Women at the Rio Olympics

 “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles.”

– Simone Biles, Individual all-round, vault, and floor gold medalist.

THE Olympic Games are relevant, not as a platform for the display of shallow ‘national pride’ in the State’s achievements, but because the beauty of sport continues to mesmerize us in spite of and not because of the media spectacle; because of the little people who now and then, triumph in the face of capitalism, imperialism, racism, and sexism that dominate sports globally.

Women have notched many firsts this year, and there are heartwarming, yet disturbing stories about the odds faced by women in the context of the imbalances along gender lines, especially in the respective sporting cultures of their home countries and in the sporting world in general.

Sara Ahmed, the first woman medalist ever from Egypt, a country which has competed in the Olympics for over a century, is also the first Arab Muslim woman at the Olympics who has a medal in weightlifting. Simone Manuels became the first black woman from a country where acid was poured into swimming pools to keep black people out, to win an individual medal in swimming. Our own Sakshi Malik has challenged the perception of what is not ‘women’s sport’, namely wrestling. Women have competed in the hijab against a background of overt and covert Islamophobic comment – one woman commentator writing about the hijab at the Olympics said that it was ‘coercion disguised as freedom’. It is interesting that such commentators are unable to discern any coercion in the rules and regulations that decide how sportswomen are ‘supposed’ to dress and look – rules that keep women out of competitive sport because of their choice to wear hijab! Once such rules are relaxed, women are ready to get down and dirty – as demonstrated by Doaa Elghobashy and Nada Meawad from Egypt who competed in full sleeved shirts and fitted pants in the beach volleyball event.

An unusual moment in Olympic history, reflecting extremely painful events unfolding in the Middle East, is the team of refugee women athletes: Yolande Mabika (Democratic Republic of the Congo, judo), Yusra Mardini (Syria, swimming), Rose Nathike Lokonyen (South Sudan, athletics), and Anjelina Nadai Lohalith (South Sudan, athletics). And so Black, Muslim, Arab, displaced, and queer women have not only played smashingly well, challenging racial, gender, regional, and religious stereotypes, but also fanned out in a greater number of sporting categories at the Olympics.

Sometimes, the obvious risks taken by some women athletes speak of the neglect and discrimination faced by them in their own countries. India’s crude and boastful posturing in the sporting world cannot hide our essentially feudal approach to sports. Governments vie to appropriate medal-winning sportswomen as ‘India’s daughters’ and hand out cash doles to medal-winning sportspeople – but fail to provide India’s athletes with the necessary infrastructure, financial security or even respect and dignity. Dutee Chand, from a poor family in Odisha, and the third ever Indian woman to qualify for the 100 metres event, did not even have the support to buy a new pair of shoes and tracksuit. She rued this lack of support and wished things would change.

This lack of involvement and concern from the state run sporting institutions, then, is also the context of the risk taking, where individual athletes do their best to make a mark, and as we have seen now, with great success. This also tells us why India has not made a mark at all in team events. So Simone Biles, the American gymnast who enjoys far better sporting infrastructure and support, said about Dipa Karmakar’s heart-stopping Produnova vault, that she would never try such a vault because she wasn’t trying to kill herself. Karmakar and her predecessors have had to rely on jugaad (makeshift) training equipment and space: where ponds would serve as safe landing areas and mats stacked up as vaulting tables. This neglect is what frames the context in which individual athletes are forced to rely on risk-taking rather than technical perfection in less dangerous displays, to score points and aim for medals. In fact, the Produnova vault has been designed and attempted at international events precisely by women gymnasts from countries where support and encouragement for women’s sport has been wanting. This regrettable lack is true especially of team events, in which many of our sportspersons are from impoverished rural and tribal backgrounds, and are pitted against teams that use technology that monitors speed, fatigue, etc, whereby coaches can make substitutions during crucial moments of the game. For this reason, sport in India needs to be transformed into a collective concern than a matter of individual perseverance against all odds.

And when the games are on, our sporting establishment, in the shape of ministers like Vijay Goel and their cutlery, (spoons/chamchas) is feeling important, making athletes feel like they are inconsequential. Goel and his minions travelled business class while our athletes travelled economy. Karmakar was refused a physiotherapist till she entered the finals because it was thought a wasteful expenditure. Indian marathon runner Jaisha became dangerously dehydrated because Indian officials neglected to provide her with water and energy drinks during the 42 kilometre marathon! Goel did not know the names of our brightest stars, misspelled their names, attached the wrong name to the wrong photo, and generally embarrassed the whole country. Surely spending on comfortable travel, physiotherapists and water for sportspersons should get priority over VIP ‘Games tourism’?

