Minorities On the Podium: The Inclusive Role of Sports

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When there are new parameters for creating idols, communication strives to fulfill an important social role

by Julia Oliveira translated by Pronoia Tradutória

The importance of an event of the magnitude of the Olympic Games goes beyond entertainment. Worldwide media rarely pays so much attention to the same events and people. With so many media samples on one subject, we can analyze patterns and understand trends across a broad spectrum.

During the 2016 Olympics, the headlines were straightforward, demonstrating that something has changed in the way sports is reported. Several news pieces depicted women subverting stereotypes, anchors faltering in prejudice and slip-ups by those who have not yet adapted to inclusive speech. This approach was not unintentional. Intolerance has been under the spotlight for some time. Many people are engaged in the vehement disapproval of discriminatory positions and in celebrating the victories of the oppressed.

Sometimes the Olympic games seem a world apart, practiced by untouchable gods and goddesses that dedicate their entire life to training, following strict diets, and achieving superhuman performances. Do not be fooled: sportsmen and sportswomen are also part of society, and they are not immune to its endemic prejudices.

Stop intolerance and the idolatry of triumph

A good performance is not enough to win the admiration of the audience as an athlete. Who these athletes are outside the sport matters (a lot). Racism, sexism, fatphobia, discrimination against people with disabilities: the intolerable has been noticed. The idols are fragile. Behavioral deviations and adjustments are not mere details, but headline-worthy subjects.

The bronze medal won by Arthur Nory, for instance, was overshadowed by his racist past. For the gymnast, comparing his teammate Ângelo Assunção to a trash bag was just a joke — but an offensive one. As a result, his Snapchat account was deleted in 2015, and the Brazilian Confederation of Gymnastics suspended him. The case was appealed to the High Court of Sports Justice, but ended up being dismissed. But the internet has not forgiven him, and the case is still brought up on social networks.

Congrats to @diegohipolito. As for Nory, rethink your racist jokes. No applause for you!

Gold medalist Ryan Lochte filed a false robbery report and pretended to have been the victim of a crime. He wanted to take attention away from the damage he caused to a gas station in Rio de Janeiro. The swimmer and two colleagues vandalized the establishment and urinated on the walls, and were caught in the act by local security cameras. He tried to apologize, but it was too late: he lost both respect and sponsors. To top it all, Lochte also made comments that swimmer Katie Ledecky is a good athlete because she “swims like a man”. A true nonsense-talking pro.

On the other hand, the enthusiasm for the gold medal won by judoka Rafaela Silva was magnified by her many struggles in life. The racism she faced after losing a major championship led her to depression and she almost gave up the sport. Rafaela also copes with financial difficulties, paradoxically to the stereotypical status of top athletes, which draws attention to an endemic issue in Brazilian sports: while football players are celebrities making millions a year, a black lesbian gold medalist from Cidade de Deus does not look good enough to earn a sponsorship. After the Olympics, public admiration for her increased, and she became a new sports icon, representing an entire minority group.

Rafaela Silva por Christian Gaul
Rafaela Silva by Christian Gaul

The Paralympic Games

The 2016 Paralympic Games saw satisfactory attendances. Ticket sales reached a record high with 113,000 sold in one day thanks to successful tax and incentive campaigns, such as Vakinha Paralimpíadas, a crowdfunding campaign started by two friends to help buy tickets for students from state-owned schools and children assisted by NGOs.

With the dangerous example of #SomosTodosMacacos (“We are all monkeys”, an anti-racism campaign launched by Barcelona and Brazil player Neymar), the controversial action #SomosTodosParalímpicos (“We are all Paralympians”), organized by Vogue Brasil, featured the limbs of Paralympians photoshopped onto celebrities without disabilities. The empathetic and well-intended move reaped positive results, but it excluded the real stars: the people with disabilities. The campaign lacked representation. Setting the tone for this issue is still a challenge for the media.

The success of the inclusive message depends on the worldview of the minority, which is irreplaceable and can only be captured in its complexity by the socially excluded.

