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Why are Olympic athletes copping so much abuse? It all comes down to gender

EPA

Why are Olympic athletes copping so much abuse? It all comes down to gender

EPA

Every four years, the Olympic and Paralympic Games burst on to our screens, showcasing a rich variety of sports, athletes and cultures. For those not lucky enough to be in Rio this year, social media has made it possible to to share jokes, news, triumphs and disappointments with other viewers from around the world. But with as many as 3.6bn people watching across the globe, it’s almost inevitable that some people won’t like what they see.

Already, several athletes have been subject to abuse via mainstream and social media. In one disgraceful case, as the Team GB Rugby Sevens battled it out against Canada for bronze, tweets targeted Olympic athlete Heather Fisher, criticising her appearance. Fisher experiences alopecia – or hair loss – and works as an advocate for others with the same condition. Comments on twitter questioned her womanhood, saying they were “not convinced” that she is “female” and that she’s “the manliest woman I have ever seen”.

Sadly, these insults are nothing new to women athletes. All Olympic sports are competitions of skill, speed and strength. Yet when women run too fast, kick too hard, or look too muscular, they are subjected to abuse.

At the same time as being world-class athletes, sportswomen are expected to be physically appealing – and even wear make up – while photographs of sportswomen in the media are generally more likely to be sexually suggestive. Those who defend this state of affairs often say it’s a way to attract fans and endorsements to women’s sports – yet women athletes are still paid less than men and their games are given less air time.

Men are not immune from discrimination and abuse in sport either. In some ways, men face more limitations on what physical traits are deemed acceptable, thanks to society’s particularly narrow ideas about masculinity. For example, Team GB gymnast Louis Smith was subjected to Twitter trolling when he slipped off the pummel horse, with some claiming that his long hair was to blame, and Ethiopian swimmer Nobel Kiros Habte was publicly shamed over his body weight, and nicknamed “the whale”.

Generally speaking, men are also vulnerable to discrimination in sports which are traditionally “feminine”, such as synchronised swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, figure skating and netball. Indeed, at the Olympics, men are excluded from competing in synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics altogether.

A challenging notion

This widespread sexism at the Olympics shows us that women and men who do not conform to expectations about their respective genders are often targets for abuse.

Caster Semenya leads the way. ABDELHAK SENNA/EPA

This is because they threaten traditional attitudes about the appropriate roles, rights and responsibilities of women and men in society. These traditional attitudes are based on a simple “binary” classification model – where people are classified as either male or female.

This model is limited and fixed: it tells us that male and female are “opposite sexes”, that sex is determined biologically (according to chromosomes, reproductive organs, hormones) and that all men are naturally different to all women in terms of their feelings, thoughts and actions. As a result, women are expected to look and behave in a “feminine” way, while men are expected look and behave in a “masculine” way.

So many people understand sex and gender in this way that it can be very difficult for us to think about and discuss different ways of understanding gender. Human beings can feel very uncomfortable when other people do not fit neatly into categories, because it challenges preconceived ideas about what it is to be “normal”. And this can lead them to lash out.

This model has shaped society – and sporting organisations – for a very long time. It is often drawn on in sports competitions, which are typically organised into “men’s” and “women’s” events. As a result, transgender and intersex athletes such as Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand have to contend with large sporting organisations such as the International Association of Athletics Federations to even be allowed to compete.

All too simple

In reality, the simple binary model actually appears to reflect social and cultural ideas about gender, rather than biological facts. Evidence suggests that gender isn’t entirely binary on any level of physiology or psychology: men and women can both display huge variations in terms of chromosomes, hormones, brain structure, personality and roles in society.

There are several good examples of this. Daphna Joel’s research challenges the idea of a “male” or “female” brain: in fact, most people’s brains display a mixture of features. And studies have shown that in marathon races, for example, not all of the men beat all of the women – in reality, some women will beat some men. As radical as this might sound now, it is possible that some point in the future, the fastest marathon runner will be a woman.

In light of modern scientific evidence, it’s clear that traditional expectations about what men and women should look like – and how they should behave – are outdated. There is never a good justification for abuse. But the hate directed toward athletes who don’t fit neatly into our ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman is based on ignorant misconceptions about gender. And in some ways, that makes it even worse.

Athletes who challenge the mainstream understanding of gender don’t deserve to be bullied – especially after all they have sacrificed to compete for their countries. Rather, they should be praised for showing the world that individual differences can lead to outstanding achievements.