Let’s hear it for fringe sports

Many sports icons icluding football icon Marta have played in the Maracanã stadium.

Game over. The Rio Olympics gave us many things: sexist reporting, burkinis and bikinis, forced outings. But it was above all a celebration of the fringiest of the fringe – here’s a recap from a queer feminist perspective.

Because it’s 2016, or because she can

On 22 May 2010, a woman provided live TV commentary for the first time for a football match of the German men’s national team. Now it’s 2016, and you’d think people would be used to it by now. But Claudia Neumann set off a social media storm when she did the play-by-play for the men’s Olympic football tournament. German broadcaster ZDF’s reply to angry questions about how that could be, was appropriately curt: “Because she can.” It’s about ability, not about gender.

So let’s look at an area where there’s still room for improvement – field hockey, for example. During the Olympics we also watched sports we were unfamiliar with, making us that much more dependent on knowledgeable commentary. A penalty shoot-out in a women’s field hockey semifinal highlighted something that has become the order of the day in football: Béla Réthy merely stating the obvious, “Now it’s her turn. She needs to score.” Meanwhile, we were wondering: How many attempts does each team get? This left us asking: Where’s the information?

This summer we already had a discussion on “Who’s going to save Béla Réthy?”, which dealt with Germany’s tradition of having only one commentator for football matches. Luckily, a solution was found to this problem in the field hockey semifinal. The expert sidekick filled us in on the fine details. So why was Béla Réthy doing the play-by-play? Because he happened to be in Rio? During the Olympics reporters, of course, have to commentate on sports they don’t know much about. They certainly had their hands full.

The many different competitions were broadcast not only on TV, but fortunately on live streams as well. So no one was forced to constantly watch just those events where Germany was competing for medals. Instead, people could follow the sports that truly interest them, such as BMX cycling. Here the commentator pointed out in the preliminary races that this sport wasn’t his specialty but that he would always try to do a professional job. He also said he was always thankful for any tips from viewers and any interviews with athletes that would help improve his knowledge of the sport. Now that’s the right attitude!

Gender equality, 500 years to go

Sports desks are one of the “last bastions of male dominance,” according to the feminist media scholar Johanna Dorer. In 2011 Michael Schaffrath, sports journalism researcher at the Munich Technical University, reported the following statistics: Women made up 7.3 percent of sports journalists in 1993. This figure rose to 11.3 percent in 2004. Only 8.9 percent of the Association of German Sports Journalists’ members were women in 2007. Its female membership had increased by 1 percent by 2011.[i]

Males bastions have consequences. A study in 2005 looked at the coverage of male and female athletes on three US broadcasters. They devoted 5 percent of their coverage to female athletes in 1989. This came in, after a temporary peak, at 6.3 percent in 2004. To underscore the pace of change, Dorer observed: “At this rate, it would take another 504 years for female athletes to receive the same amount of media coverage as men.” Well, that’d now be only 493 years. But hold on. The Olympics have gender equality in the sense that there’s largely the same number of male and female events.

Yet gender equality in terms of quantity doesn’t equate to the same quality of coverage. Much research has been done on sexism in sports reporting. The words and images used by media outlets are characterized by “belittlement, trivialization, infantilization and sexualization.” The 2016 Olympics had a lot to offer in this respect. The magazine Edition F compiled a list of slip-ups as well as tips on how to do better next time. Number one was, “Don’t make gender an issue unless it is relevant; for example, if you want to talk about gender discrimination, such as the media’s poor – or sometimes not so poor – reporting of female athletics.” And the last word to the wise: “Athletes are athletes. If sports are important to you, write about sports. If gender discrimination is important to you – write about sports.” That sounds plausible at first – sports are sports. But does that also mean sports are NOT politics?  

Just sports? That’s politics

Sports are not apolitical. Take, for example, the incidents of corruption and doping as well as the control exerted over images to prevent local protests from being aired on TV. The IOC does everything in its power to keep up appearances. It doesn’t even want to be troubled with deciding if athletes are allowed to wear a black band on their uniforms in memory of a coach who passed away. Political statements are unwelcome: The show must go on.

Individuals should – and can – block out everything and enjoy themselves while watching sports. But by no means do we want to obscure the fact that sports affect gender politics. “Athletes are athletes”? Female athletes have always faced the dilemma of having to combine two antagonistic roles – that of being an athlete and that of being a woman. Nina Degele refers to this as the “dilemma of femininity and professionalism.”

