The postponed Tokyo Olympics were never going to run smoothly during a global pandemic,
Olympics rarely ever do. The times we live in are unprecedented but, in the past few weeks, various Olympic governing bodies have created controversies which are set to overshadow the much-anticipated games.
Fina, the governing body for Olympic water sports events, banned the use of ‘soul caps’, a specially designed swimming cap which covers all types of hair but designed specifically for thicker hair and commonly used by black swimmers. The statement from Fina was unacceptable, they claimed the caps do not fit “the natural form of the head”. This type of language has clearly led to black swimmers feeling isolated and speaks to wider societal issues as to what should be defined as ‘natural’.
Alice Dearing, a British marathon swimmer, gave an interview to the BBC in which she identified hair as a primary reason for a lack of black swimmers in the United Kingdom. There is science behind this, the sodium hypochlorite in swimming pools can dry out certain types of thicker hair and creates lasting damage.
Dearing believes this evident damage can affect people’s confidence and make them reluctant to participate. ‘Soul caps’ were invented because traditional ones simply were not doing the job in protecting all types of hair. Fina’s attitude has been extremely damaging to many young black athletes who dream of representing their countries must be reviewed if we want to see more diversity in swimming.
Another decision which led to widespread outrage, particularly in America, was the decision of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to ban sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson from the USA Olympics team after a positive marijuana test. People’s indignation was based on marijuana being legal in 18 states in the USA, including the one in which the test was performed. The drug does not have any performance enhancing side effects, arguably it is performance diminishing for a track athlete.
The sporting world came out in overwhelming support for Richardson, hundreds of athletes made calls for her to be allowed to compete in the games. She is a breakout star in US sprinting and was the fastest women in America this year, winning the 100 meters at the Olympic trials. The major leagues of baseball, American football and ice hockey in North America as well as the Ultimate Fighting Championship have stopped any punishment for the use of marijuana. The ban has struck many to be unfair treatment of one of the brightest medal hopefuls in the world, disappointing for those who want to see the best compete against the best as that is the essence of Olympic competition. Richardson will be eligible to compete in the relay, provided she can be added to the squad after her one-month ban is served.
Additionally, the selection of the first transgender athlete Laurel Hubbard in the women’s New Zealand weightlifting team for the Tokyo Olympics has initiated intense debate. Hubbard, who previously participated in events as a male athlete, is in medal contention at the games. Critics of the selection argue it is unfair to the cisgender athletes already competing and a petition seeking a rule change has amassed over 21,000 signatures. The requirements for participation are based on testosterone levels, under which Hubbard is
eligible. The use of testosterone levels has been in question recently as it fails to consider the accumulation of muscle mass in male puberty, particularly relevant for strength-based sports.
On the other hand, trans athletes should have equal rights and opportunity to participate in the pinnacle of sporting endeavour, including Olympic weightlifting. Whichever side of the debate you find yourself aligning with on this topic, what can be agreed is that the event being marred by controversy does not benefit anyone. Whether this is possible success for Laurel Hubbard, the scrutiny she might receive, pressure on other athletes, or disappointment for those potentially missing out on selection or medals is still prevalent.
Finally, having hosted the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Japan received great acclaim for the passion, inclusivity, and hospitality of the local support. This cannot be said about the upcoming Olympics. Rising Covid cases in Japan have resulted in an initially enthusiastic population becoming fearful of hosting the competition, resenting the unsympathetic attitude of the IOC. It is rumoured that 10,000 volunteers have quit in the lead up to the games as well as regular protests.
We must feel some sympathy for all those who are working hard to keep the Olympic flame alive despite the pandemic. If the Tokyo Games do proceed, they will not be as originally envisaged by any means, but Olympics officials could still have tried harder to be more sure-footed in their handling of some of these issues.