Body Impolitic

Tag Archives: Rio Olympics

Post-Olympics Link Roundup


Debbie says:

Coverage of the Rio Olympics led me to a substantial number of fascinating articles. Now that the event is over, I’d like to share some of them with you:

This really well-designed New York Times quiz has you match Olympic and Paralympic athletes with their sports. I confess I only got five out of 16 right, but the point — that all different kinds of bodies can be athletes’ bodies — is made, and made well.


The quiz pairs well with Ragen Chastain (often quoted in this blog), writing about fat Olympians at her blog, Dances with Fat. Ragen breaks down five unreasonable assumptions which people sometimes draw from the existence of fat athletic competitors. Here’s her list, plus her full comment on one I thought she did particularly well.

This proves there’s no excuse not to be fit at any size

This proves that anyone of any size can be an Olympian

This proves that everyone of every size can be healthy

First, don’t confuse athletically successful with healthy.  Many athletes push far beyond what would most support their bodies’ health – risking  and getting expensive sports-related injuries that they wouldn’t otherwise be at risk for – in order to be successful at their sport.  They are absolutely allowed to do that – their bodies, their choice (though that doesn’t meant that we shouldn’t be asking questions about the way that sports are managed/judged and what is really “required.”)  Moreover, health is difficult to define, multi-faceted, not an obligation, not a barometer of worthiness, and not entirely within our control or guaranteed under any circumstances.

This proves that anyone of any size can be an athlete


Female Olympians face their own set of challenges. As menstruation becomes more talked about around the world, Zheping Huang at Quartz discusses Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui’s radical acknowledgment.

When China’s favorite swimmer Fu Yuanhui openly mentioned her menstrual cycle on Sunday (Aug. 14) at the Rio Olympics, it was the first time many Chinese people realized it is possible to swim while being on your period. …

“I feel I didn’t swim well today. I let my teammates down,” Fu said, between gasps of breath. When asked if she was having a stomachache, Fu said: “Because my period came yesterday, I’m feeling a bit weak, but this is not an excuse.”

Just like that, Fu broke a great sporting taboo by talking about menstruation in public. During the 2015 Australian Open, British tennis player Heather Watson blamed her poor performance on her period after losing in the first round. At the time Watson’s remarks shocked the sports world and later sparked initiatives to break the silence on the issue.

The article goes on to discuss Chinese attitudes towards menstruation, tampons, and virginity. I learned a lot.

It’s no secret that people of fluid, indeterminate, or challenged gender have a daunting set of Olympic challenges. We’ve written here about Castor Semenya and Dutee Chand. Dana Moskowitz, writing at Deadspin, makes the question very personal.

What is it, exactly, that makes me a woman? Is it my breasts? If so, is it because they are a certain size? Is it that I have a womb? Does it matter that I have no idea if my womb works because I’ve never tried to get pregnant? Is it my two X chromosomes or my level of testosterone? I have no idea the status of either my chromosomes or testosterone for the simple reason there’s never been a good medical reason to test them. Asked to prove that I am a woman, I’d probably come up with this—everyone says I’m one.

I find myself returning to that thought exercise as Caster Semenya competes in the 800 meters this week. Semenya was told her entire life that she was a woman. Until she wasn’t….

Sports reporters have found ways of dancing around what this is. That’s why you’ll see the word “fair” in so many headlines about Semenya….

See, ladies, this is just about fairness! About leveling the playing field! About following the rules! Geez, women, calm down. We’re trying to make your races more fair for you!

One tactic, used by SI among others, is warning that this could be the end of women’s sports, as if this and not underfunding, sexual violence, and harassment were what kept women out of sports. Reporters will harp that this is about maintaining women as a protected class, ignoring that the legal term protected class means a group you cannot discriminate against—making this the bizarre act of asking if Semenya is too manly to be a woman, in which case she would receive the bizarro right to be discriminated against.


But if your body size and shape is culturally acceptable for the Olympics, and you aren’t menstruating (or don’t care to talk about it) and no one has challenged your gender, the media still gives itself complete license to analyze and criticize your religious attire. At Al-Jazeera, Rachel Shabi has a biting response:

Witness the countless headlines breathlessly hailing the first United States Olympian to compete in a hijab: the fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.

