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.