Male and female sports are now equal in number, but they are not necessarily the same. The disciplines of rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming are the exclusive domains of women. In artistic gymnastics, the women compete in four events, the men in six. Both perform the floor exercise, but in a different way – women have music and dance requirements, men don’t. That’s how genders are produced today. And it has a long history.

Modern sports are masculine. They furnish the modern bourgeois man with a body. Modern femininity, on the other hand, is characterized by the fact that the female body has always been in the service of the nation. Whenever in the past women entered a traditionally male sport, there was a debate over the extent to which this activity was harmful to the female body’s accepted role – that of heterosexually attractive femininity and thereby reproduction. Women who participate in a male-coded sport are under tremendous pressure to flaunt their femininity, a practice that functions as a kind of symbolic compensation.[ii]

There is emancipatory potential in the process of women gradually carving out a place for themselves in (male) sports. By participating in athletic activities, women also win the right to wear clothes that do not restrict movement while competing.

Covered or uncovered, but always part of the spectacle

“Cover yourself!” is an injunction for women. It can be replaced with, “Bare yourself, but be flawless!” According to Foucault, the subject has a responsibility toward its own body, and power acts as a stimulating check in the context of the cult of the body: “Bare yourself ... but be slim, attractive, tanned.”[iii]

On a symbolic level, women playing sports entails a shifting of the ideals of femininity. In the history of sports, athletics and the female body were construed to be at opposite poles – hard versus soft – and women were excluded from participation by pointing to a distinctly different female anatomy. With the bosom in harm’s way, the physical health of the very body considered to be in the service of the nation, hung in the balance. Wearing athletic shorts was an emancipatory act.   

The historian Maud Hietzge contends, however, that “nowadays ‘dress’ also includes the body” and “stripping off layers of concealing clothing should not be considered emancipatory; the body itself has taken on the function of clothing. The fact that the corset of muscles has moved inward allows one to wear fewer clothing.”[iv] High time, then, to shed those clothes: US football player Brandi Chastain threw off her jersey after scoring the winning penalty in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final. She then knelt on the pitch in her sports bra, lifting her arms in celebration. The “gesture was innovative insofar as Chastain appropriated a traditionally male gesture of triumph and joy without appearing ‘unfeminine’ or being accused of acting in an undignified manner.”[v]

The female appropriation of the male pose is an innovative gesture, while at the same time it reveals a new female ideal – a muscular hard body molded by the sports bra. The sociologist Lotte Rose points out that there was a “sportification” and “demotherization” of female body ideals in the 1990s.[vi] Women’s empowerment through sports also has an economic component. Some people tried to explain Chastain’s gesture as a marketing stunt to promote the launch of the Nike sports bra.

The use of bikinis in beach volleyball is therefore less a product of the sexual revolution of the 1960s (perhaps in the voyeuristic male fantasies of the athletic officials who made the swimsuit mandatory until 2012) and more a product of the venerated hard body of the 1990s. And marketing has also played a role.

What women should or shouldn’t wear has always been a political issue in the sport – and still is today. Up until 2012, the International Volleyball Federation had strict rules about uniforms for female players. They could wear a one-piece bathing suit or a bikini with a maximum side width of 7 centimeters. The rules were reformed in 2012, giving women more options. This opened up beach volleyball to female athletes who were previously excluded from competition – not because they weren’t good enough, but solely because of uniform rules.

Yet athletic ability should be the only thing that matters at the Olympics. For many years women’s beach volleyball was held to a different standard. But not anymore! Nevertheless, it can’t be about winning or losing if one player covers her body while the other player bares hers. At the 2016 Games, female beach volleyballers competed in burkinis for the first time ever. The Egyptian team of Doaa Elghobashy and Nada Meawad also faced off against the German team of Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst. And the German public, who was following state election campaigns fueled by issues such as women’s bodies and burkas, tuned in closely. The game set off a storm of discussion on the internet. Well, to be exact, it was the teams’ uniforms – not the game – that caused all the talk.

Many viewers at home experienced a culture shock. Some saw a clash of two cultures, and this view was corroborated by the focal point of the media’s images from the game: bikini vs. burkini. It seemed as if it were civilization against civilization, in a battle waged not by women, but over women’s bodies, symbols and bizarrely contrasting representations. By orchestrating a culture war the media brought to the forefront the voices of those who focus on visible differences, but who at the same time reject the opportunity to encourage and embrace diversity at large sporting events. Yet women are more diverse than the clothes they wear – and more diverse than the sport allows.  

