The Olympics Shines A Light On Hidden Discrimination
Kentaro Kobayashi was sacked from his job as Director of the Opening Ceremony, one day before the Opening Ceremony, for making Holocaust jokes. Had the Games not been happening, he would probably never have been held to account.
From 2007-2012 I designed, led, and implemented the diversity, equity, and inclusion programmes for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. I know about discrimination in sport. I also know that the Olympics is a once in generation opportunity to expose and tackle it.
The Games are a bulldozer. As the world’s biggest event, they override local politicians, even national politicians. They bring international attention to local issues. They provide answers within months, sometimes days, when issues have festered for years. Depending on who is driving the bulldozer, they can be a tremendous force for good. The Games offer us a chance to rewrite the rules.
In London, the promise of “Everyone’s 2012” was in many ways delivered and the Games were widely lauded as an inclusive success. Hundreds of minority and small businesses won contracts through supplier diversity programmes. Thousands of disabled people were recruited into an incredibly diverse team. Millions of people experienced inclusive customer service from trained “Games Makers” at accessible venues.
However, this is not always the case. Three recent stories show us how outdated rules and a lack of leadership can embed bias into sport:
1. Nursing mothers were not permitted to bring their babies with them to Japan due to pandemic restrictions.
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This impacted multiple athletes including US soccer player Alex Morgan, and Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher. Gaucher stated in an Instagram video that, “Right now, I’m being forced to decide between being a breastfeeding mom or an Olympic athlete. I can’t have them both.” As male Olympians and Paralympians typically don’t have to face this, it’s easy to see the gender inequity inherent in the rule. The organising committee eventually reversed their decision, but it’s clear that there was a blind spot when creating the rule.
2. Multiple female runners from the Namibian athletics team were banned from the 400m and longer races because of their naturally high levels of testosterone.
This is reminiscent of the barring of South African multi-gold medallist, Caster Semenya. The fact that these women have naturally acquired traits that might give them an advantage is apparently seen as unfair under the current rules. However, famed Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has increased stamina has he naturally produces less lactic acid than average, but this natural advantage does not result in a ban. Again, the rules have created certain bars for women – particularly Black women – that aren’t consistent with the rules for men.
3. The International Swimming Federation’s ban on the Soul Cap from the Olympics and Paralympian Olivia Breen was told her sprint briefs were ‘too short.’
The Soul Cap for swimming is designed to fit over natural Black hair, which is often curlier and more voluminous, that regular swim caps (designed mainly with white swimmers in mind) often can’t contain. After much public pressure, the Federation also had to rethink their decision, but one can’t help but wonder how the original rules might have been different if a diverse and inclusive team were building them in the first place. Meanwhile Breen, criticised for wearing official Adidas briefs for 2021, rightfully questioned whether a male athlete would ever have been subjected to such comments.
What’s common across each story is that biased, sexist, racist decisions were made because that’s what the rules dictated, and no-one challenged them. However, without the Games bringing these issues to the fore, when would they have been dealt with?
It’s easy to point the finger, but the fact the Games exist is a good thing for inclusion. They facilitate global attention on discriminatory issues and can fast track progress in a way little else can.
In terms of diversity, London 2012 was the first time all participating countries had women on their team, the first time there was official LGBT+ merchandise, the first time there was mass disabled participation in the workforce.
In terms of inclusion, the key learning from London 2012 was the need to adapt to others, rather than expecting them to adapt to you. That’s not only great for individual inclusion and wellbeing, it leads to higher performing teams and organisations overall.
Diversity and inclusion often take years. The Games can make it happen at lightspeed. If the rules aren’t working for the outcomes we all strive for, then change the rules. As the Olympics themselves say, faster, higher, stronger.