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There's a story unfolding at the Tokyo Olympics, one as extraordinary as the exquisite tumbles and water-slicing strokes, the explosive lifts and dramatic finishes.
As the world watches, women athletes are saying "enough."
Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in the world and a survivor of sexual abuse by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, prioritized her well-being over an audience hungry for her performance, withdrawing from the team final and the individual all-around competition because she had "to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health."
German gymnasts traded high-cut leotards for full-body unitards, a repudiation of the persistent mandate – explicit and implied – that their appearance matters as much as, or more than, their comfort or talent.
Breastfeeding mothers competing at this year's games publicly denounced a policy that forbade them from bringing their nursing infants to Tokyo, forcing organizers to reverse course. U.S. marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk said of her baby, "If I’m going to perform my best, she’s going to have to be there with me."
The Olympics are underway in the post-#MeToo era, the first Summer Games since Nassar was convicted of sexually abusing hundreds of girls and young women, including Olympic athletes. Women are competing in record numbers and rejecting a culture of silence many no longer view as the price of competition. They are showcasing their excellence against the backdrop of a pandemic that has ignited a long-overdue conversation about the importance of mental health.
"I think they are clear examples of female athletes taking agency and telling the sport, telling the public, telling business interests that their well-being is the most important thing, and that is really transformative," says Elizabeth Daniels, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs who studies women's sexualization in sports. “I think there is something unique about this current moment that is lending itself to athletes organizing … to saying, ‘Hey, this is not what we want.’”
Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at UCLA, said that when women say "no," especially on a public stage, it's important to resist focusing solely on what this says about individual athletes. The bigger question, she says, is what this says about all of us.
"We love to love sports – it's about being first and being a hero and being celebrated. But nobody wants to talk about how it's a space where you get sexually abused, where you're expected to redeem the history of America's persistent racism and literally be superhuman," she says. "When these women bravely come out and say, 'no,' we have to understand that they're saying no to a set of unreasonable conditions. It's not that they're saying no because they've just drunk the Kool-Aid of self-care."
Record women at the Games, but governing bodies dominated by men
Gender is especially salient in sports, says Cheryl Cooky, a women's studies professor at Purdue University and co-author of "No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sport and the Unevenness of Social Change." Elite sports are sex-segregated and historically and culturally tied to masculinity, which is defined by dominance, physicality and the suppression of emotion. Women and femininity don't align with the expectations of athleticism, so there's a disconnect when we think of women's presence in sports.
Sports governing bodies and national and international federations set the standards and rules for competition, and female athletes are not adequately represented, Cooky says. This remains true even as the Games have nearly reached gender parity for the first time: Almost 49% of the 11,000 athletes competing are women.
These male-dominated institutions are responsible for making decisions about what female athletes wear, about their obligations around competition and about who is held accountable after reports of abuse.
Twenty-nine percent of the 100 International Olympic Committee (IOC) members are women and just four women sit on the 15-person executive committee, according to an analysis in 2018 from the nonprofit Women's Sports Foundation, which advocates for equity in women's sports. There has never been a female IOC president.
"Even if you have women or minorities in these spaces, because they take up a tokenized role – you might have one woman or one person of color in a sea of white men – it doesn't mean that there's going to be a culture shift or a change in the organizational philosophies and structures," Cooky said.
Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, resigned in March after he publicly said women talk too much in meetings.
Despite the power imbalance, Cooky says, women have long spoken out about inequality, sexism and racism in sports. The difference is that the playing field and the culture have changed, amplifying athletes' voices to an increasingly receptive audience.
"Women’s sports are more established today than they were 30, 40, 50 years ago and because of that, women athletes are not as vulnerable to the pressure to keep quiet so as not to jeopardize their opportunities to play," she says. "It’s not just the athletes who are appalled by their treatment and the sexism and racism they face, but it is sports fans and the general public that, too, find the way women athletes are treated by coaches, sports organizations or corporate sponsors to be abhorrent."
Naomi Osaka, Simon Biles and the women of color lead the way
Credit is owed to Naomi Osaka, Daniels says, whose decision in June to withdraw from the French Open over mental health concerns probably paved the way for other athletes to prioritize their health over the desires of the public, the media and their sponsors. Psychologists lauded Osaka for encouraging people to rethink what they demand of athletes. Biles, who said she was inspired by the tennis star, has done the same.
Tokyo team final: What Simone Biles told reporters after withdrawing
"This Olympic Games I wanted it to be for myself. I came in and felt like I was still doing it for other people," Biles said. "I have to put my pride aside. I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being."
As women of color, Biles and Osaka face the dual pressures of racism and sexism, competing in a space largely defined by men and against women who are predominantly white. Daniels says the stereotypes and discrimination they've endured make their decisions to speak out even more notable, given the intense scrutiny women athletes of color face.
