Social media and the 24 hour news cycle has given us a whole new perspective and insight into the Olympics than we haven’t been exposed to up tot his point.
Apart from the incredible athletic achievements, we’ve also seen some pretty scandalous goings on, both in and out of competition. But one of the elements that’s come into sharp focus is sexism in coverage of this year’s Games.
— Awesomely Luvvie (@Luvvie) August 14, 2016
to a fairly regular reference to female competitors as “girls”, there’s been some spectacular sexism displayed all over Rio. Our own coverage in Ireland has been fairly evenly spread though, apart from the near constant reference to “Sinead Lynch, 39!“, our accomplished Irish rower who can’t seem to shake off the reference to her age whenever her name appears.
However there is another reference to Lynch, and to a number of other female athletes, which has led to cries of sexism: commentary on the fact that they have recently given birth. For example, let me pull out this quote from an article on Bustle.com:
Countless headlines and articles have focused on the fact that medal-winning swimmer Dana Vollmer just became a parent — a fate that has not befallen fellow swimmer and new parent Michael Phelps
This is where I have to hold my hand up and call out invalid claims of sexism. Yes Michael Phelps became a parent earlier this year. Yes Dana Vollmer also became a parent 17 months ago. Sinead Lynch had her third baby recently. They are all in the throes of parenting small children.
But only the mothers in this example grew a baby, delivered a baby, and recovered from having a baby to then go on and return to training – without injury – at such an elite level that they competed in the OLYMPIC FINALS! The finals! I ran my first ever 10km when the small boy was just short of 2. That was MY Olympics – I felt incredible and huge pride at my personal achievement. Vollmer won a medal, Lynch nearly did. There’s plenty of other examples.
Equality is a very important thing. Inequality manifests itself in many forms of different severity all over the world – and in fact this conversation is one that can only happen in an arena of privilege – BUT to suggest that celebrating a woman who is recently post-partum for attaining the dizzy athletic heights of the Olympic Games is not sexism. Calling it sexism silences women and their experiences. It is a simplistic inaccuracy because men and women are not the same and to take away from the physical and physiological achievement of these new mothers is to deny the significance of childbearing.
Carrying a pregnancy to full term and having a baby is the biggest physiological change a woman’s body will ever go through. It can be an incredible thing, but it can also be a huge challenge on many levels, including for women who have spent many years focused on elite physical fitness, not only in terms of training but also how they live and eat. Having a baby is a big deal and while I am sure that Michael Phelps is an amazing father who pulls his weight on the parenting front, his body didn’t change and his training wasn’t disrupted by his partner’s pregnancy. It’s not the same.
We need to celebrate women’s bodies. Being equal doesn’t mean being identical. There can be difference and be equality. So I salute the new mums rocking Rio 2016. You’re amazing.
Cover photo credit: Rio 2016/Felipe Verande