Jessica Luther Column: Rio 2016 celebrates women, but at what cost?

Being a spectator of these Olympics feels different.

As far back as I can remember, there have always been critiques of the Games. The International Olympic Committee is infamously corrupt and has been for a long while. Russia was criticized two years ago for its anti-LGBT laws and the level of financial corruption that surrounded the Sochi winter olympics. In the run-up to the last summer olympics, London’s massive militarization of the city, which included missiles on tops of buildings, was met with anger. Beijing displaced over a million people to make way for the games in 2008. Five years after Athens hosted in 2004, as the country fell into severe debt, many people speculated that the money they spent on the Olympics played a role in their financial distress.

And yet, this year seems different. The intensity of the scrutiny of what has happened in the run up to Rio and what is still happening as the games get underway is everywhere. Perhaps I feel like this because the people of Rio and Brazil have pushed the problems of these Games to the fore of international news through years of protest, or because of my carefully curated social media accounts, or the fact that there is so much sports coverage not controlled by NBC, or because this is part of a larger critique of sports organizations like FIFA, the NFL, and the NCAA. Most likely, it is all of it at once.

[More at Excelle Sports: NBC exec says women aren’t watching for the actual sports]

The problems in Rio are immense: displacement, dirty water, the deadly police force, Zika and dengue fever, death of construction workers, a crisis in the healthcare system, gentrification, etc. With the level of reporting, in its wake has come many musings on whether we can still love and watch the Olympics knowing the hell they inflict on the city in which they take place. There is this dissonance between what we know about the impact of this mega event on the people who live there and what we love about the Olympics as one of the greatest sporting events that takes place anywhere in the world. Plenty of people are attempting to hold both of these ideas at once. An example of this (and one I will be following throughout the Games) is Media Diversified’s “The Good and the Bad of Rio” series. They discuss the excellence of black Cuban boxers alongside the destruction of homes. Perhaps this is the answer to managing the many things the Olympics make us feel: simply reporting on all of it at once and acknowledging the complexity of this moment.

As a fan of women’s sports, there is a particular pain in all of this. Part of what is great about the Olympics, especially the Summer Olympics, is the diversity on display throughout sport. This includes diversity in races, ethnicities, religions, geography, body types, the kinds of sport, and, yes, gender. There are few places in sport where “men” is not the given category. Men play “basketball” while women play “women’s basketball.” Men play “soccer,” women “women’s soccer.” Yet, at the Olympics, it’s necessary to denote before any sport whether we will be watching men or women; there is no given because it would simply be too confusing. Katie Ledecky is discussed as the next possible US swimming legend, following in the wake of Michael Phelps. If you are going to talk about Jamaica’s world-class sprinter, please specify if you mean Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce or Usain Bolt. The Olympics is one of the few athletic spaces that gives women so much space to be athletes.

Ledecky touches the wall in London. (Photo: Getty Images)
Ledecky touches the wall in London. (Photo: Getty Images)

Wherever we find women’s, well, anything, it’s almost assuredly going to be under resourced and the women who participate belittled and their work minimized. This is true in Rio, as well. While these Games will have the highest percentage of female athletes ever, at 45%, this discrepancy is, in part, because there are 169 events for men and only 137 for women. Sports still ban women who wear the hijab, as Shireen Ahmed reminds us. There is still a discussion of “is this woman a woman” that is misogynistic and transphobic at its core. John Miller, NBC’s chief marketing officer, in response to disbelief that the network was airing the opening ceremony on tape delay in all time zones, said they did this because, “The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the games than men, and for the women, they’re less interested in the result and more interested in the journey.” If you have been wondering what that loud groan was this past Friday, it was a whole lot of female sports fans, ready to watch a whole lot of the world’s best female athletes compete, responding to this garbage statement. When Katina Hosszu won gold after destroying the world record in the 400-meter individual medley this weekend, the male commentators on NBC were insistent that her husband deserved the credit, much to the chagrin of many viewers. There will be more of these moments as we go.

Despite this, it is hard to find a better showcase for women’s sport and female athletes anywhere. For this reason, I covet the summer Olympics. I watch them relentlessly, from rugby to fencing, basketball to weightlifting. I will be cheering on Claressa Shields, Kayla Harrison, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Simone Biles, Crystal Dunn, Allyson Felix, Serena Williams, among many others.

But I return over and over again to what we know about the negative impact of these games on people in Rio. I am glad that these Games feel different, and that the problems caused by them continue to be highlighted.

It’s almost universally true that anywhere that life is made more difficult, the first to suffer are women, especially poor women. So, here I am, enjoying the athleticism of female athletes on the biggest stage provided to them knowing that the fact that have been provided this stage will harm others, especially women. I feel anger at that confluence, at the way our world treats women generally, and in sport particularly. We have so far to go in regards to both. And so, we must keep scrutinizing the powers that be: the ones that damage (women’s) lives to make way for sport and the ones who minimize women’s sport so much that this is one of the few times where we get to see it in so many forms, a force unto itself.

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