by Candice Nembhard

To this day, I am unable to pinpoint what exactly about sport coverage brings out numerous forms of oppression and respectability politics. It should come as no surprise that something as global and consistent as the Olympics should regularly undermine or overstate the achievements of many hard-working sportsman – thus propagating outdated and sexist narratives within competitive sport.

This year’s games in Rio has seen new world records broken and successes made for the likes of Brazil, India, Venezuela, Belgium, Jamaica, USA and the newly formed refugee team – largely by women. Despite their personal achievements, often was the case reporters co-opted their win with other teammates or addressed it in favour of a more palatable and nationalistic celebration. Either way, the woman at the heart of the medal was overlooked.

For example, Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to medal in an Olympic swimming event. A huge feat not only for black women but in also in the history of the sport itself.  It was no less less than sixty years ago in which America still enforced segregated pools, often contaminating or sabotaging those that were intended for people of colour. Manuel’s success is not only a step forward for the USA, but a platform from which she addressed the racial barriers within a largely white dominated sport.  


©Tri Nguyen, The Stanford Daily

Her success was further undermined when numerous American broadcasters failed to show her medal ceremony and instead drew favour  to that of Michael Phelps’ tied medal position and notoriously, the fraudulent mugging account of Ryan Lochte in an attempt to cover his drunken and criminal activities at a Rio petrol station.  

Similarly, Simone Biles, another African-American woman became the USA’ s most decorated female gymnast. Biles, who has won three individual gold medals as well as team wins was consistently reported as the female Bolt or Phelps. In an interview she asserted that she is the first Simone Biles – and rightfully so. Furthermore, negative press was given to fellow teammate and former favourite, Gabby Douglas, whose refusal to put her hand over heart during the national anthem and supposedly ‘unkempt appearance’ somehow meant she had secured an ‘attitude problem’.

it is women of colour who heavily feature at the forefront of this critique.

Whereas one understands this dismal purely on gendered basis, it is women of colour who heavily feature at the forefront of this critique. They are inevitably in the shadow of their white peers, even without “significant” achievement; their name alone is enough to garner positive press.

This is probably no better executed than in the short of tennis. It goes without saying that Venus and Serena Williams hold the title for the highest number of  Olympic gold medals, – a fact unbeknownst to a BBC broadcaster who wrongly attributed the achievement to Andy Murray after his win; the Scotsman corrected him in all fairness, but these few examples represent a larger scale of dismissal when it comes to women’s contribution in sport.  

serena and venus

© Justin Tallis, AFP, Getty Images

We must address the issue of misogynoir, and the effects it has on young women of colour who want to pursue a career in their chosen sport and/or field. Misogynoir at best is Serena Williams winning at least 20 grand slams, tying for Steffi Graff’s record yet still earning less than Maria Sharapova, due to brand endorsements in light of her recent doping incident. Misogynoir is Williams being called a ‘beast’ and  Sharapova ‘a great athlete’. Misogynoir dehumanises the woman and others her. It’s these microaggressions that form a strong basis of race based sexism.

One need only ask the question, ‘Who are the greatest Olympians of all time?’, and count how many women are named in response, let alone women from an ethnic background.

Female Olympians, especially those from ethnic backgrounds are not given the privilege of being independent athletes. We have somehow attributed their success to their coaches, luck, national support and. in the case of Caster Semenya, their genes. It’s a level of disrespect that is not accounting for the hours of training, familial/social sacrifices or personal endurance needed to make a world class Olympian as well as a humble person.

Female athletes should not have to apologise for their success, nor should they pass the baton to anyone else.

Female athletes should not have to apologise for their success, nor should they pass the baton to anyone else. Their achievements should not be triumphed by marriage proposals, pregnancy, illness or injury. We have gotten so used to applauding mediocrity that we are unable to celebrate something truly ground-breaking in the sporting world.

By that token, black female athletes should never apologise for their success or even be the token spokesperson for their racial/ethnic group. That’s not to say race should never be discussed, is to suggest that it should not be regarded as the catalyst for their success or why they should be targeted. Their presence alone is enough to inspire.


© independent.co.uk

Moreover, there appears to be a distinct lack of coverage on the positive impact of seeing female Olympians. Many Olympic sports were dominated by a particular race and class of people and it’s only until Flo Jo, Zola Bud, Kelly Holmes and Jessica Ennis-Hill that we can see the importance of diversity. In recent years, advertisers have been pushing for more women in sport, from feminine hygiene products to training great; there is a trend in advertising for women to get involved but it’s still marketing towards a particular demographic.

The world of sport is not cheap and securing sponsorship is often crucial for those looking towards an Olympic career; especially those from low income backgrounds. By introducing more sports into the Olympic games, we open up the number of people to whom it reaches and by default lean towards a more accurate scale of representation.

We also see that success in the games is not because of racial or genetic bias, but through sheer will, determination and talent. The Olympics should be reflective of the people and their ability to succeed irrespective of their obstacles.

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