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Sexism in Olympic sport

By Jocelynne Scutt - posted Wednesday, 8 August 2012

In May 2012, the European Women's Lobby (EWL) passed a resolution on 'The Olympics and Universalism'. Proposed by the French Division, seconded by Germany, Cyprus, Greece and Italy, and adopted with six dissenting votes only, the text reads:

'On 25 July in conjunction with the opening of the London Olympics, a protest will be organised against the Olympic Committee's failure to respect the principles of equality and neutrality. The presence of the presidents or delegates from the EWL and from National Coordinations [member countries] would be of major importance. The aim of the protest is to ask for a strict implementation of the Olympic Charter based on universal principles.'

Universal principles incorporate the notion that fair play and sport are synonymous. That prejudice has no place in sport. That sporting capacities and achievements are valued without 'extra points', superiority or esteem being awarded by reference to sex/gender, race/ethnicity or class/status.


The pall of racism clouding the 1936 Berlin Olympics is well-known, often being the subject of comment and media coverage, including documentary film. Yet the continued and continuing scourge of sexism in sport is not recognised by the Olympics Committee and rarely remarked upon by commentators – unless in scoffing at women's performance, engaging in patronising commentary, or commenting lewdly upon women competitors' dress, looks, physique or even more intimately.

This runs directly counter to the 'Fundamental Principles of Olympism' set out in the Olympic Charter, holding the practice of sport as 'a human right … without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play', whilst the goal of Olympism is 'to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity'.

When it comes to sex and gender, how this measures up to the reality is questionable.

The sound of the Benny Hill theme echoing through the air at the beach volleyball venue is particularly apt – if beach volleyball is regarded as a matter of sexuality, a sexual rather than a sporting performance. Even without Benny Hill – notorious for his bombast when it came to women's bodies, wrapping up grossness-toward-women in a repartee purportedly funny – the Olympic Charter is not so much in evidence when women's sport is in issue.

The Charter makes much of notions of games prowess being necessarily combined with being a 'good sport'. High achievement in sport goes hand in hand, according to Olympic philosophy, with high standards of personal behaviour or, in colloquial terms, 'gentlemanly conduct'.

Yet so often, these are not on display.


The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, gains frequent media coverage, mostly on the basis that he is a 'loveable buffoon' or 'clown' – whilst at the same time being touted as a replacement for the current British Prime Minister, who is suffering a downturn in polls. Even before the Games' opening, Johnson was reported as making lascivious remarks about the volleyball events – no, not the men's but the women's. Upon viewing the sport-in-progress, his regular Telegraph column blathered:

'As I write these words there are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade immortalised by Canaletto. They are glistening like wet otters and the water is splashing off the brims of the spectators' sou'westers. The whole thing is magnificent and bonkers …'

Beach volleyball is so often a target for these sorts of remark, making repetition boring. Still, commentators continue with the metaphorical (or sometimes literal) licking of lips as if they are the first to observe the players' shape and costume. The element of skill, together with intense and intensive training, which brought women to Olympic standard and into the teams in the first place is not the subject of these comments. Indeed, an observer might not be blamed for assuming from this media coverage that it is not the standard of play on the field that forms the criterion for selection or competition, but body-shape and shortness of skirt or shorts together with skimpiness of top-covering that merits the awarding of points and medals.

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About the Author

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Mellbourne and Sydney. Her web site is here. She is also chair of Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom and Dignity.

She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Jocelynne Scutt

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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