San Francisco Chronicle
For women, it’s not all fun at Games
Olympics haven’t even begun, but controversies have
Olympic season has formally opened. Which means controversy season has officially started.
The pressure and spotlight of the Olympics always creates conflict and controversy. It’s a messy soup of expectations, clashing cultures, overbearing authority, lifelong dreams, changing dynamics. The weird pandemic Tokyo Olympics, set to open July 23, may be among the most controversial ever simply by taking place.
In the past few days, female athletes have been in the news as they try to navigate challenging paths to the Olympics. While male athletes face their own challenges, so often it is female athletes in the controversy crosshairs.
Serena Williams, competing at Wimbledon, announced that she will not be playing in Tokyo, which would have been her fifth Olympics. The fourtime gold medalist has played in every Olympics since 2000, save for Athens in 2004 when she had a knee injury. She has won one gold in singles and three playing doubles with her sister, Venus.
Williams did not elaborate on her reasons for skipping Tokyo, but earlier this season she said COVID restrictions at the Games that would prevent her from bringing her 3year
old daughter Olympia on the trip would be problematic.
“I would not be able to go function without my 3yearold around,” she said at the time. “I think I would be in a depression. We’ve been together every day of her life.”
Williams isn’t the only athlete facing the choice between motherhood and Olympic competition. The ban on any foreign “spectators” includes infants, which is extremely concerning for breastfeeding mothers. Kim Gaucher, a basketball player for Canada, has run into a wall in trying to appeal the rule so that she can continue to nurse her infant daughter. U.S. marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk faces the same issue. U.S. soccer’s Alex Morgan had hoped to bring her 1yearold daughter, Charlie, with her.
So far, no compromise has been offered from Tokyo organizers. Their silence overlooks the windows that female athletes have for both motherhood and competition. That for all the celebration of mothers as Olympians, accommodations must be made to include them.
Track and field Olympian Gwen Berry sparked another controversy over the weekend, protesting while the national anthem was playing at the track trials in Eugene, Ore. Previously punished with probation for a protest during the anthem at the Pan Am Games, Berry said she felt “set up” that the anthem was playing while she honored for her qualification in blistering heat. The anthem was played once a day (odd as there is no question what country is being represented at the U.S. Track and Field trials). Berry draped her “Activist Athlete” Tshirt over her head.
Predictably, Berry was attacked by Republicans for “hating America” — by some of the same people who refuse to support an investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. But Berry was within her rights: the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, reversing itself under new leadership, said in March that it would allow acts of protests from athletes.
The USOPC policy is directly at odds with the IOC’s Rule 50, which will be the rule in place in Tokyo. In April, the IOC, with its head firmly still in 1968, reaffirmed Rule 50, which says athletes may be punished for protests.
Berry’s action was a preview. Get ready for athletes from around the globe to flaunt that rule in Tokyo. We will see how the IOC responds.
The IOC also faces controversy over its transgender policy. New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard is slated to become the first transgender athlete in the Olympics, though transgender athletes have been eligible to compete since 2004. Though she can take part based on IOC guidelines that require proof of capped testosterone levels for a year prior to the first competition, Hubbard’s inclusion has sparked protests and petitions against her.
American transgender hurdler CeCe Telfer was prohibited from competing at last week’s U.S. Trials because her testosterone levels were too high. She will not be an Olympian.
Meanwhile, South African runner Caster Semenya, who was assigned female gender at birth and has always identified as a female, but as an intersex woman has naturally elevated testosterone levels, will miss the Olympics. The twotime gold medalist has appealed 2018 rulings on eligibility for the 400, 800 and 1,500meter races that appeared designed to disallow her from competing based on her testosterone levels. Semenya has opted not to take testosteronesuppressing drugs — which she said made her ill — instead switching to the 5,000meter race she remains eligible for, but where she may not qualify for Tokyo.
Even if she isn’t there, Semenya’s legacy will live on, as evidence of how difficult it can be to neatly separate men and women into gendersegregated silos, of the scientific debate about genderspecific characteristics, and of the unavoidable confusion that comes trying to legislate gender.
The controversy torch is being lit around the world. Let the Games begin.