By Mihret Amdu Yirgeta, September 15 2021—
I remember when I first heard about Sha’Carri Richardson, an incredibly talented sprinter, who had high hopes of joining the US Olympic Team in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Even as I applauded her talent, I felt dread over how popular and renowned she was becoming — it felt like a bad omen.
Sure enough, the praise did not last very long as news came about her disqualification from the Olympics due to her use of marijuana to cope with the loss of her mother. Richardson was the fastest athlete among the US qualifiers. The US Track and Field Olympic Team had lost a great asset. When seen along with other things happening in sports recently, this story has the potential to reveal the systemic inequalities such as racism and sexism rampant in the world of professional sports. We need to think about what this disqualification means for Black athletes, women athletes and Black women athletes.
In another sport for the US Olympic Team, fencer Alen Hadzic was under an investigation for allegations of sexual assault against three women. Hadzic was under temporary suspension, but an arbitrator overturned his suspension, allowing him to participate in the Olympics with a few restrictions.
With allegations from three different women against him, the decision to let Hadzic compete seems very insulting. It sends the message that the allegations are not being taken seriously — that these women are not being taken seriously. An arbitrator completely overturning his suspension just in time for the Olympics also gives the impression that he gets leniency because he is a professional athlete. It seems strange that the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) would allow someone with allegations of sexual misconduct, proven or otherwise, to represent them.
The differential treatment towards athletes is evident in the above two stories. It raises the issue of misogyny in sports. Hadzic was let go with barely a slap on the wrist over something serious like sexual assault allegations, yet the USOPC handicapped itself by banning a great athlete like Richardson. The rules and penalties seem to be much harsher on women in professional sports.
Another example of harsher penalties towards female athletes comes from the story of the Norwegian beach volleyball team being fined for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms at their Euro 2021 match. If they can play the sport in shorts, then they should not be forced to wear bikini bottoms for it. The regulations for their attire seem sexist.
The above differences also raise the issue of racism in sports. While Richardson was banned from the competition for her use of marijuana, Megan Rapinoe — US Olympic Soccer player — has been very vocal about the use of Cannabidiol (CBD) products in her training routine. While CBD is not banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), THC is banned and is a compound that is found in marijuana, which was found in Richardson’s tests.
The systemic inequalities that exist in our society make it so that people of colour, especially the Black community, get aggressively punished for the use of drugs, while white people can get away with it pretty easily. It just seems like a particular slap in the face when a Black athlete gets punished for her use of cannabis, while a white athlete is applauded for her “more natural approach to health and wellness” when doing something similar.
This also raises the interesting issue that is at the intersection of misogyny and racism in sport. While Richardson’s suspension was very big news, it was not the only seemingly unfair occurrence going on. Prior to the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) banned the use of swim caps designed for natural Black hair. Furthermore, several female African athletes were labelled as having “excess testosterone” when they performed exceptionally well, like Namibian athletes Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi who were disqualified after they set new records for a 400m run. The regulations seem to be more and more targeted, and at times it seems like professional sports are making it as difficult as possible for female athletes to compete.
Ultimately, actions speak a lot louder than words and while international sports committees and councils may go on and on about how they are committed to inclusion and diversity, their actions seem to be saying the very opposite. They are sending the message that they are okay with sexual assault but not a grieving woman. They are sending the message that all female swimmers need to conform to the standards meant for white women. They are sending the message that if you perform exceptionally, you must have an unfair advantage. They are sending the message that they are not an inclusive space for all, especially not to women of colour.
International sports committees and councils need to understand the power and influence they have. Sports sometimes end up being a platform where people are introduced to larger issues, especially regarding social inequality. Large sports committees and councils are seen as trustworthy entities and when they send messages that reinforce misogyny and racism they will be accepted by people a lot quicker.
People by nature want to conform, and whatever is on mainstream media tends to be what a majority of people believe. This is usually the issue with the representation of Black, Indigenous and other People of Colour (BIPOC) in mainstream media, where stereotypes get reinforced to the collective community. This can affect society at large, especially in the context of the Olympics, as for many non-sports fans it is the only time they end up watching sports at all. I know that is definitely the case for me.
To people who do not follow sports in their day-to-day lives, large sporting events like the Olympics or the World Cup are our only contact in the sporting world. Because we are not familiar with the politics that go on behind the scenes, we tend to see the committees as impartial entities that only deal with sporting content. Because people see these committees and impartial parties, it is very easy to adopt whatever stances they have since they are seen as unbiased.
Therefore, the way the athletes are dealt with will be met without question, and pushing narratives that are racist or misogynistic in nature can perpetuate the unfair treatment of people. Treating athletes this way is not acceptable and it should not be seen as though it is. International sports have the potential to make an impact on greater society, so international sports councils and committees need to be held accountable and do better. Both for their sake and society’s sake overall.
This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.