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Female athletes grab spotlight at Olympics with political and social demonstrations

"Women are certainly as vocal as ever," an expert said. The International Olympic Committee now allows for some demonstrations before competitions.
Megan Rapinoe and the United States team take a knee, along with the referee, before kick off during the USA V New Zealand group G match at Saitama Stadium at the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games on July 24, 2021 in Tokyo.
Megan Rapinoe and the U.S. team take a knee, along with the referee, before kickoff during the U.S.-New Zealand Group G match at Saitama Stadium at the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games on Saturday.Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images

When it comes to political and social demonstrations during the Tokyo Olympics, 2021 is the year of women.

Female athletes have attracted the spotlight on the international stage by championing racial equality and taking ownership of what they wear during competitions.

"Historically, we've seen the role of patriarchy sort of supersede ... the voices, lived experiences of girls and women on the Olympic stage," said Akilah Carter-Francique, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change at San Jose State University.

"What we're seeing now is an acknowledgment of their value in their perspective on many of the issues that are taking place," she said.

Carter-Francique said the protests and demonstrations by female athletes in Tokyo are extensions of social movements that have fueled activism on U.S. soil and abroad.

"The Black Lives Matter Movement, Me Too prior to that, served as catalysts for groups that have been historically marginalized and silenced to speak up," she said.

Several women's soccer teams — including the U.S. team before its opening match against Sweden — began their matches by taking knees in a gesture to end racism.

Other teams whose players knelt included Chile, Great Britain and New Zealand.

Image: Nikita Parris #7 of Team Great Britain takes a knee prior to the Women's First Round Group E match between Japan and Great Britain on day one of the Tokyo Olympic Games at Sapporo Dome on July 24, 2021 in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan.
Nikita Parris of Great Britain takes a knee before the women's first-round Group E match between Japan and Great Britain on Day 1 of the Tokyo Olympic Games at Sapporo Dome in Sapporo, Japan, on Saturday.Masashi Hara / Getty Images

The soccer teams took advantage of a new rule implemented by the International Olympic Committee allowing them to "express their views" on the field of play before competition or during the introduction of athletes or teams.

The new guidelines allow for expressions if they aren't against "people, countries, [organizations] and/or their dignity" and aren't disruptive.

Before the new rules, the regulations stated that no "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

Briana Scurry, a goalkeeper for the U.S. women's national team from 1993 to 2008, said kneeling is an important tool in helping root out the racism that has been embedded in soccer culture for years.

"Soccer overall has now leaned in a bit more in quelling racism that seems to be absolutely rampant in the sport, especially on the men's side," she said.

Scurry said "being an instrument for social change" and advocating for women in the sport and society are ideas that have been embraced by the national team since's she played on it.

Much like women's soccer players, another athlete carried the mantle of racial equality at the Olympics.

Costa Rican gymnast Luciana Alvarado carried the torch of protesting racial equality in Tokyo, paying tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement in her historic Olympic performance Sunday.

Image: Luciana Alvarado
Luciana Alvarado of Costa Rica performs in the floor exercise during the women's artistic gymnastic qualifications at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo on Sunday.Ashley Landis / AP

Alvarado, 18, the first gymnast from Costa Rica to qualify for the Olympics, concluded her floor routine Sunday by taking a knee, placing her left hand behind her back and raising her right fist into the air.

Alvarado's demonstration was the first of its kind on an international stage in elite gymnastics, according to NBC Olympics. Alvarado said the end of her routine was choreographed to highlight the importance of equal rights on a global stage.

"Because we're all the same," she said. "We're all beautiful and amazing."

Patrick Cottrell, a political science professor at Linfield University in McMinnville, Oregon, said: "Women certainly are as vocal as ever. That's great because they have a lot to be vocal about."

He said the Olympics have a long history of sexism, noting that women were once banned from participating. He also said women and athletes of color may be more affected by their sports' rules than other athletes, pointing to a recent decision prohibiting swim caps in the Olympics designed for Black swimmers.

"There are rules that are biased against them," Cottrell said.

To bend and break those rules, female athletes have been challenging norms and fighting for their right to control what they wear while they compete.

Kim Bui, Pauline Schaefer and Elisabeth Seitz of Germany during the artistic gymnastics women's qualification during the Tokyo Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on July 25, 2021.
Kim Bui, Pauline Schaefer and Elisabeth Seitz of Germany during the artistic gymnastics women's qualifications during the Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on Sunday.Mike Blake / Reuters

The German gymnastics team chose comfort over tradition when they competed in full-length unitards that stretched to their ankles instead of leotards that stopped at the hips.

Similarly, the Norwegian handball team recently refused to wear bikini bottoms and was fined during the sport's Euro 2021 tournament.

The German gymnastics team first wore unitards at the European Artistic Gymnastics championships in April. Its outfits comply with the wardrobe rules of the International Gymnastics Federation.

Sarah Voss, 21, said the team members weren't sure what they would wear during Olympic competition until shortly before the meet.

"We sat together and said, 'OK, we want to have a big competition,'" Voss said. "We want to feel amazing. We want to show everyone that we look amazing."

Before the Games even began, and perhaps setting the tone for Tokyo, it was a female athlete who attracted worldwide headlines for her activism.

Hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned away from the U.S. flag as the national anthem played while she stood on the podium at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon, late last month, having placed third and qualified for the Tokyo Games.

Berry said she felt blindsided by the timing of the song. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played once a night at the trials, and it began as Berry was on the podium after she received her bronze medal.

"I feel like it was a set-up and they did it on purpose," Berry said of the timing of the anthem, according to The Associated Press. "I was pissed, to be honest.

"They said they were going to play it before we walked out. Then they played it when we were out there," she said.

As the song played, Berry turned to face the stands, away from the flag, and eventually draped a black T-shirt that read "Activist, Athlete" over her head.

After the incident, Berry said her primary goal is to raise awareness for social justice.

"My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports," she said. "I'm here to represent those ... who died due to systemic racism. That's the important part."