Nobody should have to go to work in their bra and knickers. So when the Norwegian women’s beach handball team were fined earlier this month for defiantly choosing to compete in shorts – rather than the buttock-revealingly skimpy bikini bottoms mandated by their sport’s governing body – it was the organisers of the European championships, not the squad, who ended up looking ridiculous. Why should female athletes have to be served up half-naked, for the benefit of leering audiences?
But the rebellious Norwegians, it turns out, were merely the tip of a much bigger iceberg. Now the Tokyo Olympics are witnessing what looks very much like the beginnings of a movement, as sportswomen increasingly speak out about their experiences of sexualisation and exploitation.
This year’s Games are the first to boast an almost equal representation of male and female competitors – a nod to egalitarianism underlined when nations were invited to nominate both a man and a woman to share flag-bearing duties at the opening ceremony. The Games’ head of broadcasting, Yiannis Exarchos, has also promised less lascivious coverage of female athletes, with fewer “close-ups on parts of the body” this year.
These could have been token gestures, but athletes are turning them into something more meaningful before our eyes. A growing willingness among younger women to reveal the darker side of elite sport is shining an uncomfortable light on things too often brushed under the carpet in pursuit of medals and glory.
The scandal engulfing USA Gymnastics – after its squad doctor Larry Nassar was convicted in 2017 of systematically sexually abusing young athletes in his care – has cast a particularly long shadow over these Games, but they’re not alone. An ongoing review of abuse in British gymnastics at all levels has collected reports of bullying, belittling, extreme weight management and training through serious injuries; a recent survey by the World Players Association found 13% of elite athletes across all disciplines experienced some form of sexual abuse as children in sport, while half reported emotional abuse.
This week the German women’s gymnastics team competed not in the traditional thigh-high leotard but in skin-tight body suits reaching their ankles. They adopted the unitard, previously worn for religious or cultural reasons, back in April in protest against the sexualisation of their sport. Wearing it at the Olympics, team member Sarah Voss explained, signified women’s freedom to compete in whatever they felt comfortable wearing.
But the meaning of that choice deepened days later when Simone Biles, the brilliant 24-year-old American world champion, withdrew from the team gymnastics final saying she was battling “demons” she feared would hurt her teammates’ chances. After suffering an attack of “the twisties”, a condition where gymnasts lose their sense of space, she had become fearful of injury – devastating in a sport where one split-second mistake can mean a broken neck.
Yet many will wonder whether Biles’ loss of nerve has deeper roots. She is the only squad member competing in Tokyo to have publicly identified herself as a survivor of Nassar’s abuse, and has shouldered much of the burden of fighting for change within sport. To judge by the case of the US fencer Alen Hadzic – who was allowed to travel to Japan despite three women coming forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against him – that battle is depressingly far from over.
Hadzic, who denies wrongdoing, was cleared to compete subject to an extraordinary “safety plan” banning him from travelling on the same plane as the rest of the squad or staying in the Olympic village. When his lawyers complained that he wasn’t getting the “experience he has rightfully earned” in Tokyo, the squad united to request that the restrictions remain in place. One fencer told BuzzFeed News that it had been left to Olympians to deal with the emotional fallout from all this “while simultaneously competing in the biggest event of our lives”.
Days before the Games started, meanwhile, the US Justice Department released a report on the Nassar case which found the FBI had failed to treat it with the “utmost seriousness”, noting that at least 40 girls and women claimed to have been molested after the FBI became aware of the allegations. USA Gymnastics has been dogged ever since Nassar’s trial by more widespread claims of a harsh and toxic coaching culture in which young gymnasts were body-shamed, bullied and felt compelled to train on fractured ankles.
Yet inexplicably it’s Biles who stands accused in some quarters of letting down her country, not the other way around – and she is still expected to deliver for a sport that failed to protect her. “We bring them medals. We do our part. You can’t do your part in return?” as she put it last year, calling for an independent investigation into who knew what, and when, about Nassar. It’s striking that by refusing to compete for fear of injury in Tokyo, she was insisting on her right not to be hurt – a right denied to so many gymnasts under his care.
This year for the first time the Games have a safeguarding officer to handle allegations of sexual violence or harassment, in the hope of encouraging victims to come forward. It’s a positive step but it’s hardly a substitute for tackling the kind of culture that helps produce victims in the first place; one where bodies are sexualised and treated as fair game, blind eyes are turned and all that really glitters is gold.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist