Sexism and sports: When what players wear becomes more important than how they play!

Mithali Raj, captain of Indian ‘s cricket team batting at Truro in England in 2012.
By Harrias – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

While women have constantly proven themselves to be at the top of the game when it comes to sports, they have always had to face sexism and inequality both on the field and off it. Indian cricket captain Mitali Raj being asked who her favourite male cricketer is, or Venus Williams having to field questions about her pink undergarments, are classic examples.

116 years ago, women debuted in the second Modern Olympics Games, held in Paris in 1900.  Back then, women were only allowed to participate in three sports – tennis, croquet and golf. A century later, women represent almost every sport that is played at the Games, and every country has women players in their contingent. The same applies to almost all other sports and sporting events. However, no matter how successful women athletes are, or how many medals they win, when it comes to sports, it is still a man’s world.  And, as a society, we have a lot to catch up with before we can even think about anything remotely resembling gender equality – and this is across sports, sporting events and nations.

We take a look at the some of the main challenges and hurdles that women have to overcome regularly in the world of sports:

Comparisons with male players: A constant challenge that female athletes have to face is getting compared with male players. Any success by a female player is often compared to that of a male player. When Mithali Raj was asked who her favourite male cricketer was, she was quick to retort and ask the reporter whether the same question would be put to a male cricketer.

In an article in Firstpost, cricketer Snehal Pradhan revealed that what Mithali Raj faced was not a one off incident – Pradhan, and most other women players face such questions regularly at public gatherings. And this is across sports – Rio Olympics, which smacked of sexism saw American artistic gymnast, Simone Biles, receive comments on how ‘she might even go higher than some of the men.’ The gymnast, who won four golds and a bronze, was likened to several male athletes, including Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan. In an interview, Biles tactfully responded to the commentators, by saying, “I am not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I am the first Simone Biles.”

Pay difference: There is a glaring difference in the pay scales and prize money that women and men players take home. Cricket is a classic example of that – according to sports publication Wisden India, Grade A women cricketers get an annual retainer of only Rs 15 lakhs while Grade A male cricketers earn Rs 2 crores – and this is an increase from the previous Rs 1 crore p.a.

This difference reflects in the kind of treatment they receive as well. During the ICC World Twenty20 championships, which was held in India in March, last year, the International Cricket Council flew down the men’s crickets teams in business class flights, while women had to settle for the economy class.

Though tennis is the most gender equal sport in terms of pay scales, where prize money is the same for all the four Grand Slam events, most of the other tournaments still have differing pays scales for men and women. For example, in the 2015 Western & Southern Open in Mason, Ohio – a major tennis tournament held in the US, Roger Federer took home USD 731,000 while Serena Williams earned only USD 495,000 for defending her title.

Lack of publicity:  Men’s cricket has IPL with its games, glitz and glamour. Even regular matches played by India’s male cricketers are followed with much interest. The games they play, the runs they score, the wickets they take, and even their love affairs – most often than not, their lives are followed closely.  Male cricketers also bag big endorsement deals, with A-listers such as Virat Kohli earning as much as Rs 1.5 crore a day from the brands they endorse.

On the other hand, women’s cricket has been on the backburner for a long time. It is only after its stellar performance in the ongoing Cricket World Cup that women cricketers are finally getting their due and finding some form of recognition. But, even that has been fraught with sexism.

It is a similar situation for sporting events the world over – a study by researchers at the Purdue University found that between 1989 and 2014, women athletes were covered less in the media than they were even in 1989, with only 3.2 percent of network television dedicating coverage to women’s sports.

Sexist remarks and personal questions:  Women are also subjected to frivolous remarks and comments: During the Rio 2016 Olympics, when the gold-winning US women’s gymnastics team got together in a huddle after dominating in their game, an NBC commentator had the nerve to comment about how ‘They might as well have been in the mall’.

The BBC went a step further and called the women’s judo competition a ‘cat fight’. The channel also said that Chinese diver, He Zi, receiving a marriage proposal from her boyfriend and fellow Chinese Olympian Qin Xai, was a bigger achievement than her getting a medal in her sport.

And, the sexism comes right from the top. Raymond Moore, the former CEO and Tournament Director of the Indian Wells Tennis, had infamously remarked, “If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. They really have.”

Similarly, women are always considered primarily as caregivers, and only then as players. A tweet from the England Football Association’s handle read, “Our #Lionesses go back to being mothers, partners and daughters today, but they have taken on another title — heroes.” It was deleted later on.

Back home, in 2016, while at the launch of her autobiography ‘Ace Against Odds’, tennis player Sania Mirza had to field sexist questions from TV presenter Rajdeep Sardesai. During an interview, Sardesai asked her about her plans of settling down and motherhood.  Mirza gave a curt reply to his question, “You sound disappointed that I’m not choosing motherhood over being number one in the world at this point of time. But I’ll answer your question anyway, that’s the question I face all the time as a woman, that all women have to face — the first is marriage and then it’s motherhood.” While Sardesai apologised immediately for the sexist tone and acknowledged that he wouldn’t have asked such a question to a male player, the fact remains that women constantly have to field such personal questions.

Focus on attire: Much unwarranted attention is often paid on women’s attire. A classic example has been the ongoing Wimbledon where Venus Williams, whose pink bra strap could be seen while she was playing, came back after a rain delay with a different white top. While Venus’s choice of colour was in breach of the championship’s all white rule, the fact that so much attention was paid to it, and she was even asked about it during a press conference, highlights how women have to often deal with comments about their clothes while playing.

During this year’s Wimbledon, the Women’s Tennis Association also came under much flak for holding a sexist poll which asked people to vote on the ‘best dressed’ female player at the Wimbledon.

In the Rio 2016, when Egypt took on Germany in the women’s volleyball match, the discussion focused more on the clothes they had worn and the need to cover up, vs. not covering up, than the actual game. Commentators have not been spared as well – English television presenter Helen Skelton’s outfits while presenting at the Swimming Championships, got more coverage than what she actually said, while her male co-presenters short shorts were not even mentioned.

A Muslim cleric had criticised Sania Mirza’s tennis attire as being un-Islamic, calling her on court clothes as not legal, sexual, and thus un-Islamic. On the other hand, players are also criticised for being too glamorous and conscious about their looks, and thus not being serious about their games. Badminton player, Jwalla Gutta had spoken about the objectification that she is subjected to, and how she is often referred to as the ‘hottest pin-up girl in sports’.

It is high time that the world stops putting so much focus on irrelevant aspects of sports and accept players – men and women for what they are – sports people.