Essay: Boycotting the Olympics. Let Me Count the Whys

On Not Playing Along With the Games

Sha’Carri Richardson by Steph Chambers/Getty Images.

Megan Rapinoe by Francisco Seco/AP

I used to love the Olympics. Track and field had my heart and awe. Diving had my lust and wonder. Gymnastics had my incredulity and bewilderment. And weightlifting, more recently, had me agog with wow.

But this year I can’t bear to give myself over to that celebration of human endeavour (and nationalism, I know I know).

Why am I boycotting the Olympics? Let me count the whys.

It might be the pandemic forcing my eyes open a la Clockwork Orange. Why the fuck are these games being held during a global pandemic that is far from over? Instead of being cancelled altogether, they were postponed from last year until this summer. Much of the Japanese public continues to oppose holding the games in Tokyo, in part out of fear that the arriving athletes will worsen the Covid crisis in their country. There are at least 13 Covid infections among all athletes in Japan, so far, according to the International Olympic Committee.

Maybe it’s the especially unabashed and brazen patriarchal fuckery that has tainted so much about this year’s games, from officials to athletes and their enablers, spraying its stink like a skunk run amok.

Behold the stench:

-- Yoshiro Mori, the head of the Tokyo Olympics and former prime minister, resigned in February after he said women’s speaking time in meetings should be limited, because women talk too much and have a “strong sense of rivalry”. He was replaced by a woman, Seiko Hashimoto, who is a decorated Olympian.

-- A month later, Hiroshi Sasaki, the Tokyo Olympics’ creative director, resigned after calling a well-known plus-size female Japanese celebrity an “Olympig.” Sasaki had been in charge of the opening and closing ceremony. 

-- So severe are the sexual assault allegations against an alternate on the U.S. men’s fencing team, that USA Fencing, the athletic federation in charge of selecting the country’s Olympic competitors, created a “safety plan” to keep him away from women and out of the Olympic Village

Into sports, patriarchy has long huffed and puffed a perfect storm: a thunderous cacophony of racism, misogyny and ableism, whipped into a fervour by insatiable capitalism, and presented to us as a gift; its male athletes, gods for worship.

Olympics or not, the bar for men behaving appallingly in sports is so low, it puts the worst pole vaulter in the world to shame. Witness, the Montreal Canadiens’ selection in Friday's National Hockey League entry draft of a player who posted a statement on Twitter asking teams not to choose him in this year's draft. The player issued the statement after  he had been charged and paid a fine in Sweden for taking a non-consensual picture of a woman giving him oral sex and then showing it to teammates, along with  the woman’s social media account, thus identifying her. Although the woman said she hasn’t forgiven the athlete because she doesn’t believe he has shown remorse for what he did, the Canadiens, who were runners-up in this year’s Stanley Cup, jumped at the player’s Twitter statement urging teams not to draft him as proof that he was worthy of being drafted.

For women in sports, there is no such leniency. It is less of a ridiculously high bar for them compared to the bar that is constantly lowered for the men, and more a wall so impenetrable it puts Trump’s fascism to shame. And it is especially egregious for Black women. In the weeks running up to the Tokyo Olympics, sporting officials, including the International Olympics Committee, were unabashed in their misogyny, and especially unashamed in their misogynoir, a phrase coined by queer Black feminist Moya Bailey and Trudy @thetrudz to refer to the specific hatred, dislike, distrust, and prejudice directed toward Black women.

Brianna McNeal, right, competing at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in June in Eugene, Ore.Credit...Andy Lyons/Getty Images

-- A month before the Olympics, U.S. athlete Brianna McNeal, the 2016 Olympic champion in the 100 metres hurdle, was suspended for five years for missing a doping test two days after an abortion. McNeal said she was in bed recovering from the procedure and did not hear the antidoping official arrive at the front door of her home. The startlingly cruel punishment means that she will not have the chance to defend her Olympic title and will miss the next two Summer Games. 

“Right now I feel excommunicated from the sport itself and stigmatized, and to me it is unfair,” McNeal said in a video call before her appeal was denied. 

Olympics or not, the bar for men behaving appallingly in sports is so low, it puts the worst pole vaulter in the world to shame. For women in sports, there is no such leniency. It is less of a ridiculously high bar for them compared to the bar that is constantly lowered for the men, and more a wall so impenetrable it puts Trump’s fascism to shame.

-- Compare how U.S. track and field star Sha'Carri Richardson and U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe have been treated over the use of only slightly different drugs.

