Women at the Rio Olympics

“I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles.”

– Simone Biles,

Individual all-round, vault, and floor gold medalist.

The Olympic Games are relevant, not as a platform for the display of shallow ‘national pride’ in the State’s achievements, but because the beauty of sport continues to mesmerize us in spite of and not because of the media spectacle; because of the little people who now and then, triumph in the face of capitalism, imperialism, racism, and sexism that dominate sports globally.

Women have notched many firsts this year, and there are heartwarming, yet disturbing stories about the odds faced by women in the context of the imbalances along gender lines, especially in the respective sporting cultures of their home countries and in the sporting world in general.

Sara Ahmed, the first woman medalist ever from Egypt, a country which has competed in the Olympics for over a century, is also the first Arab Muslim woman at the Olympics who has a medal in weightlifting. Simone Manuels became the first black woman from a country where acid was poured into swimming pools to keep black people out, to win an individual medal in swimming. Our own Sakshi Malik has challenged the perception of what is not ‘women’s sport’, namely wrestling. Women have competed in the hijab against a background of overt and covert Islamophobic comment – one woman commentator writing about the hijab at the Olympics said that it was ‘coercion disguised as freedom’. It is interesting that such commentators are unable to discern any coercion in the rules and regulations that decide how sportswomen are ‘supposed’ to dress and look – rules that keep women out of competitive sport because of their choice to wear hijab! Once such rules are relaxed, women are ready to get down and dirty – as demonstrated by Doaa Elghobashy and Nada Meawad from Egypt who competed in full sleeved shirts and fitted pants in the beach volleyball event.

An unusual moment in Olympic history, reflecting extremely painful events unfolding in the Middle East, is the team of refugee women athletes: Yolande Mabika (Democratic Republic of the Congo, judo), Yusra Mardini (Syria, swimming), Rose Nathike Lokonyen (South Sudan, athletics), and Anjelina Nadai Lohalith (South Sudan, athletics). And so Black, Muslim, Arab, displaced, and queer women have not only played smashingly well, challenging racial, gender, regional, and religious stereotypes, but also fanned out in a greater number of sporting categories at the Olympics.

Sometimes, the obvious risks taken by some women athletes speak of the neglect and discrimination faced by them in their own countries. India’s crude and boastful posturing in the sporting world cannot hide our essentially feudal approach to sports. Governments vie to appropriate medal-winning sportswomen as ‘India’s daughters’ and hand out cash doles to medal-winning sportspeople – but fail to provide India’s athletes with the necessary infrastructure, financial security or even respect and dignity. Dutee Chand, from a poor family in Odisha, and the third ever Indian woman to qualify for the 100 metres event, did not even have the support to buy a new pair of shoes and tracksuit. She rued this lack of support and wished things would change.