Sports, Science, and Sexism

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I’ve spent this past week trying to catch as much of the Olympics as possible.  I’ve been watching a lot of gymnastics and swimming since those sports are on later at night when I get home from work.  It’s been really exciting to watch these amazing athletes from all over the world compete.  I can’t even imagine what it’s like to participate in this global competition of athleticism.

There have been many things to analyze as well for someone who pays attention to systems of oppression.  Unfortunately the Olympics is filled with it, especially around gender.  Sometimes I feel that is shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the mere fact that men and womyn (because those are the only two genders recognized here) compete separately already perpetuates that they are unequal.  I could go on and on about the differences in gender expression (how you show if you’re a boy, girl, etc.), I mean come on, why is it that a lot of the female athletes are wearing so much less clothing than their male counterparts?  However, I’d like to focus on another aspect of the Olympics that has received some attention–the ability or inability of athletes based on their gender.

Ye Shiwen, a 16-year old swimmer from China has won two gold medals thus far, and instead of being recognized as the super athlete that she is, she is accused of cheating because apparently there’s no way all of her training and hard work could make her that good because she’s female.  According to science, she cannot be faster than Ryan Lochte, a White male swimmer representing the U.S. because she is inherently weaker.  The below articles question whether or not she is taking drugs or even altering her genetics (yes, really) to be a better swimmer.

Chinese swimmer stuns with Lochte-beating split 

Genetically modified athletes

Most of us really rely on science to make sense of the world.  We usually take it for granted and accept it as truth because there is some sort of “objective” evidence and proof.  After all, it is comforting know that if you jump up in the air, at some point, you will definitely land.  With newer technology giving us the ability to dive deeper into the how’s and why’s of the universe, even when contradictory information is found, we attribute this new truth as the correct one because scientists before didn’t have the capabilities to prove otherwise.  However, science is not always concrete.  There were many “scientific facts” that have since been disproved or considered utterly ridiculous.  I’ve listed several that I learned over the years either in school or otherwise. I’ve included the name of the person who is credited to have discovered or developed these facts.  I also included the year or time in which this information came about.  There are some social “scientific facts” because they often have roots or have been influenced by physical sciences.

  1. The earth is the center of the universe. (Claudius Ptolemy, 90 AD- 168 AD)
  2. Human emotions and personalities are determined by the color of one’s bile (bodily fluids). (Hippocrates, 460 B.C.-370 B.C.)
  3. White people are the superior race. (Louis Aggasiz, late 19th century)
  4. Men have higher levels of testosterone which make them able to build more muscle mass than womyn and therefore stronger (Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard, 1889)
  5. Girls are jealous of boys because they have penises. (Sigmund Freud, early 20th century)
  6. Boys want to kill their fathers and sleep with their mothers. (Sigmund Freud, early 20th century)
  7. Womyn are crazy. (Sigmund Freud, early 20th century)
  8. Pluto is a planet. (Clyde W. Tombaugh, 1930)
  9. Homosexuality is a mental disorder. (American Psychiatric Association, 1950s-1960s)
  10. Pluto is not a planet. (Mike Brown, 2011)

Many of these “facts” have since been disproved, but some of them have had long-lasting and damaging effects, especially how we treat people.  The articles written about Ye Shiwen go on the scientific understanding that men are inherently and genetically faster, stronger, and better than womyn because men have more testosterone, the hormone that gives them the ability to build more muscle than womyn.  Womyn on the other hand, cannot build as much muscle because we have much less testosterone.  Who do we credit for this discovery?  A dude!  Where are all the women in this research?  Oh that’s right, we weren’t allowed to be scientists because it was previously determined that we lacked the abilities.

With the male-dominated field of science telling all of us girls, womyn, and females that we were born without the capability to be as strong as men, consequently, we will always be slower and weaker than them.  I grew up with this fact.  I even internalized this “scientific fact” so I never expected to be as fast, strong, or as good of an athlete as my male peers.  It even prevented me from participating in physical activity because I thought, “What was the point?  I’m never going to be better than boys because I’m a girl.”  Messages such as, “You throw like a girl,” and “Don’t run around too much, you’ll get dirty,” further solidified that I my being born a girl was an immediate disadvantage and there was nothing I could do about it.  I became even more disadvantaged because I did not take the opportunities to build my physical strength while the boys around me got to run, jump, and be physical because no one told them they couldn’t.  It took me years to finally realize that I could be physically strong.  Anyone who has seen The Genki Spark or other taiko players perform, knows it is NOT an easy thing to do.  Any taiko player can tell you it takes physical strength and stamina to do what we do.  In the last two years, taiko has helped me re-claim my physical strength.  I was an avid basketball player growing up but stopped because I thought I wasn’t strong or good enough to compete with the boys.  That’s all changed since I started playing taiko.  I am much stronger than I used to be.  I couldn’t even carry a drum by myself when I first started but I definitely can now!  I even discovered that I’m BETTER than some of the guys I play basketball with.

I am not a scientist so I understand that I may not have complete understanding of how biology works.  I also can’t prove or disprove that Ye Shiwen beating U.S.’s Ryan Lochte’s time is rigged or not .  However, I cannot ignore that womyn have historically been considered less than men, whether it be based on physical, mental, or emotional strength.  And much of the science we rely on is male-dominated and often rooted in prejudice.  I believe that if Ye Shiwen wasn’t a young Chinese womyn (who have been historically perceived as weaker than most people), but older, a man, or even a White womyn (Missy Franklin, is a 17-year old first-time Olympian who is representing the U.S. and has won three gold medals this year but no one is accusing her of doping), her athletic ability wouldn’t even be questioned.  We should be congratulating her on her accomplishments.  After all, she’s one of the best swimmers in the entire world.  And if she did cheat, let us recognize that sexism and other forms of oppression sometimes causes us to do the wrong thing because we have been told over and over again that we are not good enough the way we are (and the science to prove it!)  Ye Shiwen was not planning on being faster than Ryan Lochte, she just wanted to swim her best.  She’s a young womyn who has found something she is good at.  We should be celebrating her as another womyn who is not afraid to show herself and tell the world that, “Yes, I am good enough.”

~Trisha

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