“A New World”, the official slogan for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games where more than 10 000 athletes competed representing 206 countries. The official slogan for the games served to highlight the diversity present at this year’s games, celebrating the mixture of body types, skin colours and sexual orientations prese
nt. CNN reported that there were at least 41 gay, lesbian, and bisexual Olympians at the games, 23 more than those Olympians at the 2012 games in London.
This year’s games held a lot of Olympic firsts for people of colour. On 11 August, American swimmer Simone Manuel won a gold medal in the 100 m freestyle swimming event, becoming the first African American woman to do so. Manuel won a total of four medals, two gold medals and two silver medals. In an interview with Time she said, “I tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders. It’s something I carry with me being in this position. This medal is not just for me but for the African-Americans who came before me […] and for the people who come [after] me. I would like one day for there to be more of us, so that it’s not Simone the black swimmer because the title of black swimmer makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to win a gold medal, or not supposed to break records. That’s not true. I work just as hard as everybody else and I want to win just like everybody else.” Another first for African-Americans was gymnast Simone Biles who won a total of four gold medals. She won her third gold medal when she became the first African American woman to win the Olympic vault individual.
The diversity of body types and body positivity was also a theme this year. Gold medal winner in shot-put, Michelle Carter, was in the headlines not only for her athleticism, but because the professional makeup artist brings a bit of style to her event. In an interview with The New Yorker she said, “I think it’s bringing more attention to the sport and girls are realising, Hey, I can do this and it’s ok to do this as a girl.” Carter promoted a positive body image saying, “You have to understand everyone’s body was built to do something. I was built to do something, and that’s how I was built. I think the world is realising we were promoting one body type and there have always been many.”
Unfortunately discrimination still took place toward women, people of colour, and gay and lesbian athletes. Cambridge University Press recently conducted a study analysing millions of words media organisations have used to describe men and women competing in Olympic sports. The study found words commonly associated with women included “aged”, “older”, “pregnant” and “married” or “un-married” while men were more likely to be described as “fastest”, “strong”, “big”, “real” and “great”.
South Africa’s own Wayde van Niekerk, a gold medallist who broke world the world record in the mens 400 m sprint final became a topic of controversy as South Africans debated whether coloured South Africans should be classified as black as they are in the rest of the world and whether the distinction is kept merely because coloureds ranked higher than blacks during apartheid.
South African gold medallist, Caster Semenya, was shrouded in controversy during the Rio games. The controversy stems from Semenya’s high levels of testosterone believed to be a result of hyperandrogenism, a condition where testosterone rises above a certain level and women take on more male-like characteristics. Last year the threshold limit on testosterone for women athletes was lifted, allowing women to compete without lowering their testosterone levels through medicine or surgery. Semenya was still criticised for her high level of testosterone, and many foreign news outlets questioned whether she had an unfair advantage in the games. With over 17 000 tweets South Africans defended Semenya and her right to compete using the hashtag #HandsOffSemenya. During the EFF coalition press briefing in Alexandria on 17 August, EFF commander-in-chief Julius Malema said, “Today, all of us, we are Caster Semenya,” he continued, “She is a champion. Whether she wins gold today or not, she is a champion.” Malema went on to say that she should use the negativity to make her enemies eat humble pie and encouraged all South African’s to support her as she is one of our own.
In a message of hope, a team of 10 stateless refugees competed in the games. Marching under the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony were athletes from South Sudan, Syria, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said in a statement, “It is a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society […] These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.” The games were also broadcasted in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya by FilmAid International, an organisation supported by human rights group Amnesty International. In a statement published by Amnesty International, Michelle Kagari, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes said, “These two brief weeks will be a source of hope and inspiration to these athletes, and millions of other refugees watching around the globe. This Olympics welcome is a great first step that the rest of humanity should follow to bring refugees out of the cold and keep their hopes alive.” FilmAid’s Creative and Content Director, Magu Ngumo said, “FilmAid has been working in Kakuma for over a decade, but I’ve never seen the young people so full of pride. Screening the Olympics in Kakuma is a chance for young refugees to see the athletes and themselves represented, not just as victims of war and disaster, but as individuals who have dreams, and the strength and desire to live those dreams.
Image: Shen Scott