Equality: A Vision of..? Part 1

The Olympics: the pinnacle of sporting achievement. This competition receives global attention; is credited with encouraging participation in sport and healthier living; and is fought over by countries and cities desperate to invest in hosting it. The ASP wishes to place surfing in this high profile competition. I’ve written about this before: What Price Progress?

In that piece I criticised the ASP for a lack of equality. In my opinion, women’s surfing has been deliberately trivialised and continues to be disadvantaged in the current setting. I wondered if the ASP was following the lead of the IOC in trying to address the imbalance. After all, paying women a third of the prize money men get, and providing inferior locations and conditions for competition is blatantly sexist.The IOC has guidelines in place that place emphasis on standards of equality. So what has the IOC got to offer for guidance?

The Olympic Games did not focus on equality in the first 50 years of its inception. The London Games in 2012 did however usher in an improvement for the Olympics. 44% of participants were female and for the first time ever, women participated in every Olympic Sport. Traditionally women had not been allowed to compete in boxing but this changed and so the last hurdle to competing in every event was finally crossed.

In July 2013 the IOC Chairman announced in Making Progress: Seeking gender equality in sport that the IOC had to continue to make progress from this achievement. In particular the alliance formed with the United Nations was considered instrumental in improving equality.

The United Nations has an organisation called Sport for Development and Peace. In this organisation, the traditional place of sport in global communities is seen as a low cost and effective way to improve human rights of people worldwide. The importance of sport in fostering development is recognised even as sport itself is openly defined as a complex mirror of society:

The positive potential of sport does not develop automatically. It requires a professional and socially responsible intervention which is tailored to the respective social and cultural context.

 

In my previous post I contended that a vision for equality would involve environmental and social justice; that surfing could promote education; that surfing needed to be aware of cultural context; that surfing could contribute to local economies and encourage development. This seems to align with the vision of the United Nations Charter and the UN Sport for Development and Peace. In 2007 the UN put out a paper entitled: Women, Gender and Equality in Sport where it contended that women play a vital part in developing goals. It states that the UN believes sport and leisure to be a basic human right. It also states that women’s equality is constrained by sexism in sport, but goes on further to say:

The role of men and boys in challenging and changing unequal power relations is critical.

Thus, the current state of women’s surfing is dependent on men challenging the way that the ASP promotes and organises women in surfing. When I first started this series, I was challenged for my disappointment in the way men on Twitter responded to sexist policies in surfing. I was told my frame of reference was only the online environment but clearly the UN backs up my contentions that the way men respond to inequality is important and that it isn’t just a part of online experience.

I have also complained about the way women in surfing are represented in magazines and media. I believe the athletes are hypersexualised in comparison to men and I believe that this is harmful to the sport. This belief stems in part from the work of Cori Schumacher who has consistently written about this. She recently evaluated the current state of women’s pro surfing and says:

What the surf industry calls “market reality,” female competitive surfers often dub “not being marketed correctly.” 17-year WCT veteran, Rochelle Ballard puts it succinctly: “I just think [women’s professional surfing] hasn’t been approached right.”

It would seem as if the IOC’s move to increase female participation in sport would also need to carefully assess the way that women are marketed but sadly, even sports in the Olympics tend to have preferential treatment for men, even in the way female athletes are dressed. Until recently Volleyball insisted women had to wear bikinis. They were only convinced to change this policy because religious mandates from other countries forbid women from competing in this event. In boxing, the last sport to finally allow women to compete, women were forced to wear skirts instead of shorts so that they looked more feminine. Why does this difference in treatment exist?

Janet Fink in Homophobia and the Marketing of Female Athletes and Women’s Sport wrote:

Homophobia has strong and deep tentacles in the world of women’s sport, and this entrenched notion has an especially meaningful impact on the marketing of
women’s sports and female athletes.

Essentially, the marketing of women in a hypersexualised manner is to do with reinforcing traditional notions of sexuality and male hegemony. The ‘reality’ of commercial marketing is in fact a fear of homosexuality. Given the recent shift in public perception it is reasonable to expect that this will then change the way that sport is marketed, especially for women, but this shift is taking place slowly and with great difficulty. The belief that ‘sex sells’ has been soundly disproven but the myth continues to be used to sell sexualisation in marketing.

To summarise the vision of equality so far:

1. The UN sees sport as an important tool for human rights, including equality and further contends that women play a vital role in development goals.
2. The IOC is committed to improving equality
3. There is criticism of continued hypersexualisation of women and a contention that this is based on male heteronormativity/ a response to homophobic beliefs.
4. Men play a vital role in challenging inequality because of their prominence in sport.

What, then, does the ASP have in place for improving equality and how do sports organisations plan for such a thing? Where will the money come from? And why does female performance lag behind male athletes? Stay tuned: I intend to find out.

 

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