The Netherlands is wrapped up in Winter Olympic fever at the moment. The Dutch have swept the podium (winning gold, silver and bronze in the one event) not once, but twice. A podium sweep in the ice skating has only been done twice before, and the Dutch have done it twice in three days. Paul keeps dancing around the house, shouting ‘een, twee, drie!’ (One, two three!) Not only that, they’ve won four out of the five gold medals on offer on the rink.
So I’ve gotten a tad swept away with it, too. Actually, it’s quite nice to be in a country this time around that’s good at the Winter Games.
On Tuesday I was watching the Games on the BBC (I love having two national networks at my disposal here) when they cut away to a segment on the women’s ski jump. The final was scheduled for that night and I figured that they were highlighting a few of the favourites for the gold. No big deal, I thought to myself.
Wrong. The reason why the BBC was highlighting the sport was because it was the first time the women’s ski jump was to be an Olympic event. That’s right, in the Winter Games’ 90-year history, there had never been a women’s ski jumping event.
I found this unbelievable. As someone who knows a modest amount about the Winter Games and takes a passing interest in them every four years, I had no idea that there was no women’s ski jumping. I just figured that there was, as I’d seen it on TV. I had never realised that all of those athletes on my telly had been men.
I was outraged, which didn’t have the impact I was hoping for as I was the only person in the house at the time. Instead I just paced around (really, I did), stewing at this unwelcome news.
Throughout the 1990s, I watched the Olympics like any other sports-obsessed kid. In my mind, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) could do no wrong; they governed an event that brought so many good memories; the Oarsome Foursome, Kieren Perkins’ successive golds and the Hockeyroos. I held an Olympic-themed birthday party in 1992, and spent hours on my Olympics project for my grade five library class in 1996. To me, the Olympics was sacred.
I took my obsession to another level after 2000, when I attended the Games in Sydney. But one day, I sat down to read a book. I own an impressive library of books and DVDs about the Olympics; for some of my university essays I could do all of my research at home. I probably had gotten this one like most of the others – from the bargain bin a year or two after its publication.
But this book was a bit different. Unfortunately for this post, I can’t for the life of me remember its name, except that it had the acrobats from the 1980 Opening Ceremony on the cover. I’ve done countless Google searches with a whole range of keywords, but nothing’s come up so I reckon it only had a pretty small print run. But this book changed everything for me. All of a sudden the IOC wasn’t so perfect, so untouchable.
I think I was only sixteen when I read the book, but I was engrossed for days. One by one, it went through each Olympic scandal of the twentieth century – the Cold War, Nazism, apartheid, drugs, terrorism – and basically argued that the IOC had handled each one atrociously. Scandal after scandal, the IOC would proclaim that the Olympics, and sport more generally, was separate from, or even above, politics.
You have got to be kidding me; any doubt in anyone’s mind was erased in 1936 when the Olympics were used as a vehicle to promote Nazism to the world. In fact, the then-president of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), Avery Brundage, defied public opinion against those Games and pretty much forced his team to attend, and dropped two Jewish athletes from the relay team so as not to embarrass Hitler. (Brundage went on to become IOC president for much of the second half of the twentieth century and let’s just say historians haven’t been kind to him. I’d punch him in the face if I could.)
Since then, the IOC has been obsessed with not appearing to be political. Who can forget Brundage’s ‘the Games must go on’ after the 1972 Israeli hostage crisis? What about the response to the Black Power salute in 1968? We’re seeing it again in this Olympics; not only have athletes been forbidden from making any statements about Russia’s terrible record on gay rights during competition, but Torah Bright has even been banned by the IOC from wearing a sticker on her helmet, honouring her best friend who was killed right in front of her in a snowboarding accident. According to the IOC, such a display would be a ‘political statement’.
What we’re all forgetting here is the fact that simply competing in the Olympics is a political statement; it’s taking on a nationality and promoting it above any others. At the end of the day, the Olympic movement does not exist in a vacuum, so the IOC needs to end its fake exasperation about politics and sport. It’s been like that since the year dot.
What has also been around forever is the IOC’s outdated attitude towards women. Something that I’ve never understood is that speaking about gender equality is ‘political’ but barring women from Olympic competition is apparently not. I’m not just talking about the ski jumping, because the IOC have form on this. For example, the women’s 800m race was introduced in 1928, but when media reports told of half of the competitors not finishing and others staggering to the line, the race was cut until its reintroduction in 1960. (This excellent piece by my old employer, Runner’s World, tells the real story of the race. Everyone finished.) For three decades, the longest race for women at the Olympics was 200m. For two decades after that, it had slowly increased to 1,500m. The women’s marathon wasn’t introduced until 1984.