Too good to be a woman

“Too fast to be a woman?” was the title that ZDF gave to its piece on Caster Semenya’s first race at the Olympics.
This time the question was rhetorical and answered in the negative. ZDF said that nature endows people with vastly varied genetic predispositions, which – in combination with other inherited factors – can be an advantage in sports. This is why, according to the broadcaster, there are athletes who are “too short to be a basketball player” (but perfectly built to be a gymnast) or “too heavy to be a high jumper” (but perfectly built to be a discus thrower). Caster Semenya just happens to be perfectly built to be an 800-meter runner, the piece asserted.

This was more than a pleasant surprise to our layperson’s ears. It seemed a quantum leap from the media’s coverage of the 2009 World Athletics Championships in Berlin. But there’s always room for improvement: That’s the take of Triq e.V.’s experts on the Olympics coverage. The nonprofit helps media professionals cover trans, intersex and queer issues with less clichés and discriminatory references.

After her victory in 2009, Caster Semenya was forced to undergo a gender verification test. An upper limit on testosterone was introduced, and Semenya had to take hormone-suppressing medication in order to compete (her performance didn’t drop off). But in 2015 the testosterone rule was suspended. An Indian athlete had challenged the policy at the Court of Arbitration for Sport on grounds of discrimination. Semenya has since been free to compete without medication. At Rio she won the gold medal.   

Gender testing is part of the history of women’s sports. It is supposed to prevent men from participating in women’s competitions because they would have an unfair advantage. With regard to tests that aim to determine the “true” gender of athletes, Jayne Caudwell observes that “maybe the concern is not so much that men will masquerade as women, but that women will no longer masquerade as women.”[vii] Femininity is a form of masquerade.

The history of women in sports is the story of efforts to establish the “natural” binary gender system that sporting competitions like to show off in an ostentatious way. Whether it’s something on or in the body, the precise criterion for determining the binary difference has shifted over the course of this history. What is considered feminine or masculine first has to be established and is therefore changeable, particularly in the world of sports. Judith Butler cites Martina Navratilova as an example of this phenomenon. Early in her career some people speculated that she might not be a woman at all. But Navratilova later became a new kind of tennis icon, one who made a different way of playing tennis popular. [viii]

Athleticism represents a threat to heteronormative femininity. This cultural fear also pervades the homosocial space of men’s sports.

Honest journalism instead of Grindr

In the world of sports, truth is not (just) what happens on the playing field but also sometimes what’s under the jersey or what takes place in the locker room. The homosocial space of athletics might even make someone want to look through the keyhole. But one piece of investigative journalism went terribly wrong: A straight male US journalist joined the gay dating app Grindr and carried out undercover research in the Olympic Village. He then proudly wrote about the dates he was getting with Olympians and described the (un-outed) athletes in such a way that it was easy to uncover their identities.

The news website The Daily Beast quickly pulled the article and issued an apology. But, hey, that’s no reason for the Taz newspaper to add more fuel to the fire. The tenor of the article is that naïve athletes are poor role models and practically on the same level as doping offenders. What one should make of this “It’s their own fault” stance is nicely summed up by another article. The private is political, but does it follow that the private life (of others) should be made public? Weren’t forced outings once reserved for those in positions of power and/or those who make homophobic remarks? The Taz writer accused those who criticized the article of being paternalistic. This begs a counter-question: Instead of moralizing, why not take a queer feminist point of view?

Rather than celebrating forced outings, one can write about heterosexuality – for example, about the specific blindness of male experts’ view of the world. Men fail to see the aestheticization of the male athlete’s body. There is a strategy behind this blindness toward the spectacle of the male body. The refusal to see, the insistence on keeping quiet – these are signs that point to the taboo on homosexuality. To the fear of sexualized gazes in the very public realm of the arena, or to the fear of the closet and the same-sex intimacy of the locker room. If one doesn’t talk about their homosexuality in public, does that mean they shouldn’t have sex? Those who choose to hide (who believe they must hide) hopefully (still) have lots of sex and fun! And there’s no telling whether the outed athletes now face repression. But, hey, one must be incredibly hetero to think it’s startling that the homosocial spaces of sports might be places where athletes become sexually intimate.

Rather than fantasizing about the morality of un-outed athletes, one could write about those who have already come out. Taking a look at the list of gay and lesbian athletes wouldn’t hurt. This list became longer during the Olympics, even without the forced outings. One worthwhile story to tell would have been the marriage proposal after a rugby match. Another one, though less romantic, is that of the freshly outed Brazilian judoka Rafaela Silva who spoke out about her experiences with racism. Now that’s real journalistic work. Sure, there may be a few names missing on the out list. But, hey, one must be incredibly hetero to believe it’s possible to unearth something unexpected on Grindr.

