The Olympics are where the world's top athletes gather to perform and compete. Numerous dramas play out as athletes compete for records, often times besting their rivals by the slimmest of margins. How are sexual minorities treated at the Olympic games and what kinds of issues do they face? Let’s examine these questions as we reflect on the history of the interplay between sports and gender.
The revised Olympic Charter: Raising awareness of the issues faced by sexual minorities
In Japan, the first time sexual minorities, including homosexuals and transgender people, were the subject of legislation or policy-making was with the establishment of the Gender Identity Disorder Special Cases Act in 2003. Some say the Olympics is the next big opportunity to address sexual minorities through the lens of policy. Professor Kei Okada of the College of Social Sciences at Ritsumeikan University, an expert in sexual minorities and sports, explains the situation as follows.
One year before the Sochi Olympics were held in 2014, Russia passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, a law aimed at suppressing homosexual people. This led the nations of the West to criticize Russia, and many of their leaders boycotted the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics. In response, the IOC revised the Olympic Charter at the end of 2014 to include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination principle. This meant Japan, which had already won the bid for the Tokyo Olympics, would have to comply with the revised Olympic Charter and address the issues facing sexual minorities.”
The concept of sports is said to have originated in the context of moral education in elite boy’s schools in the United Kingdom in the 19th century. According to Professor Okada, this meant homosexuals were excluded because boys were expected to be heterosexual.
Until the end of the 20th century, sports and the military were two areas where the aversion to homosexuality remained strong.
“The landscape shifted significantly upon entering the 2000s. The push to legalize same-sex marriage in the United States help propel the cause of human rights for sexual minorities. What may seem unusual is that 9/11 had a major impact on this situation.
In the wake of 9/11, the United States made the argument that, although it was democratic and accepting of sexual minorities, its enemies (namely, state sponsors of terrorism) were bigoted and oppressive.”
These trends reveal how the political speculations of the world’s superpowers have had a great influence on the perception of sexual minorities. This also shows why we should view the Olympics as not only a sporting event, but as a platform that countries use to promote their political agendas.
Why “gender” was changed to “sex” in the revised Olympic Charter?
From the 2000s onwards, one issue that came to the fore was the emergence of transgender athletes and other athletes with disorders of sexual development (DSD).
“A well-known case that exemplifies this issue is the case of Caster Semenya, an athlete from South Africa. Although she was born female, she had high levels of the male hormone testosterone, which gave her an advantage when competing against other female athletes.”
Professor Okada explains that Semenya’s case led the IOC to make an interesting change to the Olympic Charter. After the Sochi Olympics, when the IOC added sexual orientation to its non-discrimination principle, it replaced the word “gender” with “sex.” In Japanese, the same word (seibetsu) is used for both gender and sex, but gender is a social construct, while sex refers to a person’s biological sex. Behind the decision to change the word gender to sex was not only the case of Semenya but a lawsuit filed against the IOC by Dutee Chand, an Indian athlete with DSD.
“The IOC established the ‘Testosterone Rule’ so that women with high levels of testosterone like Semenya cannot compete as female athletes without taking medicine to lower their testosterone levels. In response, Chand filed a case with the Court of Arbitration for Sport arguing that it is discrimination to ban her from competing as a female because she was born and raised as female.
In short, there was a discrepancy between the Olympic Charter, which banned discrimination based on gender, and the rule preventing female athletes with DSD from competing. Therefore, the IOC switched to using the word ‘sex’ so as to prohibit discrimination on the basis of one’s biological attributes.”
The history of sports: Equal opportunity and equal conditions
One can argue that this change has shifted the understanding that seibetsu does refer to gender but to sex, that is, one’s biological attributes, in top-level sporting events like the Olympic Games. In response to this, Professor Okada points out that there are two possible directions for ensuring sexual diversity and the inclusion of sexual minorities in sports.
“One way is to relativize or loosen the gender values that have divided modern society into two genders, including in the realm of sports. In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, it has become possible to legally change your gender to the one you prefer without requirements like surgery or hormone therapy. This is called transgenderism, and it is becoming a trend in the Western world and other regions. However, in cases like this, the problem arises that it is unfair for transgender women to participate in competitions for females.”
Since men and women have always been unequal in sports, two methods have been used: ensuring equal opportunity and ensuring equal conditions, including conditions related to the body. Equal opportunity has been achieved by creating separate events for men and women, or by creating a women's division to ensure an opportunity for participation. In terms of equal conditions, typical examples include the weight categories adopted by sports such as wrestling, boxing, and judo.
“The idea behind the Masters Tournament and the Paralympic Games was to separate the competitions themselves so that they would not be unfair on the basis of different physical conditions depending on age or disability. When you think about it this way, testosterone levels are also a specific bodily attribute, so if there are different weight categories, it should not be impossible to divide competitions by testosterone levels. It can be argued the history of sports has been the history of debating, policing, and changing what constitutes ‘a gift from God’ and what constitutes unfairness and cheating.”
What Japan needs to do is to eliminate gender inequality and improve its laws
According to Professor Okada, another way to ensure sexual diversity is to "dismantle" modern sports, which were originally designed to be male-dominated.
“For example, eSports, which is likely to become an Olympic event in the future, is basically a competition that does not involve the body itself, so it is difficult to discern gender differences. Equestrian sports are the only mixed gender event in the Olympics. Kata-based martial arts and dance also have the potential to be competed in a way that transcends the physical differences between men and women.
By adding such competitions, I think it will lead to a dilution or dismantling of sports that tend to differentiate between men and women. Sports are not gender-equal, but we have aimed for equality based on the limited notion that men have an advantage, but we must understand that the transgender issue still has not been entirely resolved. In any case, we must recognize that sports are too influential and should be rethought."
In Professor Okada's opinion, the debate on the transgender issue is only making progress in Europe and the United States because the acceptance of sexual minorities in society has already progressed to a certain level there. In the case of Japan, it is first necessary to eliminate discrimination and prejudice against homosexuality and transgenderism, but even before that, it is necessary to eliminate gender inequality.
"According to a survey conducted in Japan, regions with a higher degree of gender equality are more likely to accept sexual minorities and gender diversity. Unless we promote gender equality between men and women, it will be difficult to solve the gender problem in sports, and I believe that an enforceable legal backing is required to solve the problem."
Will Tokyo 2020 serve as an opportunity to promote gender equality in Japan? It seems that each of us will need to stop and think once again about gender equality in our everyday lives.