Oscar Pistorious, Gabby Douglas and beach volleyball
The Olympics mark a time when our global society comes together. The symbolism of the event often escapes me. But this year, we have seen the International Olympic Committee make clear statements condemning discrimination and encouraging inclusion (e.g. the pressure countries experienced to allow women to compete, the ouster of a Greek athlete due to inappropriate Twitter posts. The easy analysis would be to focus on these messages that align with the overarching spirit of the games. However, such declarations should not keep us from seeing that we need to continue to improve our treatment and perceptions of each other.
A couple of examples include the coverage of Oscar Pistorious who competed in the Olympics with prosthetics legs after a long battle with the governing body of track and field. To be clear, Pistorious can run faster than many people who are “able-bodied.” However, on numerous occasions, from the opening ceremony coverage to event coverage, he was described as “broken.”
That language is problematic, and our assumptions are laden with judgment if we characterize this young man as broken. He happens to have prosthetic limbs, but I am confident that his use of those limbs out performs what I would be able to do with those same limbs. So who is impaired?
You could argue that while I am “able-bodied,” Pistorious’ body is more able. Such language is patronizing and fosters pity. The alternative is to acknowledge a person’s physical ability with respect and be willing to create an environment that is accommodating and inclusive.
Another example is the hoopla over Gabby Douglas’ hair. Newsflash: Douglas is African American. The average texture of African Americans’ hair is different than, it’s safe to say, all the other gymnasts in the Olympics this year. But while we get comfortable looking at up-close footage of hair whose natural state is tightly coiled curls, we need to keep our judgment in check.
The politics of hair in the Black community is dense; (see track and field for a wide array of choices African-American women make with their hair). But the reality remains that criticizing Douglas for her hair being the way her hair is, cancels out all the patting on the back we have done about being a country where an African-American gymnast can thrive. It’s contradictory to applaud Douglas for being an American gold-medal winning competitor while simultaneously bashing her roots (literally).
Finally, the pre-Olympic coverage was full of headlines about this year’s delegation being predominantly female for the first time in history. Yet that numerical change has not shifted the dynamics of coverage. From the camera angles focusing on physical body parts rather than athleticism to the language used to talk about women athletes, there is not equity in coverage. And why would we expect there to be? The numerical shift does not magically make gender dynamics change. Even the presence of a female commentator is not a guarantee.
Change takes awareness, reflection and the willingness to see systematic dynamics. Only then can actual change occur. Blowing off the people pointing out the gaffes and inequitable treatment won’t make it go away. They are not being overly sensitive. They are trying to make us better.
My solution: Make awareness and reflection part of the medal count. For example, a nation would get more points for recognizing its own gaffes and less if it had to be brought to their attention before they addressed it. Deductions for execution would occur if they failed to respond and/or gave the perfunctory “We’re sorry if you were offended” response.
Level of difficulty would speak to the complexity of the situation (e.g., does it involve one person, a group of people, or an unquestioned norm that everyone in the country adopts). Countries rally around being the best at anything, why not make a sport of it? And the best part is that the payoff for this event would be immeasurable.