Although respected by the public, the press coverage of the Paralympic Games reinforced that there is still a big difference in how they are treated compared to the Olympics. Most free-to-air television and major sports channels, which completely changed their usual schedules for the Olympics, did not broadcast the opening or closing ceremonies of the Paralympics (except for TV Brasil and TV Cultura). Additionally, government investment was considerably lower for the event, especially by large Olympic powers (the United States and China, for example).

paralimpiadas-1

Such disparity raises an issue: if the Olympics are almost entirely dissociated from the Paralympics, it means that people with disabilities are still seen by society as “different” and always placed at a lower level. There are logistical concerns involved with merging the two events, but it is important to know that such a possibility has been considered. There are precedents for making it happen: in 2012, double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius competed in the Olympic Games, and in 2016, single-leg long jumper Markus Rehm was also part of the squad of athletes without disabilities.

“The separation seems to emphasize the distance between people with and without disabilities. […] people with disabilities deserve special care because they have special needs, but they also deserve normality.”
Carlo Bellieni, physician

Minorities under the spotlight

Oppression is systematic and operates at various levels, including in language, editing, image selection, etc. Therefore, the way that minorities are treated in the media has a direct impact on how we treat them in daily life.

Journalistic slip-ups are not exceptions, but part of the problem.

Fortunately, the coverage of the 2016 Olympics Games featured many positive examples, reflecting the popularity of gender and sexuality consciousness. It is true that we still had to read and listen to a lot of nonsense, both in the news and on social media. There were athletes rejected for being fat or admired for their beauty above performance, not to mention the female athletes overshadowed by the merit of the men. But for every headline of this kind, there was one denouncing sexism in journalism, another celebrating the achievements of sportswomen, and another proudly announcing that a woman had challenged male chauvinism.

Como os homens seriam fotografados nas Olimpíadas se seus corpos fossem sistematicamente sexualizados?
How would men be photographed in the Olympics if their bodies were systematically sexualized?

2016 was also the year with the highest LGBT representation in the history of the Olympics, and this yielded many motivating articles. It was also the year that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided that transgender people do not need sex reassignment surgery in order to compete in the Olympic Games. Chris Moser became the first transgender athlete on the American Olympic team because of this progressive decision.

Marjorie Enya pede a atleta Isadora Cerullo em casamento dentro de campo, momento emblemático da Rio 2016
Marjorie Enya proposes to Isadora Cerullo, an emblematic moment of Rio 2016

The 2016 Olympic Games have taught us that we can no longer sweep prejudice under the carpet: it is out in the open. And this is just the beginning of a greater revolution.

Thoughts so ingrained in society will not change through complaints alone. Complaining, however, is paramount because it is the first step taken towards a permanent social transformation.

The next steps depend on many factors, including our individual commitment to these causes. Dark times are coming for those who believe political correctness is “boring”. What is actually boring is not being treated with respect. So, let’s be a thorn in their side.

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How to talk about female Olympians without being a regressive creep

An excellent guide for journalists and for life. After all, writing about female athletes is very important, but this is not enough: you must use appropriate language and a proper approach. Do not bring their clothes into it, do not credit their success to men, and please do not make a list of “the most beautiful volleyball players”.

Racism is not a joke

The form of racism suffered by gymnast Ângelo Assunção is often justified as a joke, but that is exactly the kind of reasoning that perpetuates racism. Researchers and teachers explain how this happens, reminding us that “racist jokes are not new among Brazilians, but the strong reaction against them is.”

The future of trans and intersex athletes

With transgender athletes accepted in sports, questions are arising about what parameters (and whether there should be any) to follow to allow fair competition, especially when it comes to hormones. Although the future is unpredictable, the topic is under discussion, giving room to dreaming of non-binary teams and categories.

Women are paid less in sports

There is no argument against statistics. Women earn less than men do, and this is no different in sport. With fewer investors, less visibility in the media, and less recognition, it is difficult to create female role models in sport, perpetuating gender roles.

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