The sun shone brighter than ever that day, the rays struck right onto the parabolic mirror. Kindling blazes at the start, it soon grew to a stronger flame symbolizing the consumption of the darkness, hatred, and discrimination. The spectators’ faces beamed with exuberance. The flame lit up in honour of Goddess Hera and Lord Zeus marked the beginning of a new era. The Olympics!

The Olympic Torch

From the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD, the Ancient Olympic Games were conducted every 4 years in Olympia during a religious festival. Free Greeks from all over the country gathered to compete and spectate various events. After a long and successful run, the ancient tradition of the Olympic games started fading away as the initial Olympic values were lost and in 394 AD, the Games were officially ended by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I. 

It took about 1500 years till the Olympic games were resurrected by Pierre De Coubertin, who created the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894, with the goal of recreating the ancient Games as a vehicle to bring nations together. 

Every 4 years, since 1896, the world unites and with bated breaths and unwavering attention follows the movements of the talented athletes that gather together and compete with each other to win the highest honours in their chosen sport at the Olympics. Every nation supports and encourages its athletes and it is a matter of great pride to have Olympians in the country. 

But, perhaps, the true legacy of the Olympics lies in the valuable lessons it communicates about sportsmanship and solidarity. Sports, as Thomas Bach, the IOC president, emphasizes, is not just physical activity but a way to help prevent, or even cure, the diseases of modern civilization. Modern civilization has been plagued by diseases like gender inequality, racism, and transphobia for quite some time now and the Olympic Games truly have been instrumental in taking great strides towards curing them. Let’s explore how this grand platform for sports has influenced society.

The first time women participated in the Olympics was in the year 1900, with only 22 out of the 997 athletes assembled being women. It took till the 2012 London Olympics for all the sports to have events for women. In fact, till 2012, Qatar, Brunei, and Saudi Arabia hadn’t even sent a single female athlete to the Olympics. 

The IOC continuously updates its policies to diminish the gender discrepancies present in the games. With a record 49% of the athletes being women, this year’s Tokyo Olympics are being heralded as the first gender-balanced Games in history. The competition schedule has also been arranged deliberately, to balance the medal events for men and women throughout the week so that all athletes get a chance in the spotlight of the media when earlier the primetime coverage was mainly reserved for men’s sports. This will make a real difference in raising the visibility and prominence of women’s sports. 

However, we still have a long way to go with regards to creating a gender-equal Olympics and gender-equal society. Only 37.5% of the IOC is composed of females, there is yet to be a female president of the committee and the IOC remains essentially male-dominated. In recent months, some of the IOC’s male members undermined the IOC’s determination for gender parity in the Games with insensitive comments and actions like “women talk too much during meetings” and mocking the appearance of a plus-size fashion designer. 

Premier flyweight boxer, Mandy Bujold, who was pregnant/postpartum during the pandemic modified qualifying period, had to fight a lengthy legal battle before the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that accommodation had to be made for female athletes in similar situations. 

Champions like Dutee Chand and South African, Caster Semenya have been discriminated against for having naturally higher levels of testosterone, with the authorities claiming that it gave them an unfair advantage and made them ineligible to participate in women’s sports because they weren’t “woman enough”. Dutee was forced to sit out all international competitions for 4 years before she won her court battle and the “hyperandrogenism regulation” was suspended. Unfortunately, the regulation still exists for 400 metres to 1-mile races, and Caster, who is the 2016 Olympic champion of the 800 metres race, isn’t allowed to participate until she artificially lowers her testosterone levels through pills, hormone-blocking injections, or surgery. On the other hand, swimming legend Michael Phelps’ unique genetic differences, which gave him an advantage, were celebrated and nobody asked him to get corrective surgeries or banned him from competing.  

Caster Semenya on left; Mandy Bujold on centre; Dutee Chand on right

Incidents like these bring to light just how much of a gender gap still remains in sports, and the rest of the world, and show us how much harder we need to work to close it.

The current Olympics are momentous for another reason: They are the first games to have openly transgender athletes participate. Laurel Hubbard, a weightlifter from New Zealand, is the first trans person to compete and is creating history. Her inclusion, however, has been a topic of much discussion. 

Until 2004, trans people were altogether banned from the Olympics but thereafter the IOC changed the rules so they could participate under a few strict conditions. In 2015, they modified the rules again to make them less rigid and the IOC is expected to make a major announcement regarding the current standards after the Tokyo Games are wrapped up.

The IOC guidelines about trans inclusion are crucial because they then trickle down from a global scale to national and local governing bodies. More trans-inclusive rules mean that even trans athletes who aren’t playing at elite levels can participate and enjoy the sports without being discriminated against. This will also have bigger implications for the trans community as a whole because it means a little bit less discrimination and more openness and opportunities.