To help us get to grips with this dazzling achievement – the hijab, obviously, and not the fact that she’s ranked eight in the world – we had BBC World tweeting about the incredible phenomenon as: “Hijab and a sword” – which, we hope, is the start of a series, continuing with, say: jodhpurs and a riding crop; athlete pants and a javelin; leotard and a chalk bowl.

And then there was the viral image of Egyptian and German women playing against each other at Olympic volleyball, one in a bikini, the other in a hijab.

As the Libyan-American writer Hend Amry tweeted in response [to comments about “cultural clash”], the actual caption to this picture could have been: “Athlete vs athlete”. …

[W]hat has crept into so much of the commentary is a sense of – what shall we call it? – Orientalist awe, as with this Washington Post headline: “Muslim female athletes find sport so essential they compete while covered” as in, wow, these women love sport so much that they’ve even managed to overcome this uniquely disadvantageous Muslim religion thing.

If you’re celebrating the fact that official sporting bodies have stopped being so restrictive over uniforms, maybe spotlighting the hijab each time you see an athlete wearing one isn’t the way to do it.

In the end, so many of these links, and so many other Olympic stories, come down to what should be a very simple thing: what would it take for us to simply appreciate the athletic ability of these amazing people, without making assumptions about them, shoving them into categories, or generalizing from them as individual competitors to everyone else, competitors or not?

I’m about ready for Olympic competition for journalists; and most of them are a very long way from the finish line or the perfect 10.

Lisa Hirsch sent us the New York Times quiz, others are from our general reading.

No Surprise: American Women’s Gymnastics’ Racist History


Debbie says:

simone biles

I don’t usually watch much of the Olympics, but last night at the home of friends I did see Simone Biles’ amazing vaulting performance.  So I was especially interested this morning in Lindsay Gibbs’ piece at ThinkProgress:  “America’s Painful Journey From Prejudice To Greatness In Women’s Gymnastics.”

We pretty much have to assume that every place where African-American people succeed has a history of struggle and exclusion. Gibbs lays out exactly how women’s gymnastics fits this narrative:

Here’s Zerrell  (correct spelling may be Zerell) Johnson Welch, a coach of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team in Rio (text from the video):

“I was probably the only black girl, African American, in my class,” she told ThinkProgress. “It was very daunting… stressful, frustrating, isolating, and hurtful at times.”

Welch stuck with the sport, but was constantly bombarded with reminders that she was different, particularly by coaches who were unfamiliar with hair and body types that didn’t fall within the narrow confines of typical gymnasts.

“I remember [a male coach] making a comment about my rump, my bump, my butt,” she said. “I didn’t really become self-conscious of that until he actually brought it to my attention. And it was done in a joking way but it wasn’t a joking way to me at all. Not at all.”

Welch is amazingly hard to research on the Internet, regardless of how you spell or hyphenate her name. (She didn’t compete because by the time she was 17, her family simply couldn’t afford to keep her coaching going.) Gibbs implies that Welch is the coach of the whole Olympic women’s gymnastics team, so features about her should be everywhere. Her obscurity is hard to explain by any argument other than simple racism.

Her message, however, is deeply familiar. Laurie and I have been saying this since we started working together:

“The idea of seeing someone that looks like you is so profound, and it has such an impact on your understanding of what you potentially can be,” she said.

Gibbs’ article goes on to

  • tell some of Gabby Douglas’ (defending all-around womens’ gymnastics champion) stories of racism she has encountered,
  • interview Alexandria Brown, mother of two gymnasts of color
  • interrogate the division between “grace and beauty” (European standards) and “power” (more commonly associated with athletes of color)
  • dissect the incomprehensible cost of raising a competitive gymnast

Forbes estimates the average cost of raising an Olympic-level gymnast is about $15,000 per year. Multiply that by the five to eight years of training, and parents can find themselves shelling out around $120,000.

  • profile the Wendy Hilliard Foundation, started by an African-American former gymnast to bring gymnastics to American communities of color
  • and return to Welch for the other side of the “people who look like me” coin:

“It is just as important for those who do not look like you to be exposed to you.”

That is a point Laurie and I make less often, and I’m grateful to Welch for making it so clearly. It is incredibly important in whatever you do to see people who don’t look like you. And at the same time, those of us who may look like those who have gone before us in any arena, then really really need to understand, in our bones and our guts, that we don’t represent the only way people should look.

When Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas show their stuff in Rio, I’ll be appreciating them not just for who they are, but for the battles they — and the women who went before them — have fought to make it possible for them to get the acclaim they deserve.