Every four years, the world tunes in to a spectacular event for a chance to see human beings at their literal best. Like everyone else, I have watched the 2016 Summer Olympic Games with a mixture of awe and fascination, encouraged by the athletes and their incredible journeys.
With tears running down my face, I watched as Yusra Mardini won the 100-meter butterfly, an award she more than deserved for two very important reasons. Not only did it recognize her talent, but also commemorated the time she rescued 20 people, pushing their boat for over three hours to the shores of safety in Lesbos as they fled the Syrian war zone. I witnessed Oksana Chusovitina perform unbelievable feats of athletic skill on behalf of Uzbekistan, while being the oldest woman to ever compete in the Olympics at the age of 41.
From the comfort of my couch, I have watched dozens of humans defy both history and the odds to compete with the hope of becoming the best in their category. The training regimens that these athletes undergo boggle my mind. I cannot fathom the strength of will, determination, and tenacity it takes to train for the Olympics. I cannot comprehend the amount of time, the sacrifices, or the strain – mental, physical, and emotional – one must endure in order to beat or set world records. What Middle Eastern female athletes go through is particularly inspiring as, less than a generation ago, women from our region were not permitted to professionally participate in sports.
Now we see fearless women like Amna Al Haddad at the Olympics, representing the Emirates as a competitive weightlifter, and Sarah Attar competing in track and field on behalf of Saudi Arabia. This new generation has emerged despite personal setbacks to become a point of pride for the Middle East. As Fatima Adwan of the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy in Abu Dhabi recently told the Washington Post, “It is at the birth of something… you don’t need to go against your culture to participate in sports.”
However, my perspective on the matter doesn’t seem to be shared by the media at large. Over the past week, I have witnessed dozens of reductive headlines that focus specifically on how women look in their athletic gear, as opposed to how well they are competing. I have watched with nausea as users on social-media outlets have disparaged the appearance of female Olympic swimmers and volleyball players because of their physique.
This problem manifested itself in a particularly disturbing way during a volleyball game between Egypt and Germany, during which cultural dress codes collided, much to the delight of the Internet hive mind. With one perfectly timed photo, the sartorial difference between an Egyptian player (Nada Meawad) and a German player (Kira Walkenhorst) were thrown into sharp relief.
As you might imagine, this moment was seized upon by media outlets around the globe – some praised the difference with headlines like, “These Olympic Beach Volleyball Photos Prove That Sports Are for Everyone” or the less kindly, “Beach Volleyball Player Wearing Hijab Met with Criticism for ‘Not Fitting’ in Rio Olympics”.
One aspect of the Middle East’s recent lack of female athletes competing in the international arena has to do with sports confederations and their codes of dress. For instance, it wasn’t until recently that the International Volleyball Confederation (IVC) relaxed its standards, allowing women to wear full-coverage athletic gear while competing. Many governing bodies, like FIFA or the IVC, are opting to permit women to wear hijab, which means these organizations have fallen on the right side of history – namely the side that refuses to discriminate against someone based on their culture, religious beliefs, or gender.
While the original codes were not necessarily meant to be discriminatory – it can be argued from a pragmatic standpoint that a two-piece swimsuit might allow more ease of movement than a hijab and long-sleeved shirt – the fact that women of all cultural backgrounds are now allowed to participate in international sports is a real mark of progress.
When the story hit the newswire, the world reacted in a divided fashion. However, the glaring problem here is that after the match, Meawad’s fellow Egyptian volleyball team member, Doaa Elghobashy, was questioned incessantly by the media – not about her skilled performance, but about her attire. Instead of being celebrated as an athlete, she was forced to defend her outfit to the Associated Press, saying, “I have worn the hijab for ten years. It doesn’t keep me away from the things I love to do, and beach volleyball is one of them.”
This reminds me of a story that I read a few months ago about Nour El Sherbini, who is remarkably the youngest ever world squash champion, but was criticized in the media because she wore shorts during her matches. The way these stories are incorrectly spun focuses the attention on surface trivialities, and act as both a distraction and detraction from the incredible performances of athletes. When we reduce female athletes to their bodies or attire, or police their clothing, we regress as a society.
The Olympics, as a level playing field, is a universal unifier. It has brought together 11,178 athletes from 160 different countries in a contest of strength, endurance, reflexes, and willpower with no regard to gender, creed, or nationality. The moment where we – as observers – denigrate or objectify athletes due to their choice of clothing and physical appearance is the moment where we miss the point of the Olympics entirely.