The funny thing about all of this is that women didn’t stop running after 1928. They didn’t go, ‘oh, the IOC says we’re not fit to run, so that’s that’. The first record of a woman running in a marathon was in the first one, in 1896. A local woman named Melpomene was barred from officially competing, so she ran alongside the men for the entire course, beating many of the official entrants. The big, well-known marathons around the world had been allowing women to compete up to twenty years before the IOC cottoned on to the whole thing and allowed women to compete in Los Angeles.
I can go on if you let me. Women’s water polo was introduced at the Olympics a century after the men were allowed to compete. That gap was 96 years for football; 88 years for cycling and shooting; 78 years for ice hockey and bobsleigh; 76 years for sailing; 74 years for curling; 72 years for hockey; 68 years for race walking and 40 years for basketball and handball. Weightlifting for women was not allowed until 2000, wrestling in 2004, steeplechase in 2008 and boxing in 2012. (These are only examples, the list does go on.) Think watching women’s pole vault is pretty normal? Well, it’s only been an Olympic event since 2000, a whopping 104 years after the men’s medals were up for grabs.
And we’re still not done. There’s still no women’s 10km speed skating, 1500m freestyle swimming, 50km cross-country skiing or four-woman bobsleigh. Women were offered to compete only softball at the Olympics, despite there being an international women’s baseball competition. When it comes to women’s canoeing - canoeing, for God’s sake – we’re still waiting.
It’s not as if these sports and disciplines don’t exist for women – I remember canoeing for the first time during Grade Six camp. I’ve caught a baseball in a glove. The women’s 1500m freestyle is a regular event at the swimming world championships. In fact, American teenager Katie Ledecky smashed the world record in it last year.
Of course, I’m throwing all of these sports into the one sexist basket and a lot of the sports’ governing bodies haven’t promoted their women’s disciplines at all. So I’m not ignoring a lot of their inaction. But this post is about the IOC, and it’s in their direction that I’m pointing my finger.
Oh, the IOC, one of the world’s last oligarchies. It’s self-appointed, self-regulated and answerable to nobody. The committee’s membership includes the likes of Princess Nora of Lichtenstein, Princess Haya Al Hussein of the UAE, Prince Feisal Al Hussein of Jordan, Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark, Baron Pierre-Olivier Beckers-Vieujant of Belgium, Prince Albert II of Monaco, Princess Anne of England, Sheikh Ahman Al-Fahad Al-Sabah of Kuwait, Prince Nawaf Faisal Fahd Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, Prince Tunku Imran of Malaysia and Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg. Of the 108 members, only 12 are actually elected by the athletes. 79 per cent of all members are men.
So it’s an old man, old money club, the IOC. It’s all smoke and mirrors, these proclamations about sport being open to anyone, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. Back in 1991, the IOC patted themselves on the back after announcing that all new Olympic sports had to be open to both men and women – but not for sports that already existed. It’s laughable, really. These are the people that have told athletes like Lindsay Van that ski jumping has been banned for women because it damages their reproductive organs. When the women scratched their heads and asking where that left boxing then, they were given the next age-old argument. The level of competition in women’s ski jumping just wasn’t good enough to be Olympic.
I hate this argument more than the medical one. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation; without the Olympics, the sport doesn’t get much funding or recognition, but it needs funding and recognition to make it an Olympic sport. It’s a cop-out, and the IOC knows it. I just don’t get why that with all of the criticism they receive, they don’t want to change their attitude. You know, become known for advocating for women’s sport, for encouraging proper funding on the same level as men.
But oh yes, I do. What’s in it for them? They’re answerable to nobody, remember?
So on Tuesday night I watched the women’s ski jump for the first time, and I allowed myself to smile. But only for a moment. Tomorrow I’ll watch the men’s ‘big hill’ ski jump, and next week there will also be a men’s ski jumping team event. The women are confined to solely the ‘normal hill’ competition, at least for the moment.
I love watching the Olympics, and probably always will. But I’m sick of defending them due to the actions (or lack of) by the IOC. The Olympics are political, no matter what the IOC says. The sooner they accept this, the better.
All photos are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.