Social Science blog

3 posts from June 2012

29 June 2012

Women, Men, and Sports

Simone Bacchini writes:

For the first time ever, Saudi Arabia will enter female athletes in this year’s Olympics. That has to be a good thing. Although what the real effect of this decision are going to be for ordinary Saudi women remains to be seen, it is certainly a step (albeit a small one) in the road to full emancipation for women in that country. Optimism will need to be tempered: what a few women will be able to do in London must be weighed against what many more still won’t be allowed to do back in Riyadh and – to be fair – in many other places across the globe. 

On the face of it, the Olympic enterprise can indeed be a force for good. At times, the Games can live up to its ideals of – among other things – fairness and equality and become a force for good. When this happens, we should all celebrate, even if sport doesn’t interest us in the least. 

However, one victory – one achievement of the Olympics and, more generally, of sport – should not blind us to the fact that sport, with its discursive and material practices, can be the very site where oppression, prejudice, and inequalities are perpetrated. And in the West, as well as in societies far removed from the places that gave rise to this tradition. In spite of much talk about equality, the ways in which female athletes – to name just one group – are represented in the print and broadcast media are still awash with old-fashioned gender stereotypes and tropes. 

Only recently, the idea that women boxers ought to wear skirts when competing at London 2012 was floated by none other than the Amateur International Boxing Association (and promptly rejected, one must say). One of the reasons given for this request was that the piece of cloth would be beneficial to – deep breath – spectators, who might find it easier to identify the competitors as, well, as women. In a burst of quick with, British lightweight champion Natasha Jonas said: "Personally, I think it's more for the aesthetics; nothing practical is going to come from wearing a skirt. The only people who would want to see women in skirts are men.” Discussion closed. 

More and more women are taking part in competitive sports; yet, except in rare cases, the coverage that such sports attract is still quantitatively inferior to that of male-dominated sporting events. Maybe not as many women are interested in competitive sports; less demand is thus reflected in less coverage. I’m not sure that this explanation is true. Just to give the example of my office, women appear to be as interested as men, if not more. My own two bosses, just to give an example, are far more knowledgeable that I am on all sorts of sports and much keener spectators. 

Yet, there is still an unbalance in the way that female achievements in sports are reported. This is not only to do with the quantity of coverage, but with its quality. It is still possible to identify one type of discourse (in the sense of an accumulation of language practices and text-types) around sporting women and a different one about sporting men. Given that reality is often created, sustained, and maintained through language, this should make us think. To give a small example (which, by the way, applies to fields other than sport): why is it still common to refer to and comment on female athletes’ physical appearance and not, or extremely rarely, on men’s. Coincidence? I don’t think so. 

In the coming weeks, the Sport and Society website will publish an article on the linguistic representation of Russian female gymnasts in the post-Soviet press, just to give an example. The opportunities for research in this field are countless. The road to equality, then, leads both to the training field and to a library’s reading rooms. Stay tuned.

26 June 2012

Who gets what?

It is certainly very depressing – if the Sunday Times’ claims are true – that tickets for London 2012 are being sold on the black market for huge sums. According to Times reporters, officials and agents from over 50 countries have been using their national allocation of Games tickets to make money by re-selling them at a big mark up, which is strictly against IOC rules. Heavy sanctions are threatened by the IOC if the dossier submitted by the newspaper leads to convictions of the individuals concerned.

 Lord Coe thinks it’s too late now to resolve the problem in time for London 2012, and he is probably right: the Games are due to begin in a little over a month’s time, and suggestions that tickets sold in this way should be ‘cancelled’ are far too complicated to implement at this stage. Justice must definitely be seen to be done however, if it becomes apparent that tickets have slipped through the net of regulation.

 Cynicism about the Olympic and Paralympic Games often centres on ‘double standards’ and the belief that what is said is not actually the same as what is done. The official Games discourse claims the moral high ground by emphasising excellence, honest endeavour, peace and inclusiveness. This inevitably means that the Olympic Movement is especially vulnerable to accusations that the opposite is sometimes true. Public comments on this story on the BBC website go straight to the heart of the matter by invoking the contrast between the difficulty of getting Olympic tickets in this country and the availability of large numbers of tickets to foreign countries which have ended up on the black market.

 It’s not a good look. And such revelations inevitably drag all sorts of other prejudices along in their wake. The notion of elites and their entitlements is earning a particularly bad press in the current economic climate, and it is clear that the very word elite has to be handled extremely carefully -  particularly by the Olympic Movement. From the athletes’ point of view it has an unequivocal meaning, a meaning which can be justified by official records, by medals won and by training periods logged. Used outside the athletic arena, the word takes on a different connotation, one of self-styled importance, or importance earned by financial and strategic rather than physical power. In these days of economic and political uncertainty, ‘elites’ like celebrities and other VIPs are increasingly looked upon with suspicion, perhaps as receivers of free tickets; or as those who sell them on, or buy them at inflated prices.

 The IOC has consequently been forced to take this situation of black market tickets very seriously and has convened an emergency session to investigate the problem. As usual, more transparency about the allocation of tickets, who receives them and upon what basis, is needed. If it is too late to bring this about for the London 2012 Games then measures should be put in place to ensure a level playing field for the next occasion.


13 June 2012

Less gravitas

‘Never go on stage with children or animals’ goes the old proverb, but clearly, Danny Boyle doesn’t believe a word of it. Great was my amazement when I read about the details of the Olympics opening ceremony on the BBC website today. The idea of tracing the history of the nation through the concept of the ‘countryside’ is a wonderful idea; what makes me boggle is the cast of animals who will be involved, to whit: 30 sheep, 12 horses, 3 cows, 2 goats, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, 9 geese and 3 sheepdogs.

Now unless these animals are acting professionals my knowledge of these creatures suggests to me that there is bound to be hell to pay. Geese have firm ideas about what they will and won’t do (chasing people and making a racket belonging to the first category); horses have serious issues about noise and hulabuloo and will certainly pretend to have fits even if they don’t really mean it; the goats will butt the athletes and the cows will attack the sheepdogs. The chickens will roost somewhere embarrassing. Quite apart from such considerations, the purist might suggest that these numbers of animals aren’t actually enough to represent the UK’s combined horsehood, goathood or whatever. Two goats? Why just two, and where are the pigs?

The other more serious concern I have is that ordinary farm animals will be disturbed by all the razamatazz. The dogs will love performing on the world stage, but the rest might find it traumatic – as has been pointed out in the Press today - so I’m hoping that the creatures concerned will have been acclimatised to son et lumiere in some way. The RSPCA is said to have the whole thing in hand.

The alternative perhaps is to make use of the wonderful warhorse puppets or to try a comic turn with two blokes dressed as pantomime animals; and actually why wouldn’t we do something like this? Pantomime has flourished in these Isles for generations.

So it looks like London 2012 is prepared to live dangerously, which is to be praised rather than denigrated. The idea of a less regimented, more complex, more spontaneous, more humorous ceremony sounds very appropriate. One gets rather weary of the relentless solemnity associated with great events, and the Olympic and Paralympic Games might one day sink under the weight of their own gravitas. So let’s try and herd cats and see where it takes us.

 As far as I am aware, animals have never formed part of a Games opening ceremony – apart from the symbolic release of doves, which formed part of the ancient Greek games celebrations and which has been followed faithfully in the revived Games. If anyone knows of any occasion though, I’d be interested to hear about it.