The Sexualisation of Women in Competitive Sport

Max Shally questions the extremely disparate treatment of men and women within sporting communities, explaining how the differing regulations for male and female athletes catalyse toxic behaviours of objectification.

In the world of competitive sport, there is an undeniable history of female athletes not being afforded the same level of respect that their male counterparts receive, and often being depicted in a manner that no broadcasting company would ever depict a man in. Despite some major steps being taken in the last decade, the culture of inequality in sport is far from being completely eradicated. Whilst I am by no means an expert in the fields of sports journalism and fourth wave feminism, the issues outlined here stood out to me as some of the most recent examples which highlight the extreme differences between the treatment of male and female athletes.

One incident, which made headlines in July of 2021, involved the Norwegian beach handball team. During their bronze medal match at the 2021 European Beach Handball Championship in Bulgaria, the team wore elasticated shorts, rather than the ‘midriff-baring tops and bikini bottoms’ stipulated by the regulations at the time; this led to a fine of €1500 being issued to the team for breaching the regulations and competing in what the European Handball Association deemed to be ‘improper clothing’. The male athletes, of course, are not held to the same regulations and are permitted to wear loose fitting tank tops and shorts. The association rightfully received a significant amount of backlash as a result of this incident, which led to a change in the regulations concerning the clothing female athletes are required to compete in, where, as of January 2022, female athletes are required to wear ‘short tight pants with a close fit’ and a ‘body fit tank top’. Despite the team being very pleased with the change and stating that they ‘play better in tight fitting shorts’ anyway, they are still forbidden from wearing the same loose-fitting clothing that men are permitted to wear. Why did it take a group of women standing up and protesting against the blatantly sexist rules in order for changes to be made? And why are there, after all the media backlash, still differing regulations between the clothing worn by male and female athletes?

Competitive climbing is a sport which has recently seen a surge in popularity since its inaugural appearance at the Olympics in the summer of 2021 – in fact I have become an avid fan myself. The sport is generally regarded to be one of the most equal between men and women in terms of the compensation that athletes receive, and the viewership of male and female competitions. In spite of this reputation, one female athlete has been subject to multiple instances of inarguable sexualisation by camera operators at International Federation of Sport Climbing competitions. In June of 2021, during the women’s Boulder semi-final of the IFSC World Cup in Innsbruck, there was a five second, slow-motion shot of chalk handprints on the backside of Austrian athlete Johanna Färber, which immediately sparked criticism from live viewers. The recording of the event was later edited to remove the extremely inappropriate sequence, and the IFSC’s broadcaster issued an apology for the incident. Whether it was a purposefully malice sexualisation of the female athlete, or simply a lack of understanding on the part of the camera operator as to the effect such a sequence could and did have on a female athlete ( Färber described the incident as ‘disrespectful and upsetting’) one would assume that this would be the last time an incident like this would occur. Unfortunately this was not the case.

Artwork by Cerys Gadsden

Less than 3 months later, during the women’s Boulder semi-final of the IFSC World Cup in Moscow, an almost identical shot of Färber was aired live to thousands of viewers. Commentators and fans alike were, quite rightly, furious that camera operators had once again shown a complete lack of respect for all female athletes by choosing to ignore Färber’s comments concerning the need to ‘stop sexualising women in sport and start to appreciate their performance’ made after the incident in Innsbruck. Similarly to the action taken in June, the sequence was removed from the event footage and the IFSC issued an apology to ‘Johanna Färber, Austria Climbing, all the athletes, and the Sport Climbing community’. The official statement mentioned the IFSC’s condemnation of ‘the objectification of the human body’, and the need to ‘protect the athletes’. Despite the IFSC stating that they ‘will take immediate action in order for it to stop’, no concrete details have been released since the two incidents pertaining to how exactly this ‘immediate action’ is going to make competitive climbing a safer environment for female athletes, so that they can perform to the highest of their abilities without the fear of being objectified in front of an audience of thousands. The great deal of trauma that these two incidents have caused Johanna Färber must not be repeated. However, with the current culture of sexualisation of women in competitive sport, I fear it may be.

Färber’s career is now permanently tarnished by these incidents. Any Google search containing her name now leads directly to countless articles reporting on the camera footage and will continue to do so for the remainder of her competitive career. Even though climbing is a sport which I care deeply about and am proud to take part in, these incidents highlighted to me that even the sports we hold most dear are most definitely a part of the problem. Within the current climate of objectification of female athletes, incidents like those involving the Norwegian team and Johanna Färber will continue to occur into the future. I think the comment made by IFSC President Marco Scolaris after the incident in September of 2021 aptly poses the question which I, and many others, have in reaction to events like these – ‘How many times will things have to be done wrong, before we learn to do them right?’.

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