Comment: Olympics sexism still rife amongst tweeters and even journalists

John Millington looks at the sexist attitude of some Tweeters towards female athletes during the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Female athletes have enjoyed a high profile at the London Olympics. British Olympic stars Jessica Ennis, Victoria Pendleton, Rebecca Adlington and Beth Tweddle are amongst many who have seen their already very public profiles increase with further medal success.

On the surface it seems women are finally gaining the recognition and respect as sportswomen that they deserve. And in the case of Ennis and Pendleton, whose dominance of their respective sports has meant massive sponsorship deals and increased exposure, it would appear top women sports stars are close to, if not already enjoying, parity with their male counterparts.

However, any illusions sexism and prejudice were a thing of the past were dashed unceremoniously on Monday night during the women’s shot put event.

As a not very good middle distance athlete, I love the field events. The power, the explosive nature of the competitors and the fact it can all be changed with one throw or jump. And I have always had a soft spot for the shot put, which usually showcases traditionally the biggest most powerful athletes the world has to offer. But as I watched the women’s event, Twitter and Facebook became awash with derogatory and offensive comments about the competitors – not least the eventual winner Nadzeya Ostapchuk of Belarus.

Calls for gender tests, comparisons with “ugly” famous men, and “jokes” relating these Olympic athletes with Miss Trunchbull – a big hideous fictional character who abuses children – dominated the discussion around the event.


See also:

London 2012 needs to set a precedent for the coverage of women’s sport 26 Jul 2012

Sexism in football, still rife in 2012 5 Apr 2012

International Women’s Day: We can’t be complacent, there’s a lot still to do 8 Mar 2012

Poll shows widespread sexism; Mail says: “Women declare sexism dead” 8 Mar 2011

Why is there such little coverage of women’s sport? 24 Jan 2011


Although the majority of offensive comments came from men, one woman reflected the sentiment of several others when she tweeted:

“I refuse to believe that the Olympian shot put women are actually women.”

Do these tweeters really want another Caster Semenya episode where the South African athlete was forced to go through a humiliating and hurtful 11-month saga of proving whether she was a woman or not? Unfortunately, such base prejudice was not confined to the social networks.

Evening Standard journalist Dan Jones, in his broadly fair report on the event, seemed incapable of avoiding a comment about the appearance of Ostapchuk, describing her as a

“…tremendously powerful 31-year-old broad who looks a little like she stepped from the pages of an Asterix the Gaul comic book only to be attacked by Gerard Depardieu’s hairdresser.”

All of the comments around the event betray a deep misogynistic attitude towards women who have fallen outside “acceptable norms”. Even though some women may jump on the bandwagon, it is primarily men and a male sexist attitude that is in the driving seat. But why have these particular female athletes become the focus for such comments and not others?

Three things spring to mind: the women’s appearance, body shape and physical strength.

Ostapchuk was ostracised for having “male characteristics” or supposedly being like a “dude”. Offensive comments were leveled at her hair style and face too. There is nothing abnormal about how she looks – yet despite a much more internationalised world where people travel to other countries and are exposed to different body types, a highly trained powerhouse athlete like Ostapchuk was compared unfavourably to the slightly out of shape British actor Ray Winstone in the Twittersphere.

It is not the first time sexism has reared its ugly head at the Games.

Take British Weightlifter Zoe Smith who received abusive tweets about her appearance despite setting a new British record in her weight class; she responded with great poise, sending a strong message to her detractors via her blog:

“[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?

“What do you want us to do? Shall we stop weightlifting, amend our diet in order to completely get rid of our ‘manly’ muscles, and become housewives in the sheer hope that one day you will look more favourably upon us and we might actually have a shot with you?!

“Cause you are clearly the kindest, most attractive type of man to grace the earth with your presence.”

Feminist activist and writer Finn Mackay believes the female athletic body is at odds with acceptable versions of femminity in Western society, telling Left Foot Forward:

The female body is so often an object in culture, and women and girls are too often encouraged to view their bodies as objects and as a performance, rather than a gender-neutral physical powerhouse with which they can achieve feats from lifting boxes when they move house to climbing trees or running marathons.

“Men’s bodies are not so often sexually objectified in culture (although this is increasingly the case and has been occurring over the last decade or so), we see men playing football, rugby or boxing or cycling and we see them in exertion, wearing practical clothing, muddy, sweaty, injured etc. But women’s bodies are not usually shown in this way, even women athletes, who often display a very heterosexual femininity when they are in adverts, sponsorship etc.”

She points the finger at advertisers who try to make “acceptable” marketable products that display some form of femminity that is acceptable to our culture:

“It seems the case that advertisers and sponsors are keen to ‘prove’ that their sponsored female athlete is actually feminine, even though she is a sportswoman – as if traditional heterosexual femininity and athleticism cannot go together.

“This is perhaps the very issue; as sport is about physicality, strength, muscularity, endurance, power, competition, winning, determination – all features which our culture does not normally attach to femininity.”

Sexualisation of women’s sport is on the increase. Ennis has sexualised comments about her appearance and Pendleton even posed for Esquire magazine.

