Great news! London 2012 is the first Olympic games to see every participating country send women to compete! The two medals Team GB have scored so far were won by Rebecca Adlington and Lizzie Armitstead! Women’s boxing is being allowed for the first time! And our politicians and media are busy cracking Carry On style “jokes” about ogling beach volleyball players’ bodies because they wear bikinis! Oh, wait.
On the day that Lizzie Armitstead spoke out against “overwhelming sexism in sport”, in his Telegraph column, Boris Johnson belittled the women’s beach volleyball team:
As I write these words there are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade immortalised by Canaletto. They are glistening like wet otters and the water is splashing off the brims of the spectators’ sou’westers. The whole thing is magnificent and bonkers.
Let’s ignore the fact that Boris is comparing the players to “wet otters” (no one needs to delve into Boris’s psyche this early in the week. Or indeed ever) and collectively sigh that that the mayor of London deems the fact that women athletes are scantily clad more worthy of comment than any aspect of the sport.
The BBC called them “babes in bikinis” and one minute into a press conference with the women’s beach volleyball team, a Sun reporter asked Britain’s athletes to “make a promise today, that whatever the weather” they would wear bikinis rather than the leggings or tops that are sometimes donned in colder weather. Obviously, the titillation of onlookers is more important than athletes being comfortable enough to fulfil their potential. Meanwhile, Betfair have decided to advertise on the women’s arses. When asked about their decision, Betfair responded:
“As far as we’re aware, this is the first time QR codes have been used in in-play sports advertising, and what better way to test its effectiveness than by putting them on one of the places that is likely to get photographed the most?”
Know your place, ladies. You’re there to have your arse snapped, not to aim for a few medals and represent your country.
The coverage of beach volleyball has the tone of a Carry On film, all camp leering and grubby titillation, while every article on the subject seems to be illustrated not with an action shot, but a close up of a woman’s bikini bottoms. An exasperated Lucy Boulton said:
“OK, we wear a bikini. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s most practical and I think we look good. The athletes basically wear big knickers and crop tops, so what’s the difference? It’s not like it’s pornographic. People get very excited, but if you go to the beach that’s what they wear. Even less.”
She’s right – the beach setting, and slightly scantier kit has rendered beach volleyball a total perve-magnet. Beach volleyball is particularly prone to this, but it’s indicative of the way women’s bodies are often dealt with in sport. In the run up to the Olympics, countless double page spreads were laid out with women athletes in saucy underwear, with headlines helpfully explaining that one could be both feminine and sporty. Heaven forbid a successful woman at the top of her field not be feminine.
Feministing helpfully analysed the coverage of athletes’ bodies in the ESPN “bodies” edition. Their findings weren’t surprising, but were disappointing:
78% of the photos of men depict an active pose, while only 52% of women’s do.
90% of the male athletes had at least least one active pose in the slideshow.
46% of female athletes had at least one active pose in the slideshow.
The message is that women’s bodies when they’re strong, are threatening. Beach volleyball is (incorrectly) seen as a lay person’s sport, the kind of game that’s played by amateurs at the seaside, rather than one which requires discipline, extensive training and, whisper it, muscle. Paula Radcliffe’s kit is only slightly more modest, yet politicians and commentators don’t joke about going to ogle marathon runners’ rears. This isn’t just about bikini bottoms: it’s about finding strength in women a bit terrifying.