Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
This year’s Olympic Games will no doubt be remembered for the unusual conditions brought about by the pandemic: the year-long delay, the disrupted training regimens, the missing spectators. But it should also be remembered for the remarkable displays of women’s autonomy. Women athletes have been making headlines for taking control of how they – and we – experience the Games.
In doing so, they are participating in a significant shift in women’s sports, one that celebrates not only women’s physical strength but also their political power and personal autonomy – qualities that, in the past, have often been sharply limited for women everywhere, but particularly in the sports world. From strict regulations requiring feminine clothing – with an emphasis on modesty in the past and on skin-baring in the present – to restrictions on what events women were allowed to compete in, the scope of women’s sports has been shaped, historically and now, by the notion that they must be protected and controlled.
When women athletes step outside those bounds, they face significant opposition. When gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Naomi Osaka took steps to protect their mental fitness at the Olympics and the French Open, respectively, they were ridiculed by some as too weak and soft, despite being two of the top performers in the world. When a Norwegian women’s beach handball team opted for thigh-covering shorts instead of bikini briefs in the recent European nationals, they had to pay hefty fines, despite lobbying for years to wear more modest uniforms. The US women’s soccer team is regularly mocked in right-wing media for protesting in support of equal pay and racial equality.
The deep resistance that seems to emerge every time women athletes advocate for themselves suggests that, even as women’s sports evolve, athletes still contend with a continued fear of female autonomy. They are facing a more specific version of what plagues and often prompts backlash against so many women who demand autonomy in all aspects of public life. That struggle has been especially visible at the Olympics, where patriarchal demands are wrapped in the language of nationalism and patriotism, and women athletes stand accused not only of betraying gender expectations but the nation itself.
At the women’s gymnastics qualifications on Monday, the German team swapped the traditional high-cut leotards for leg-covering unitards for the team competition, a choice the country’s gymnastics federation called a protest “against sexualization in gymnastics.” They first debuted the uniforms at the European championships but wanted to bring their message to the world stage at the Olympics, where gymnastics is one of the most watched events. The athletes were clear about their message: They were not arguing that gymnasts should dispense with leotards, but rather wanted to remind gymnasts that they have a choice. “Every gymnast should be able to decide in which type of suit she feels most comfortable,” said Elisabeth Seitz, a member of the German team, at the European championships this spring.
Though unitards always have been an option in women’s gymnastics, in other sports, women have only recently won the right to wear less revealing clothing. In Tokyo, women beach volleyball players will have the option of wearing longer shorts, a right they won before the 2012 London Olympics, when a rule change by the International Volleyball Federation allowed a team from Egypt to be fully covered. Usually, Olympic regulations required women to wear either a one-piece bathing suit or a top with briefs whose sides could be no wider than seven centimeters. Male competitors, on the other hand, wore tank tops and shorts.
The unitards were not the only protests at the Games. Before the opening match in women’s soccer, teams from the United States, United Kingdom, Chile, Sweden and New Zealand all took a knee to protest racism. Such activism, previously banned at the Olympic Games, is allowed under new guidelines that permit limited pre-competition protests.
The backlash from conservatives in the US against their own country’s four-time, World-Cup-winning women’s team was immediate. Across right-wing media, hosts celebrated when the women’s team lost their first game against Sweden (The team has since advanced to the semifinals for a chance to compete for their fifth gold medal.) At a rally shortly after the loss, former President Donald Trump joined in the jeering, claiming, “Wokeism makes you lose,” as the gathered crowd cheered the team’s loss.
Soon after, a number of high-profile conservatives were also publicly taunting Simone Biles, the multi-medaled gymnast who pulled out of the Olympics during the team event. Biles, who had stumbled on a number of earlier events before a serious mistake on the vault, had good reasons to withdraw. She felt her mental stress was contributing to her errors, which were both setting her up for a potentially catastrophic injury and putting her teammates’ chances of medaling at risk. It was her choice to embrace personal protection and team solidarity.
And it was the kind of choice that an earlier generation of women gymnasts did not have the room to make. At the 1996 Olympics, an injured Kerri Strug tried to scratch her second vault, but she told the Los Angeles Times that she agreed to vault again under pressure from her coach. She exacerbated her injury for a vault the team didn’t ultimately need – they would have won the gold regardless. In the same interview, she said that had she known this fact, she would not have vaulted a second time. She never competed again. That same year, her teammate Dominique Moceanu, already competing with a stress fracture, took a bad fall on her head on the beam and, she recalled in a tweet after Biles’s withdrawal, was sent straight to her floor routine with no exam.
The culture of the team at the time did not allow athletes to push back against the famously strict coaches or the pressure to put winning first at all costs; they were expected to sublimate themselves to their sport. (It is not a coincidence, given this culture of suppressing their own health and bodily autonomy to the demands of competition, that this was the same period in which a massive sexual abuse scandal involving a team doctor was brewing – which would go ignored for years – within elite girls’ and women’s gymnastics.) But fans – and other athletes – are starting to revisit moments like Strug’s vault less as iconic and more as disturbing.
Swimming legend Diana Nyad recently admitted she was quite critical of Biles after her decision to withdraw, until she realized that Biles had made a series of calculations about the risks, should she continue, that outsiders had not understood. “The same decision that on Tuesday seemed to some of us unsportsmanlike now,” Nyad wrote, “on Wednesday, seems a historic sacrifice.” Fans, too, are starting to trust women athletes when they stand up for themselves, as the tolerance for seeing life-altering injuries has diminished in recent years (see also the backlash against head injuries in football).
Biles underscored the importance of that cultural shift, saying at the news conference after her withdrawal that she was fortunate to have “the correct people” around her when she made her decision. The correct people: in other words, people who would listen and respect her decision.
These Olympics are not the first time women athletes – particularly Black women athletes – have exerted their power. In fact, women have long been at the forefront of protests in US sports, even if they don’t usually get attention for it. In 1960, Wilma Rudolph, who had just won three gold medals at the Rome Olympics, demanded that her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee, allow both Black and White people at their celebration of her win. They relented, and her parade marked the first racially integrated event that the city had ever hosted. In the 1968 Games, where sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith became international icons (and were reviled in some circles) for their Black Power salute, Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska delivered a protest of her own, looking away as the Soviet anthem played to show her opposition to the Soviet invasion of her country.
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Beyond the Olympics, the WNBA has been a powerhouse of protest and activism for decades, with athletes agitating for everything from better pay to marriage equality to racial justice. Before Colin Kaepernick took a knee in the NFL, the women of the WNBA were wearing Black Lives Matter shirts during warmups instead of their league-mandated garb to make a coordinated statement of protest.
Nor are they alone. Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Gwen Berry – wherever you look, there are women athletes not only performing at the highest levels in the world, but using their platforms to push for equality in sports, and in society more broadly. In a way, the Tokyo Games show a movement coming of age, women athletes not only asserting themselves locally and nationally, but on the biggest stage in the world.