Through no fault of their own both Ennis and Pendleton have become acceptable sportswomen not only for their incredible sporting achievements but because some male sports fans derive titillation from watching them; however, athletes like Ostapchuk and Smith, with their power and strength, present a challenge to these men, of non-conformity, both in body and by what they do for a sport – showcasing a level of strength not possessed by the average man.

We should be celebrating these women, just as much as we celebrate Ennis and co. They are examples of the diversity of the Olympics. And the message we should be sending to upcoming youth is: no matter your natural body type you can achieve and be equal in the world of sport.

Here is a taste of some of the terrible tweets:

• “I think Ray Winstone just won the ladies Shotput.”

• “Congratulations to Andrei Arshavin on his gold in the shotput, can’t believe how much weight the guys put on”

• “Belarusian salad dodger Nadezhda Ostapchuk would still be a 1/10 after 15 pints. #ShotPut”

• “If you’re feeling a little fugly today, just turn on the women’s shotput and you’ll be alright #London2012 #monsters”

• “Does anybody know what time Ms Trunchbull is on in the shotput??”

• “It took me 10 mins to realise these were women throwing the shotput, that Belarus woman escaped from some research facility #London2012″

8 Responses to “Comment: Olympics sexism still rife amongst tweeters and even journalists”

  1. Lord Blagger

    Just another variant on the Ginger Rodent theme.

    Nothing been done there by Labour, expelling those responsible.

    One rule for Labour Politicians, one rule for the rest of us who had better bloody well do as we are told.

  2. JonathanBagley

    From what I’ve read – a serious sport science book, not daft lads who’ve had a few drinks, Semenya has androgen insensitivity syndrome, where the individual has a Y chromosome, yet develops external female genitalia with the testes remaining in the body. This poses a big problem for the athletics authorities. The prevalence of AIS among female athletes is 100 times that in the general female population, so probably can be an advantage, yet a blind eye is turned unless the athlete becomes successful. Semenya was humiliated because her condition was made public. There was no option but to investigate her condition.
    I don’t understand your point about Victoria Pendleton. Did she choose to pose for Esquire; was she forced to; or was it an Act of God? Some female athletes do actually refuse to take part in such promotions. I believe Christine Ohuruogu is one such.

  3. ralf milibnad

    there shouldn’t even be women’s sports. it should just be who is the best at whatever is being competed. if women think they want a special version for themselves, have it in the paralympics as a seperate category.

  4. ralf milibnad

    just on your last sentence

    “And the message we should be sending to upcoming youth is: no matter your natural body type you can achieve and be equal in the world of sport.”

    the Olympics is not about being equal. it’s about being the best. better than everyone else in the world. that’s why they don’t just let everyone enter, not record who wins and just give everyone a prize. ie not a loony left sports day.

  5. Spartacus

    The AIS point is the real discussion in sports now – there will always be trolls but sexism is on the way out. I see so much hope in disability equality as well – Pristorius should focus on his running and not what he is over-coming but he is doing SO much to blow the engrained anti-disability mindset out of the water. It is gender that sport must overcome next.

    As long as we arbitrarily separate athletes based on an arbitrary definition of gender there will be those that fall outside of what is athletically and societally ‘acceptable’. The IOC (see here: draw a line between male and female based on testosterone levels, on the basis that this could confer an unfair advantage. This is strewn with problems, least of all that the assertion that it is simply testosterone that separates men from women in their sporting ability. As they recognise, human biology is not binary and hormones will not conform to legal gender ( What they choose not to observe is that this is not a problem but simply the IOC’s own unrealistic expectation that such gender-conforming is possible. Just as being naturally tall for the high jump and naturally fast for the sprints, being naturally strong, of which testosterone levels are one component, can help with many sports.

    A woman with naturally higher testosterone than other female athletes is not cheating nor doping. Likewise, men with low testosterone are not women, however, parity on this issue has bypassed the IOC, who have no similar policy for such an event. Nothing is said regarding trans-athletes, who may have already taken medically-prescribed exogenous testosterone. The IOC believe their definition only comes into play if female athletes cross the ‘male threshold’, which should never happen unless they’re doping, but pregnant women (early enough in pregnancy to compete at sport) could breach this level simply by bearing a male child. In the case of Caster Semenya, whose gender-lynching at the 2009 World Championships began all this trouble, even after medical invasion, accusation and harassment she was allowed to compete. All that for nothing. This policy simply encourages more of the type of accusations that the article refers to.

    The IOC ends their harmful pontification with the audacious statement that “Nothing in these regulations is intended to make any determination of sex. Instead these regulations are designed to identify circumstances in which a particular athlete will not be eligible (by reason of hormonal characteristics) to participate in the 2012 Olympic Games”, in the female category that is. Therefore making a determination of sex.

    2 solutions: Stop worrying what gender your competitors are – if they clear drug testing, they’re in. Higher levels of testosterone may ‘aid’ performance in some ways. That is as acceptable as being fitter or taller or faster than others. OR, all women and men compete together and against each other in all events: same sport = same distances, same skills, same prize money. Either way remove ‘acceptable gender’ from the equation.

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