Taz used to run a column about fringiest of the fringe sports. That’s a more sensible approach than such out-of-bounds commentary, especially when it comes to the Olympics.

Because she earned it

“No one needs men’s football,” opined Christian Spiller after Silvia Neid and her team won gold. The Olympics, according to him, are a celebration of fringe sports – the sports that rarely receive primetime coverage in the four years between competitions: “This includes women’s football players, no matter what country they’re from.”

In the world of German football, “Bochum vs. Cologne – 1:0” is news but “Potsdam vs. Duisburg – 0:1” probably isn’t. Fringe sports aren’t about results. The reception can’t be based on a well-known history and familiar narratives. Reporting on fringe sports requires a lot of storytelling.

The starting point and primary focus of this storytelling are the fans. In mainstream sports they depend on a big narrative. It is interpreted, reinterpreted, countered with personal stories in order to enter into this narrative, thereby demonstrating their importance as fans. Fringe sports lack a big, widely known narrative and are not very present or popular. So the characteristics of true fans – insider knowledge and passion for the sport itself – become that much more important. No one suspects niche fans of only being interested in big stars and big success stories. [ix]

Every sport needs renewal. Sports become human through the figures in the margins. Fringe sports and their fans are saving the sporting world from a crisis. With fringe sports one can still construct a narrative on dreams that come true on the field of competition. Before reaching the center of the arena, the sporting world strengthens itself through the qualities of those protagonists on the periphery. Sports still provide the stuff of good stories. Tournaments and games develop their own dramaturgy. Winning can’t be programmed. There’s always a chance of a David beating a Goliath. The players battle it out on the field, and the fans suffer torment in the stands. It is above all in defeat that the genuine passion of fans reveals itself. Let’s hear it for all fringe sports and fourth-place finishers! Or as one twelve-year-old put it: “She earned it.”

This article was first published on the website of Gunda-Werner-Institut.

[i] Schaffrath, Michael (2011): Fußball-Reporterinnen: Hohe Akzeptanz bei niedrigen Bekanntheitswerten. Fachjournalist, 27-29.

[ii] Eggeling, Tatjana (2010): „Homosexualität und Fußball – ein Widerspruch?“ Unter: http://www.bpb.de/apuz/32830/homosexualitaet-und-fussball-ein-widerspruch?p=all

[iii] Foucault, Michel (1976): „Macht und Körper. Ein Gespräch mit der Zeitschrift ,Quel Corps?‘“. In: ders.: Mikrophysik der Macht. Über Strafjustiz, Psychiatrie und Medizin. Berlin. S. 105-113.

[iv] Hietzge, Maud Corinna (2004): „Körperliche Erkenntnis-Empirie und Theorie“. In: Sportwissenschaft 1. S. 121-125.

[v] Junghanns, Wolf-Dietrich (1999): „Körpergegenwart: Sinnlicher Eindruck und symbolischer Ausdruck im Sport“. In: Berliner Debatte Initial 6. S. 3-21.

[vi] Rose, Lotte (1997): „Körperästhetik im Wandel. Versportung und Entmütterlichung des Körpers in den Weiblichkeitsidealen der Risikogesellschaft“. In: Dölling, Irene; Krais, Beate (Hrsg.): Ein alltägliches Spiel. Geschlechterkonstruktion in der sozialen Praxis. Frankfurt a.M. S. 125-149.

[vii] Caudwell, Jayne (2003): „Sporting Gender. Women’s Footballing Bodies as Sites/Sights for the (Re)Articulation of Sex, Gender, and Desire“. In: Sociology of Sport Journal 4. S. 371-386.

[viii] Butler, Judith (1998):  „Athletic genders. Hyperbolic instance and/or the overcoming of sexual binarism“. In: Stanford Humanities Review 6.2. S. 103-111.

[ix] Vgl. Groll, Stefanie; Diehr, Susanne (2012): Who the f*** is Abby? Die Berichterstattung zur Fußballweltmeisterschaft der Frauen 2011 und ihr Schweigen. In: Sobiech, Gabriele:  Spielen Frauen ein anderes Spiel? Geschichte, Organisation, Repräsentationen und kulturelle Praxen im Frauenfußball, S.123-138.