Along with the rules, it is extremely important that we also understand the power the media covering the Olympics holds in either reinforcing or challenging the stereotypes and misunderstandings about trans athletes. Preliminary analysis of the articles published on the day of Laurel’s inclusion in the Olympics showed that 33 out of 111 deliberately used her pre-transition name, an identity that she had chosen to shed. Discriminatory language, characterising trans athletes as cheats and worse, spreads false perceptions and misinformation about transgender people in general society and creates a lot of psychological distress among transgender communities. The media is everyone’s source of information and new ideas and more inclusive and genuinely thought-provoking articles will go a long way in reducing discrimination.

Laurel Hubbard is now the first trans athlete to take part in the olympics

No discussion about discrimination can be complete without addressing the prominent issue of Racism that after so many years and so many struggles is still prevalent. Ever since its inception, the Olympic Games have proven to be a powerful platform for athletes to strengthen the fight against racism. 

 For the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Hitler had a grand scheme to promote his Aryan Supremacy Theory but the Black American athlete Jesse Owens had other plans. He single-handedly thwarted the racist ideologies by winning 4 gold medals, running like the wind. 

One of the most memorable moments against racism is when two African-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who had won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 m sprint, stood on the podium with no shoes and raised a black-gloved fist when the US national anthem was played. Remembered by the world as the “Black Power Salute”, it was a powerful moment for Black people everywhere, symbolising Black Unity. Even though they were promptly banned, today, a statue of these brave warriors stands proud in the US honouring their remarkable contribution towards establishing racial equality. While the rules didn’t allow any political protests then, the rule has since been modified and this year’s Olympics allows athletes to wear apparel at Olympic venues with words such as peace, respect, solidarity, inclusion, and equality. 

Another important moment in the battle against racism was during the 1964 Summer Olympics. It was one of the most dynamic Olympic events in all sense being the first-ever worldwide satellite broadcast. Apartheid was prominent in South Africa and their National Olympic Committee had included only white athletes. The IOC took a firm political stand and withdrew its invitation to South Africa. This was a major reformatory stance taken by the IOC against racial discrimination.

A separate issue of racism that has been brought to centre stage due to the Olympics is the racist behaviour that the rest of India exhibits against people from the North-Eastern Parts of India. We are a land of exceptional diversity with each part of India having different cultures, different food, and different appearances. Unfortunately, due to their appearance, many northeastern Indians are subjected to offensive name-calling like “Chinky”, “Chini” and even “Coronavirus”, and the question “Are you from China?” is one they face far too often. Far too often, they are made to feel like “lesser Indians” or “unwanted Indians”. 

When Mirabai Chanu, who hails from Manipur, won a silver medal at the Olympics, the entire nation united to celebrate her phenomenal success, the same way we united for Mary Kom, Lovlina Borgohain, Tarundeep Rai, and all the other spectacular athletes that hail for North-east India. North-east Indians have taken this opportunity to ask a very important question: Do all of them have to win medals at the Olympics to be considered Indians? 

This is yet another example of how the Olympics have helped bring a deeply-rooted social issue to light.

Mary Kom on left; Tarundeep Rai In centre; Mirabai Chanu on right

This year, 206 nations have sent their best athletes to the Olympics. This means that the populations of 206 nations are religiously following the Olympics. Hence, it is undeniable that they are one of the best platforms to address these issues that haunt humanity. The IOC and the Olympian athletes are working hard to lead society by example, to be role models for everyone. Every time the IOC changes its rules to fight discrimination, we take a step in the right direction. Every time an athlete calls out the media for spreading discrimination, we take a step in the right direction. Every time the media chooses to spread inclusion instead of bias, we take a step in the right direction. Enough steps in the right direction and we will reach our destination of an equal society.

Times have changed. The flames have now been replaced by a torch, the stadiums have grown bigger and are now well equipped with modern amenities, the social issues have now replaced the colonial wars. In this entire transition from ancient times to an era of modernisation, if anything is eternal it’s the “fire”. Where on one hand, the fire signifies the grit, determination, and hunger to win of the sportsmen; on the other, the soot makes us aware of the stigma of these social issues in society. With the closing ceremony, the entire event with all its grandeur will finally halt. The fire in the cauldron will be extinguished, the soot remaining behind, motivating us to work harder to eradicate these social issues so that the next time we lit the cauldron, it burns with a brighter, dazzling flame.

Gargi Mhaskar, Parag Kulkarni

Poster Credits: Shreyal Nagle, Yash Sarode