Sports tournaments have always allowed us to live by proxy. We sit, comfortably nestled, in our armchairs of privilege (metaphorical and bodily) and live too briefly through the tanned, supple bodies we see on our screen interfaces. This has been far too helpful during the long COVID days, as we continue to wander away, denied opportunities to meet in person, and with common outdoor activities incredibly out of reach.
We can’t run, jump or play ball like we used to, but we can definitely people watch practice these sports on the screen, in our protected bubbles that try to challenge the pandemic. The courage, efforts and victories of athletes at events like the Olympics and other platforms certainly make us proud and should be celebrated.
It’s hard to miss that there is a thin veneer of patriotism and nationalism – the fallacy of believing in the pre-established supremacy of one’s own country by an accident of birth – coating these sports tournaments. It might be better not to dwell on the fine line between patriotism and nationalism. It is a slippery slope that recalls the Hinduism vs. Hindutva debate.
A harmless pursuit, one could say, to live through the sportsmen. We don’t break any quarantine rules, we don’t shed blood, we don’t wage any war. We live vicariously and in the same way, through novels, films, series, video games and other forms of engagement. The only distinction is that in these latter activities we engage with fictional characters, while in sports we engage with real people.
The problem arises when we view our vicarious life as an investment in the lives of athletes. We watch them, we follow them, we help them build a career with our support and therefore, we tend to believe that we own them, or some of them. Their success is something we are proud of (although little or nothing to help athletes afford the equipment or training they deserve).
Their failure is a personal betrayal for us and we believe they should be punished appropriately, as in the unfortunate case of Vandana Katariya and her submissive family. to caste hooliganism after losing in field hockey at the Olympics. We believe we own our athletes and their bodies.
This problem is, as is the case with most problems, gendered. Sportswomen are usually ulterior motives in tournaments, aside from our occasional exultation for Serena Williams or PV Sindhu. Wage scale estimated the gender pay gap in sport at 94% in 2021. Cricket men in India earn 14-30 times more than women and Mithali Dorai Raj, captain of India’s national test team and ODI does not yet feel ready to ask for pay equity.
Implicit ownership beliefs therefore become even more acute for women and their bodies in sport. Women, after all, have not until recently been able to openly attempt to establish ownership over their own bodies, either in the community or in legislation. The United States has enacted 90 laws on women and their right to request abortion this year, the largest in any year to date.
The High Court of Kerala in India recently recognized that a sexual act that mimics penetration is equivalent to rape and that marital rape is a grounds for divorce, in two separate verdicts. COVID in India vaccination campaign continues to show a gender disparity highlighting obvious and long-standing barriers to accessing health care. Obviously, we still don’t know if adult women can make decisions about their health and body autonomy.
This is nothing new, although the fury over the French Open and the Tokyo Olympics has certainly highlighted this. To recap, over the past month, the Norwegian women’s handball team has been a ridiculous fine 1,500 euros in the Euro 2021 sports tournament for choosing to wear waders rather than bikini bottoms – which implies that their role is decorative rather than performative.
British Paralympic athlete has learned her track shorts are much too short, the subtext being that there is something shameful and likely to be covered up, about being a person with a disability in general, and cerebral palsy in particular. The press and the organizers at Roland-Garros took offense to Naomi Osaka refusing to let them into her personal space (what else is an interview about) during the tournament, prompting the athlete to disclose her struggle with depression and withdraw from the Open.
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Simone BilÃ¨s flak face for refusing to endanger his body by doing the Yurchenko double pike and for withdrawing from the individual and team gymnastics events at the Olympics, while recovering from past mental trauma. Raven Saunders, queer athlete and person of color, facing the investigation for symbolically representing an X (for intersectionality) on the Olympic podium after winning the silver medal in the women’s shot put.
Among Indian athletes at the Olympics, Vandana Katariya and the women’s field hockey team faced off against caste abuse to get “too much“Dalits (how much is too much – is one allowed?)
PV Sindhu, Manika Batra, Kamalpreet Kaur, Chanu Saikhom Mirabai, Mary Kom, Lovlina Borgohain, Aditi Ashok and Vinesh Phogat got their bodies and performances scrutinized exclusively by spectators of the world’s largest democracy, who choose to call them “the daughters of the nationsâIn the beautiful patriarchal fervor.
Mary Kom’s tattoos received intrusive attention and trolling, with matching ground threads, implying that the cross on her deltoid (and displaying her Christian identity) played a role in her missing a medal this time around. Manika Batra has, in a turn of events that echoes Naomi Osaka’s experiences, received a notice of cause speak Indian Table Tennis Federation for her refusal to let the national coach, a man she clearly seems uncomfortable with, stay by her side during matches.
Of course, these incidents raise important questions that we must ask ourselves about the sportswoman and her autonomy. Undoubtedly, playing in international sports tournaments brings prestige. It is both an honor and a burden to have the expectations of a nation on your wrists or your shoulders.
In a world where women are still far from being equal, being an athlete is much heavier. But what price do we expect from the sportswoman to be able to practice a sport that she loves, and to practice it well, on a large stage, in front of a large group of people?
What owes us the sportsman, spectators? Do we expect a check on their race, ethnicity, caste, height, weight, who they may like (Sania Mirza or Duee Chand), what they can wear (Sania Mirza, again), who manage to interfere in their personal spaces (coaches or journalists or endorsements), their political affiliations, their opinions, their self?
A deeper question that we must then ask ourselves is that if we expect the sportswoman to abandon her body and her functions to our police, what part of herself remains in her own autonomy?
Can she slide her nails or curl her eyelashes without asking us or do we expect the nation to determine that as well? What should a woman give to her audience in return for a platform on which she can demonstrate her mental and physical prowess? Does the sportswoman’s body belong to itself? It seems not.
These are not questions limited to sport alone. All professions seem to require some degree of commodification of the body – and clearly more of women than men. With the end of the Olympics and India having demonstrated its best performance ever, most being driven by women, sportswoman and objectification of her body for mass public consumption and drugs seem particularly prevalent and difficult to turn away.
It remains to be seen whether the nation that declares them its daughters (without permission) will now tackle the sexist and castist abuses to which they are vulnerable.
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