Sports has been dominated by men for decades. Despite all the advancement we have made in terms of achieving gender equality, the sports industry is still brimming with unfair treatment, discrimination and sexism. In this piece, Sanchita sheds light on some of the hurdles women continue to face in sports.

Women in sport: Still hurdling? The challenges women face in sport.

Sanchita Aidasani is a law graduate from NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. She takes keen interest in issues surrounding sports and human rights. You can find more of her work here.

Sport has traditionally been understood as a male-dominated social institution. In fact, in the nineteenth century, the idea of masculinity became synonymous with that of sport. Women were not permitted to participate in the Ancient Olympics, and despite women’s participation in the Modern Olympics since 1900, it wasn’t until the 2012 Olympics held in London, that we saw women participating in every single sports category. The sporting world is therefore not immune to sexism and discrimination. Women’s sports have not been accorded the same level of importance and respect as men’s sports. For decades, women have had to battle social institutions to secure their position in the sporting world. Former World No. 1 (doubles) tennis champion, Sania Mirza was discouraged from playing tennis at young age, she was told that “no one would marry her” if her  “complexion turned dark” from rigorously training in the scorching heat. At age 18, a religious order (fatwa) was issued against her, demanding her to “cover up”. Jwala Gutta, Indian shuttler and Commonwealth Games champion, has often been subject to sexist trolls on social media. She has been slut-shamed and harassed online for her appearance and sense of style, both on and off court, which she herself has described as “cyber violence”.


Women also face another insurmountable challenge in the world of sports; equal pay. Except for a few elite tournaments, such as the Grand Slam Championships in tennis, women are grossly underpaid in comparison to their male counterparts. Indian women earn 19% less than men, but the wage disparity is wider in the sports industry. For instance, Indian male crickets in the highest bracket receive a sum of 7 crore rupees annually and those in the lowest bracket receive 1 crore rupees per annum. Female Indian cricketers, of the highest bracket,  on the other hand receive 50 lakh rupees annually, i.e. just half the sum received by an Indian male cricketer in the lowest bracket. Despite the stellar performances of the Indian women’s cricket team at international events, the BCCI has done little to close the wage gap. One of the main arguments against equal pay in sport is that men’s sports draw larger crowds than women’s, however the argument fails to acknowledge that men have far greater representation in the media than women. In fact, only 4% of all sports coverage is dedicated to women, and due to the limited coverage, media outlets and sponsors are less willing to invest. Superior representation of women in sport will lead to more interest and potentially larger investments from sponsors.


Like every other industry, the sports industry is also rife with allegations of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, over the years sexual abuse scandals have shaken the sports world. In 2018, decorated Olympic doctor with USA Gymnastics, Larry Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing hundreds of girls under the guise of “treating them”. India is no exception to this. Earlier this year, an RTI filed by The Indian Express uncovered that over the course of the last decade, 45 complaints of sexual harassment were made at 24 different government sports institutions, of which were made against coaches. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The Director General of Sports Authority of India (“SAI”), is of the opinion that the actual number of cases of abuse and harassment is much higher and athletes do not report all cases due to the fear of it adversely affecting their career. What makes matters worse is the culture of impunity around sexual abuse. The first allegations of sexual abuse against Nassar surfaced in the late 1990s, but it was only in 2015 that USA Gymnastics launched an official investigation into the allegations. Similarly in India, the repercussions for coaches accused of sexual abuse have been largely insignificant, ranging from transfers to trivial cuts in pension or pay.


Increased scrutiny is yet another hurdle female athletes are faced with. Women athletes and their bodies are constantly scrutinized and criticised. For instance, Serena Williams has been at the receiving end of racist and sexist abuse for years. Last year, Mary Cain, one of America’s fastest runners, shed light on the mental abuse she had suffered at the hands of her coach, Alberto Salazar. Salazar constantly shamed her for her weight and pushed her to reduce her body fat content to the extent that she became mentally and physically ill. Another facet of increased scrutiny is that of sex-verification of female athletes. The International Association of Athletic Federations (“IAAF”) was the first sports body to introduce mandatory sex-testing in 1950, it was subsequently introduced in the Olympics in 1968. These tests, which first started as physical examinations of individuals, are highly invasive and violate an individual’s right to privacy and bodily integrity. Although, sports bodies no longer conduct physical examinations of women, hormone testing continues till date. In 2014, Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter was dropped from the Commonwealth Games due to elevated testosterone levels. She took her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (“CAS”), where she was ultimately granted relief in July 2015. Chand and South African Olympic runner Caster Semenya both have naturally occurring elevated levels of testosterone in their bodies. In order to prevent them from “gaining an unfair advantage” over other women, the IAAF introduced the Hypoandrogenism Regulations to regulate testosterone levels (through the use of hormonal contraceptives) in female athletes. Interestingly, sex verification tests or hormone tests have never been conducted upon male athletes. As a matter of fact, genetic differences have been celebrated in men. Michael Phelps, for example, has a disproportionately large wingspan, and as per research studies, his body produces only half the lactic acid than what should normally be produced resulting in lesser recovery time.  Eero Mantyranta, an Olympic cross-country skier who won seven medals at the Olympics had a blood disorder which resulted in “an increase of up to 50% in the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood”. Sadly, unlike women, men have never been castigated for their genetic differences.


Women continue to face hurdles in the world of sports till date, and we are decades away from achieving equality in this arena, but it’s imperative that we recognise how far we have come. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia launched its first women’s football league, but until 2018, women were not allowed in sports stadiums, even as spectators. Women are participating in sports more than ever and each day we are taking small steps towards a more inclusive sporting world.

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