If Tokyo is what the most gender-balanced Olympics looks like, then we have a very long way to go
Long before Covid chaos began overshadowing the Tokyo Olympics, you might have read somewhere how the Games in Japan will be the most gender-balanced in history. Women are expected to count for almost 49 per cent of all Olympians in Japan – empirical proof that the biggest sporting movement on Earth is finally detaching itself from its chequered history of gender equality. (Remember how the ‘weaker sex’ was barred from the marathon until the Los Angeles Games in 1984?)
Well, not quite. Recent events suggest the powers that be remain hell-bent on dictating to athletes – particularly women – what they can and cannot do. On Monday this week, EU politicians urged organisers to lift their “exclusionary” ban on Soul Cap swim hats, which are specifically designed for long afro hair. The black-owned swimwear brand was banned from the Olympics by swimming’s world governing body last month, prompting widespread backlash and uncertainty over whether athletes like Britain’s marathon swimmer Alice Dearing will be allowed to wear them.
What is most disconcerting about these developments is the awkward jargon that official sporting bodies employed to clumsily articulate their positions on such matters. Fina, which is currently reviewing its decision to ban Soul Caps following widespread condemnation, insisted the swim hats do not follow “the natural form of the head”, spectacularly failing to acknowledge both the diversity of competitive swimmers and females in the pool with long afro hair.
The policing of black female hair is unfortunately nothing new, but that it should be policed so unnecessarily ahead of the most gender-equal Games sends all the wrong messages to aspiring black and mixed-race swimmers around the world. Britain’s marathon swimmer Dearing, who has spent a large part of her senior career challenging the stereotype that black people cannot swim, touched on after the Soul Cap ban surfaced. “I don’t want little black girls and little black boys to look at elite swimming and think it is not open to them because that is completely the wrong idea,” Dearing, a Soul Cap ambassador, told Sky.
Fina’s decision followed hot on the heels of the IOC bowing to public pressure and announcing, in another bizarrely worded statement, that nursing athletes could bring their babies to the Games. “We are pleased to confirm that, when necessary, nursing children will be able to accompany athletes to Japan,” the IOC robotically spouted, creating more confusion than clarity and in US soccer star Alex Morgan’s case, anger. “We are Olympic mothers telling you it IS necessary,” Morgan, who is understood to no longer be breastfeeding her one-year-old daughter Charlie, wrote on social media.
This drip-feeding of obscure statements was also reflected in the IOC’s recently softened stance on taking the knee, which remains a minefield for track-and-field athletes, who can now perform the anti-racist gesture before and after competition – which should include at the starting blocks – but not on the podium or anywhere in the Olympic village.
Nursing mothers and black and mixed-raced swimmers are likely to make up a small proportion of the entire athlete population in Tokyo, but the impact these athletes have is often immeasurable. When Simone Manuel became the first African-American swimmer to win two golds in the pool at Rio, it was a victory for minority communities in a white sport. Morgan, for whom Tokyo will be her third Games, will be one of the most recognisable faces in Japan at a burgeoning time for mum Olympians, alongside US sprint star Allyson Felix, who last week launched a $200,000 (£146,000) child-care fund for 10 athlete mothers competing in Tokyo. A Games without them would be unthinkable.
There is an overwhelming sense that the IOC’s slow march towards gender equality runs a lot deeper than simply achieving a symmetrical 50:50 athlete gender split. Mandy Bujold, the Canadian boxer who recently took the Olympic body to court and won after being excluded from Tokyo qualifying due to being on maternity leave, will tell you that much. If this is what the most gender-balanced Olympics looks like for female athletes of all backgrounds, then we have a very long way to go.