Ever since their inception in April of 1896, the Olympic Games have been held up as a model of the best that athleticism—if not humanity itself—has to offer. In theory, the concept of athletes from all over the world coming together to meet, compete, and show off their respective nations’ athletic prowess is a beautiful one. Unfortunately, however, the Olympics have a long and painful history of displacing vulnerable communities and showing racist bias; and in no recent year has that bias been more clear than during the long-postponed 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
The ways in which this year’s Olympics have failed athletes who don’t happen to be white men are myriad, from the suspension of runner Sha’Carri Richardson for marijuana consumption to the International Swimming Federation’s ban on swim caps that fit natural Black hair to a lack of accommodations that would make it possible for breastfeeding parents to bring their children to the competition. The list goes on and on, but at a certain point, it feels incumbent on us to ask: What purpose do the Olympic Games serve when their rules seem so profoundly stacked against women and athletes of color?
I’m not advocating that we dispense with the Olympics altogether (although, in a year still defined by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there are crazier propositions), and, of course, seeing athletes like Simone Biles, Megan Rapinoe, skateboarder Alana Smith, and heptathlete Erica Bougard break barriers at the Olympics can have a profound and inspiring effect on people who might never have thought they’d see anyone who looked like them or shared any aspect of their identity compete at an international level. I don’t know what it would have meant to me to see Rapinoe on the field as a closeted queer teen, and I can’t even imagine the impact that Biles’s presence at the Olympics might be having on a generation of young Black girls and women joyfully watching her excel. As more people come to understand and familiarize themselves with nonbinary identity, the import of an athlete like Smith can’t be overstated, and the space that Bougard occupies as a Black, queer athlete in rainbow Nikes is similarly vital.
Representation aside, though, the point of the Olympics shouldn’t be to see which so-called “diverse” athlete can most successfully navigate the toxicity of a sexist and racist institution, and to hand out the gold only to women of color who, like tennis star Naomi Osaka, are forced to compromise their mental health and stability.
If the International Olympic Committee really wants to make the Olympics a success in an increasingly socially aware era, it should be doing everything possible to give its female athletes and athletes of color the greatest chance of success, not constantly presenting them with new hurdles to overcome that have nothing to do with sports. As they stand now, the Olympics won’t live up to their promise until the people who orchestrate them come to see the female, queer, Black, brown, Indigenous, nonbinary, trans and parent athletes they make money off of as people, not just athletes; people who deserve reasonable accommodations and institutional support in order to most effectively do their jobs.