Coverage of women’s athletic events has been shamefully sexist. When women athletes are pushing hard at all kinds of barriers, all that the commentators and lensmen could see were all manner of female derrieres. Why, when I tried to google women athletes, the top entries came woefully attached to the word ‘hottest’ with pictures that merely sought to sexualise female athletes! Commentators commented on women athletes’ weight, talked about whether they should wear makeup, attributed all their success to husbands, coaches, and everyone else, and one even asked of Laura Trott, the celebrated British cyclist, ‘What’s for tea?’! Perhaps someone might consider calling Ibtihaj Mohamed, the first ever American Muslim fencer to compete in a hijab at the Olympics to come and challenge this guy to a duel. People even commented on women commentators, one of whom was wearing a short dress. Everyone talked about her dress as ‘revealing’, when her co-commentator, a man, was showing off his hairy legs in a pair of shorts! And so, like any ‘global’ event, all manner of prejudice was exhibited, and quickly presented with a cracking slap in the face by a whole spectrum of women athletes. It was on one such occasion when asked if she was the next Phelps or Bolt that Biles had the answer quoted at the beginning of this piece.

Of course, Sindhu, Sakshi, and Dipa have set in motion another discourse closer home. Note one tweet by Virender Sehwag: ‘#SakshiMalik is a reminder of what can happen if you don’t kill a girl child. When the going gets tough, it’s our girls who get going and save our pride’. Now on the surface, it seems he might be saying don’t kill the girl child. But there is a caveat: she could turn out to be an achiever. And what if she doesn’t? What if, like so many of us, does not do well in school, is not pretty, is certainly a bad cook, what then? What is worse, if she likes girls, is not the family type, what happens to ‘pride’? This particular brand of misogyny, which says spare them as long as they show signs of achievement that make you proud, is as dangerous as asking women what’s for tea.

The other ugly underbelly of India’s displays of ‘national pride’ lay, predictably, in caste. Congress leader Randeep Hooda congratulated Sakshi Malik in a tweet with the hashtag #JatPride. Will Sakshi Malik still be hailed by the custodians of Jat pride/honour if – like so many Jat women in Haryana, she falls in love with someone from the same gotra or the Dalit caste? As PV Sindhu made it to the badminton finals at Rio, Indians in thousands began googling for her caste, even as Hindutva groups began sharing a photo of hers at a festival, asserting that she was an ideal Indian woman who can uphold ‘tradition and culture’ off court while being aggressive on court! If India claims the brilliant sportswomen are its ‘daughters’, we seem to be good at treating them exactly as we treat our real daughters: demanding that they justify their birth with both achievement and obedience; binding them in the shackles of caste and patriarchy; using them to serve political agendas even as we neglect and oppress them.

While it is true that the Olympic Games have a special place in sporting history, people have begun to take note of the violence and futility of ‘celebration capitalism’, as historian/political scientist Jules Boykoff has called it. This form of monster is unleashed on cities where the rich and powerful peddle dreams of prosperity in anticipation of such world events, where developers shake hands with politicians to build ‘state of the art’ sporting arenas and Olympic Villages, only after having signed up to bulldoze entire working class neighbourhoods, affecting lives of workers, children, the aging, and women. This has been the story in many languages, in many world locations, in many political climes, the world over. Brazil, now in the midst of the political turmoil ensuing after the ouster of Dilma Roussef, has hit the streets bearing the flame of protest against this celebration of sport – and this is a country where everyone loves a great game of futbol. It was in the context of these protests that there were several attempts to extinguish the Olympic flame. In Angra dos Reis, protesters succeeded, but closer to the magnificent city, the police stopped them with rubber bullets and pepper spray. Of course, workers, women’s and students’ organizations, academics, children, civil rights activists joined thousands along Copacabana as they protested in style, as only they know how. Along with a band that played versions of Carmina Burana, slogans were raised against lack of housing and displacement of working class neighbourhoods to build Olympic facilities. In Vila Autodromo, one neighbourhood still standing cheek by jowl with the Olympic venues, there were protests, which, ironically, saw the release of the book Atingidas: Histórias de Vida de Mulheres na Cidade Olímpica (Affected Women: The Life Stories of Women in the Olympic City), a collection of stories that recount the struggles of the working class women who braved the onslaught of bulldozers to hold on to a way of life that still says might is not right.

One day, maybe soon, those women who blazed a trail inside the stadia, and those that sang of lives torn asunder outside, will stand shoulder to shoulder, and show us a different tomorrow, for sport, for life.

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