Richardson, who was seen as the best U.S. contender for a gold medal in the 100-meter race at the Tokyo Olympics, was suspended for one month, thereby missing her event’s scheduled start time by mere days, after testing positive for THC, the main psychoactive component of marijuana. Richardson, who used the drug in Oregon where it is legal for recreational use, said she used marijuana after learning that her biological mother had died just a week before the Olympic trials.

It was a stark reminder of the criminalization of drug use in Black and Brown communities versus its celebration among white people, “Cannabis Takes the World Stage at the Tokyo Olympics,” screamed a Forbes article that reported on the unprecedented openness of elite athletes’ incorporation of cannabis products to prepare for the Olympics. The article centred on gold medalists Rapinoe’s incorporation of CBD, or cannabidiol, an active ingredient found in cannabis, in her training regimen -- in performance enhancement. Both THC and CBD are derived from the Cannabis plant.

-- Less than three weeks before the Olympics, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi,, two 18-year-old female runners from Namibia, were withdrawn from running in the 400 meters at the Tokyo Olympics by World Athletics, the global governing body of track and field, after medical tests showed they have high natural testosterone levels. It was another reminder of the racist and misogynist rules on “female classification” that single out Black and athletes of colour. The same contentious rules have sidelined South Africa's Caster Semenya, Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi, and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui.

-- Shortly before the Olympics, swimming hats for Afro hair were denied approval for the Olympics by an official sports body that said elite athletes “don’t require caps of such size.”

Picture: Luke Huston Flynn

--When the International Olympic Committee remains male dominated, cis male athletes are considered the default, with punitive consequences for everyone else.  At a time when the IOC is boasting a record number of female athletes-49%--the needs of mothers and accommodations for pregnancy, breastfeeding and childcare reveal the gap between lip service to gender equality and actual equality.

Consider Mandy Bujold, one of the best female flyweight boxers in the world and an 11-time Canadian national champion. She took the IOC’s boxing task force to court to secure her spot in the Olympics after the international body cancelled qualifying events due to the Covid-19 pandemic and referred to tournaments that took place while Bujold was pregnant or postpartum and not competing. 

--Several breastfeeding athletes spoke out against the IOC decision to bar all athletes' family members from traveling to Tokyo as part of the Games' Covid-19 safeguards. The organizing committee adjusted its policy to allow nursing mothers to bring their children. 

Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher, for example, had to make a video plea and wait until just three weeks before the Olympics to find out if she could take her breastfeeding baby with her to the Olympics.

"Sport has been built, designed and organised for male participants," Cheryl Cooky, a professor of gender studies at Purdue University and editor of Sociology of Sport Journal, told the BBC. When exceptions are made, "it's considered a 'special' accommodation" - another way of saying that women's sports are "less" than men's, she said.

Into sports, patriarchy has long huffed and puffed a perfect storm: a thunderous cacophony of racism, misogyny and ableism, whipped into a fervour by insatiable capitalism, and presented to us as a gift; its male athletes, gods for worship. For if patriarchy enables and protects the violence of the most mundane of cis men, then imagine the ways it spoils and indulges the gods of sports and their predations. 

Remember Brock Turner, who was convicted of three felonies for assaulting an unconscious woman on the Palo Alto campus outside of a fraternity party. Enter the patriarchy: father, son, and holy spirit (judge.) Turner and his father at the time both wrote statements that complained about the impact the case had had on Turner’s swimming career. The presiding  judge made an exception and ordered limited jail time and probation, instead of sentencing him to a minimum of two years in state prison as prescribed by law. 

For if patriarchy enables and protects the violence of the most mundane of cis men, then imagine the ways it spoils and indulges the gods of sports and their predations. 

7 Necessary Sins for Women and Girls

And even when women and girls are top billed--surely women’s gymnastics is the most watched event at the Olympics--remember that patriarchy sides with patriarchy. Just before the Olympics started, a watchdog found missteps and cover-ups by the FBI that allowed USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar to continue abusing girls for months after a case was first opened. More than 330 women and girls from USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University said Nassar sexually abused them, including Olympic stars Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, and Rachel Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse him of abuse.

"This report lays bare the corruption, but its conclusion says 'doesn't matter'. Because nothing happens now," Denhollander wrote on Twitter. "These agents retire on government pensions while survivors fight to stay alive."

The pandemic has been a fucking disaster for women and girls around the world, especially Black and women of colour. To see sporting bodies--from the national to the global--compound that disaster, makes it impossible for me to play along with the Olympics this year. 

Fuck the Olympics. Fuck the patriarchy.

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Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2105) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. It is now available in Ireland and the UK. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.  

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