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The "unhappy" coupling of sports and politics — how athletes and their rights are caught in the crossfire

Coupled with fans, broadcasters and coaches, athletes are at the core of the international sporting system. For a feminist, post-colonial future where sport is seen as being free from the gender binary (the separation of gender into male and female), their voices, that usually advocate for inclusion of minorities and underrepresented groups in sport need to be allowed expression.

This freedom of expression is usually contingent on the political, moral, and ethical viewpoint of their representative country and/or the international sport organisation under which they play. This hinders athletes who advocate for this inclusion from sharing their views without fear of repercussion. And yet, these same member nations and international sport organisations continue using sport as their own political tool in international political relations. This goes against a central argument presented by these stakeholders that sport and politics should be kept separate. In this piece, I argue that this suppression of political opinion is detrimental to achieving equal rights in sport.

Historically, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its sister organisations used boycotts and similar sanctions to politically influence its members, with varying results. For example, days after Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) announced that they would ban Russian teams, clubs, and athletes from competing in their respective events. This type of political decision is reminiscent of the actions of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in the 1960s when apartheid South Africa was removed as an IOC member committee. Alternatively, member nations, as Olympic hosts, have used sport as platforms to display specific political ideologies, ignoring opposition, for example: the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the 2008 Summer and 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China along with Russia’s own tryst with hosting the Winter Olympics in 2014 and the FIFA Men’s World Cup in 2018.

Despite how sports and politics appear constantly interrelated as shown through the examples above. Leaders of international organisations such as the IOC President, Thomas Bach, consistently espouse the impartiality of the Olympic movement along with several coaches and fans calling for this separation. This fervent desire to keep sport and politics separate is neither successful nor necessary. But are sport and politics truly separate? Why do stakeholders of sport – international sport organisations, national federations, corporate sponsors, continue to advocate for this separation? Consequently, what does this mean for equal rights in sport, especially for LGBTQ+ athletes?

In an article for the Guardian, Bach stresses that the Olympic Games are about diversity and unity and not about passing political judgement on its member nations. However, what Bach, his predecessors and the overall Olympic movement should consider is that ensuring the protection of human rights is necessary, despite its political nature that is an unfortunate association.

Since the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia, the discussion of the inclusion of LGBTQ+ rights within sport have been both a flaming touchpoint for many stakeholders and something that has been pushed to the forefront. The spotlight shining on LGBTQ+ rights occurred through the anti-gay discriminatory law introduced months prior to Sochi 2014, which highlighted how sport was used as a political tool in international relations to advance different rights agendas.

Sport, especially, has become a particular hotbed to debate these issues due to its structure and functioning that is heavily dependent on the enforcement of the gender binary. With the emphasis that sport places upon the body and the form of worship created by these feats of athleticism, it is impossible to ignore the pressures placed upon athletes and those enforcing the maintenance of these sport mega-events to adhere to the gender code upon which sport is based. What then can be considered as the turning point for LGBTQ+ rights in sport?

There have been several stories of athletes coming out, mostly sportspersons towards the end of their careers or already retired. Ian Thorpe, Billie Jean King, Justin Fashanu – to name a few – shared testimonies that were both empowering and heart-breaking. The LGBTQ+ experience in sport differs from athletes gaining support for their coming out stories while their counterparts may face severe discrimination and threats to their existence for the same. The former results in acceptance and backing for the larger movement towards advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights in sport. The latter, however, can cause physical, mental, and emotional trauma from being ostracized from society to the athlete themselves having to seek refuge in more accepting countries. The practice of gender testing, however counterproductive it was towards the inclusion of LGBTQ+ rights, can be considered as acknowledgement of differing genders and sexualities.

In an ideal world, a post-queer world, there would be no existence of the rigid gender binary that divides society into the male and female gender. This would mean that sport would be practiced on lines of other industries where talent and skill determine success. Sport would become not only an athletic activity for the sake of entertainment but representing the very society in which it exists. 

However, neither is the world a comic cinematic universe, nor is it utopia. Definitive steps therefore need to be taken towards what can only be described as a post-queer international sport system where, according to David Ruffolo in his book titled Post-Queer Politics, there is a “commitment to disrupt ideologies, practices, concepts, values, and assumptions that are essentially normal in order to expose what is normatively essentialized.”

A definite reduction of the reliance upon the IOC and similar organisations to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and the formation of a new network of actors to take movement forward are necessary steps toward this world. What could also result out of this system is a redefinition of what it means to have a gender identity and a sexual identity – more than what is currently defined and less than what an ideal definition would be. Ultimately, what needs to be constructed is a space where all types of identities are included and respected, while also allowing for sporting competition.

Tanya Kini

Author Bio

Tanya Kini (she/her/hers) graduated with a master’s degree in International Affairs in February 2021 from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. Her interest of study and research is the intersection of sport, gender, and sexuality with a specific focus on LGBTQ+ rights and expression in sport. Her Master's thesis was on the efficacy of the IOC in facilitating the advocacy of LGBTQ+ rights in sport. She is currently based in Bengaluru as a research associate for the Sports and Society Accelerator, after working in the international policy arena in Geneva.

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Feminist Perspectives

Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that use gender as a category of analysis or explore…

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