds of change are blowing way too fast and it's clearly not your favourite gender who is at the forefront of it.

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