Ever since their inception in April of 1896, the Olympic Games have been held up as a model of the best that athleticism—if not humanity itself—has to offer. In theory, the concept of athletes from all over the world coming together to meet, compete, and show off their respective nations’ athletic prowess is a beautiful one. Unfortunately, however, the Olympics have a long and painful history of displacing vulnerable communities and showing racist bias. Look all the way back to athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith who were removed from the Olympic Village for raising their fists on the podium in a Black Power salute in 1968. Or consider the 2020 suspension of track and field athlete Brianna McNeal was suspended for missing a drug test—she has stated that she was in bed recovering from an abortion and did not register the arrival of the testing official. Now, all of these issues are coming to a head during the postponed 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
The ways in which this year’s Olympics have already failed athletes who don’t fit a certain mold are myriad. There was the suspension of runner Sha’Carri Richardson for marijuana consumption, a rule which many saw as unrelated to performance and unfairly punitive to a grieving, queer Black woman. Then there was the International Swimming Federation’s ban on swim caps that fit natural Black hair. More recently, Spanish artistic swimmer Ona Carbonell expressed her “disappointment and disillusionment” at having to leave her breastfeeding child at home while she competed due to a lack of accommodations for athletes who are also parents.
There's also the different standards for male and female athletes when it comes to attire. British Paralympic athlete Olivia Breen was recently told that her shorts were "too short" by a female official. Members of the Norwegian women’s national beach handball team were fined for refusing to wear bikini bottoms at a match for reasons that appear unclear. (Men, after all, are permitted to wear shorts as long as four inches above the knee.) At a certain point, it feels incumbent on us to ask: What purpose do the Olympic Games serve when their rules seem so profoundly stacked against female athletes and athletes of color?
I’m not advocating that we dispense with the Olympics altogether (although, in a year still defined by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there are crazier propositions), and, of course, seeing athletes like Simone Biles, Megan Rapinoe, skateboarder Alana Smith, and heptathlete Erica Bougard break barriers at the Olympics can have a profound and inspiring effect on people who might never have thought they’d see anyone who looked like them or shared any aspect of their identity compete at an international level. I don’t know what it would have meant to me to see Rapinoe on the field as a closeted queer teen, and I can’t even imagine the impact that Biles’s presence at the Olympics might be having on a generation of young Black girls and women joyfully watching her excel. As more people come to understand and familiarize themselves with nonbinary identity, the import of an athlete like Smith can’t be overstated, and the space that Bougard occupies as a Black, queer athlete in rainbow Nikes is similarly vital.
The point of the Olympics shouldn’t be to see which athlete can most successfully navigate the toxicity of an institution whose rules and regulations are drastically out of step with modern life. The Olympics are an emblem of extraordinary achievement and of coming together. This year, even in a limited and pared-back form, they hold the possibility to entertain, energize, and and inspire. But that potential has been undermined, even before the games have gotten underway. The sad irony of all these unfortunate examples of bias is that they present athletes with hurdles to overcome that have absolutely nothing to do with their extraordinary athletic abilities.