London 2012: Why Can't We Out Run Sexism in Sports?

Women's participation in these games is at an all time high and it's definitely reason to celebrate. The UK's female Olympians have done exceptionally well, outnumbering the total number of male athletes and winning the nation's first gold, silver and bronze medals.

The London 2012 Olympics mark a historical chapter in women's history. For the very first time, each discipline has a female category and every country has sent at least one female athlete. Women's participation in these games is at an all time high and it's definitely reason to celebrate. The UK's female Olympians have done exceptionally well, outnumbering the total number of male athletes and winning the nation's first gold, silver and bronze medals.

Sure, we spent the year having to debate whether female boxers should have to wear a skirt and there was the curious case of the sexually segregated pre-olympic flight, but overall, these games mark a historical shift. Does this mean gender inequality in sport is finally over? Can we finally talk about something else? Sorry to rain on this Olympic torch relay, but it seems that the more things change the more they stay the same. And by the same, I mean sexist.

If you don't take my word for it, ask Lizzie Armitstead, who, after picking up silver in the cycling road race, used that moment to draw attention to the enduring pay discrepancies between male and female athletes and the "overwhelming sexism" in Olympic coverage. A new study supports her claim and demonstrates that women's endorsement deals are fewer and that female athletes continue to be highly sexualised.

Need examples? Take the Melbourne Herald Sun, which recently ran a story scrutinising three-time gold winning champion Leisel Joneso over her supposed weight gain.

The double page full colour story displayed purposely unflattering pictures of the athlete and asked readers to vote on whether her love handles would stand between her and a gold medal. Conan O'Brien's now infamous ruthless tweet comparing weightlifter Holley Mangold to a sexually repulsive "she-monster" who rapes every man in sight can also be added to the list of cringe-worthy remarks about female athletes. If that's not enough to tickle your sexist olympic coverage bone, then take a look at Metro's wink at the distinct and perpetual objectification of female volleyball players.

Despite this dispiriting turmoil, weightlifter Zoe Smith's splendid response to a set of impertinent (to say the least) tweets insulting her appearance made us feel just as good as when the Queen casually parachuted her way to the opening ceremony. After a set of tasteless tweets from users calling her fat (because we all know weightlifters should be superhumanly strong AND have the BMI of supermodels) she retorted with a clever post asking the question that was on all our lips: "Who asked YOU?"

In the impeccably prodigious words of Zoe Smith:

"We don't lift weights in order to look hot, especially for the likes of men like that. What makes them think that we even WANT them to find us attractive? If you do, thanks very much, we're flattered. But if you don't, why do you really need to voice this opinion in the first place, and what makes you think we actually give a toss that you, personally, do not find us attractive?"

Although I will never reach the level of public scrutiny of any Olympic athlete, these frustrations resonated closely with me. They made me realise that as a society, we often wonder why women care about what men think about their bodies, but we rarely ask why men feel so compelled to voice that opinion in the first place. Whether it be negative or positive commentary, why are evaluations and judgements about women's bodies so prevalent and dominant in our culture? Instead of asking why women listen to these comments, shouldn't we ask why men keep making them?

When I cancelled my gym membership this summer and started running outdoors, this question became that more palpable. After a few outdoor runs, it became obvious I had very little ownership over my own streets, and less still over my own body. A feeling of uneasiness often overcame me as I ran by a pack of construction workers staring me down or a man in a car whistling or trying to initiate conversation at a red light. I was shocked to see that because I was performing sport on the streets, all of a sudden, others were entitled to navigate my body with their gaze or to stop me in the middle of my workout to voice their thoughts about my appearance.

The worst part wasn't someone making my body their play thing, but rather the embarrassment that it made me internalise. I would think: Is this guy kidding? I'm pretty sure I have pit stains the size of Worcester and my lips are emulating those of a thirsty, disorientated camel. I'm literally a running pile of sweat and he thinks this is a good time to a) stop me and b) tell me his thoughts on my butt? Now I know what you're thinking. How am I supposed to expect men to control themselves in public spaces if women are prancing around in their provocative workout gear? Touché. My boringly plain oversized grey t-shirt and skanky scrunchy were totally asking for it. Damn you, completely asexual workout gear!

Of course I can only speak for myself, but when I'm jogging I'm out there for me, not to put on some sort of show. If you like the work I've put into my body, that's great. If it inspires you, that's awesome. But what has made you so deluded that you believe it's crucial for me to know what you think about my body at this very moment?

What bugs me even more is that whenever a woman raises her voice about this issue, she's told that she should be "flattered" or take it as a "compliment". Being told that cat-calling or car-honking should be taken as a compliment is actually the biggest insult of all because it assumes that we should somehow rely on your opinion to form one about ourselves. Has it ever occurred to you that we might already be aware of our value and might not require your opinion to form our own?

Sure, lots of us struggle with self-esteem issues and according to recent studies, this is a growing problem for a large number of women (and men). Nevertheless, we don't lack self-assurance because we don't hear enough whistles and comments from blokes in their cars. We lack confidence because we're expected to tolerate that kind of behaviour and because our culture blames us if we aren't able to find flattery in it.

When you assume we need your validation, you are wrong. What we need is your respect. Once we get it, we'll take THAT as a compliment. Until then, you can keep your whistles for the dog park and your car honking for traffic jams because I've got another four miles to run and they ain't gonna run themselves.


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