Candice Williams, a licensed professional counselor in the Ohio State University's athletics department, says women at the Tokyo Games are showing what it practically means to prioritize the self.
“They are saying, ‘Even if it's a U.S. Open, even if it's the Olympics, the weight of gold is not worth my mental health,’” she says.
These decisions are remarkable because of the ethos of elite athleticism.
“You do learn to silence the body, because you have to overcome the body saying, ‘I can't do this. This is too much. I need to stop,’” Daniels says. "Athletes are trained to suppress their own needs in a really fundamental way. And we're seeing this shift with these athletes … saying, ‘You know what, my well-being has to matter.’”
The German athletes who rejected sexist uniforms, she says, argued something similar.
“They're saying, ‘This is actually my body,’ using their voice, having agency and making decisions about themselves and their well-being in a very distinct way,” she says.
Women call out sexist uniforms
Biles may be the highest-profile athlete to speak about mental health during the Games, but many women athletes call out policies they view as harmful, restrictive and damaging to individual women and their sports.
Women's bodies: Are we in the 21st century? Did I accidentally time-travel to some previous era? Are people really making female Norwegian Olympic athletes wear bikinis while male athletes wear bermuda shorts? (This is the beach handball event)
— BrokenPonies (@BknPonies) July 22, 2021
The Norwegian women's beach handball team incurred a fine during the 2021 European Beach Handball Championships for refusing to play in bikini bottoms, opting instead for shorts. The German gymnastics team competes in full-body unitards, which debuted in competition this year. They were not punished since their outfits comply with the wardrobe rules, though they break with convention.
The German Gymnastics Federation said the uniform choice is a statement against "sexualization," and German gymnast Elisabeth Seitz wrote on Instagram that "every gymnast should be able to decide in which type of suit she feels most comfortable – and then do gymnastics.”
The Women's Sports Foundation argues that "athletes should be afforded maximum flexibility in the choice of uniform fabric and styles."
Gender researchers say sexist uniform policies reflect the broader sexualization of girls and women, which suggests a woman's appearance is more important than her strength, power or function.
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"Attention to appearance starts when girls are infants, where you put them in a dress, even though they can't crawl very well. From the very beginning, it's how do you look as opposed to how can you move," says Christia Spears Brown, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky who studies how children develop gender and ethnic stereotypes.
Sexist uniform policies may be driven in part by the myth that sex sells women's sports and that highlighting women's bodies, attractiveness or sexual appeal will draw viewers in and make women's sports more palatable to male audiences. This myth has been debunked by sports media scholar Mary Jo Kane, who conducted research that found sexualized images of female athletes offended women and older men. It was the images of women demonstrating athletic ability that captivated them.
Her research found sexualized images of female athletes did not increase young men's interest in women's sports.
"It's part of the entrenched gender stereotypes that prioritize women's appearance over anything else – the rest of their humanity. And the uniforms are mapping onto that stereotype," Daniels says. "These stereotypes have persisted over time and have not been really interrogated deeply enough to shift the behaviors."
Sexualization – whether at the Olympics or on the cover of Sports Illustrated – overshadows women's achievement in sports and can lead to a host of mental health issues, including lower self-esteem and unhealthy body image.
Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition: Naomi Osaka becomes first female Black athlete on cover
"The implications of that for mental health and relationships, and ideas about the self, are pretty profound," Brown says.
Breastfeeding moms or Olympic athletes?
Tokyo officials initially said family members of athletes were barred from the Games under COVID-19 safety protocols, but some mothers said that meant they couldn't breastfeed their children.
Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher, who had a daughter, Sophie, in March, posted a video on Instagram in June in which she said she was "forced to decide between being a breastfeeding mom or an Olympic athlete.”
“There was an attempt to push out and silence the humanity of these athletes to conform to this model of sport that ignores human complexity,” Daniels says. “I see acts of courage of these female athletes saying, ‘This is unacceptable.’”
Tokyo organizers announced in late June they had modified their policy to allow infants and a caregiver to travel to Tokyo.
Even after restrictions eased, at least two nursing athletes said they had to leave their children at home because requirements remained too restrictive.
The Tokyo Games could be a 'pivotal moment'
Experts who study equity in women's sports say the Tokyo Games could be a tipping point.
"It could be a pivotal moment where there starts to be change, where the mantra or training of suppressing and silencing athletes actually gets exposed and there becomes room for these very important conversations in a unique way that hasn't been possible up to now," Daniels says.
The public may marvel at athletes' extraordinary physical feats, but women in Tokyo are demanding audiences, governing bodies, marketers and the media acknowledge their humanity, their limits and the essential fact that they belong.
"Women are no longer willing to accept the status quo," Cooky says. "These moments show just how much more work needs to be done for us to really be the kind of culture that we like to imagine ourselves to be."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Simone Biles, bikinis, nursing moms: Olympians fight sexism in Tokyo