Fifteen Minutes of Feminism

41. Fifteen Minutes of Feminism: The Olympics—An Uneven Playing Field? (with Ria Tabacco Mar)


August 9, 2021

With Guests:

  • Ria Tabacco Mar, director of the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she oversees women’s rights litigation. She was previously a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Project, where she helped argue the landmark civil rights case of Aimee Stephens which culminated in last year’s Bostock v. Clayton County ruling that expanded federal employment protections to LGBTQ+ people.

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In this Episode:

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games have been rife with controversy—from rulings targeting Black athletes like Sha’Carri Richardson, to COVID protests taking place just outside the stadium, to transphobia directed at the first openly trans athletes to ever compete on this highest international stage. And what about protecting mental health and threats against Simone Biles? Is the Olympics an uneven playing field?

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Background Reading:


Michele Goodwin  00:10

Welcome to our 15 Minutes of Feminism Podcast, part of our “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” studio at Ms. Magazine—a show where we report, rebel and you know, we tell it like it is. On this show we center your concerns about rebuilding our nation and advancing the promise of equality. So won’t you join me? Sit back and buckle up as we tackle the most compelling issues of our times. On our show, history matters. Yes, we care about it. We examine the past purposefully so that we can understand what’s happening in the present, and think about what’s going to be taking place in the future. 

On today’s show, we’re jumping right into sports—the Olympics. Is it an uneven playing field? The 2020 Tokyo games—that’s right, it’s 2021, but they’re called the 2020 Tokyo games—were rife with controversy, from rulings targeting Black athletes like Sha’Carri Richardson to COVID protests taking place right outside the stadium, to transphobia directed at the first openly trans athletes to ever compete on this highest international stage. 

But some say inequality in sports persists year round, and it’s not just every four years when the Olympics, the Summer Olympics, Winter Olympics come around. So we’re diving right in—no pun intended—with Ria Tabacco Mar. She is the director of the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, where she oversees women’s rights litigation. 

Okay, Ria, thank you so much for being on our show. And for all of the amazing work that you do at the ACLU, you’re just a badass, you really are. So I want to dive in to the article that you’ve recently written, which has gotten a lot of attention all over the world, the International Olympic Committee is Failing Black women. That was like hot fire everywhere. Tell us about it. 

Ria Tabacco Mar  01:55

Well, Michele, first of all, thank you so much for having me. It’s a joy to be with you here and to be discussing these issues at greater length. And as you said, what a year it has been at the Olympics for Black women. 

It started with the news that Sha’Carri Richardson was going to be banned from competing because of a positive marijuana test. And that had a lot of people scratching their heads, because we don’t think of marijuana as a performance enhancing drug. And in fact, the fact that she was able to hit such an amazing time, despite having used marijuana actually spoke to her excellence, and not to anything disqualifying. 

But it turns out that the Olympics bans athletes not only for substances that can be performance enhancing, but also for drugs that it considers to violate the spirit of sport. And that just raises as many questions as it answers, because whose spirit are we talking about? And whose sport is this? 

Michele Goodwin  02:45

You know, that’s a really good question. So much that was just loaded into what you just said. And you’re absolutely right, who owns these sports? You know, who do they respond to? And so, and I want to put that back to you, actually, because it’s a really great question. What should the answer be to that question? 

Ria Tabacco Mar  03:06

Well, it’s impossible to separate the news of Sha’Carri Richardson’s exclusion from the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws generally. And you know, Richardson came out, opened up to fans and explained, you know, she had smoked marijuana in the middle of what was really a heartbreaking moment. 

She had learned for the first time from a reporter who confronted her with the news that her biological mother had died. What an amazing invasion of her privacy, that a reporter shared this very personal news with her and expected a response. And so in that moment, she says she apologized, she smoked marijuana, it was legal in the state where she was living. 

Now we have this idea that it violates the spirit of sport for her to be allowed to compete, when in fact, for many of us, Black women watching the news, it violates the spirit of sport to exclude an athlete who just lost her mother, who performed at an exceptional level despite having smoked marijuana, and who came clean and who was open and honest about what happened. She gave an explanation. And it made a lot of sense. 

Then you have the news about the swim cap ban. And this is another case where we’re talking about— 

Michele Goodwin  04:09

Oh, that’s a hot mess. The swim cap band is a hot mess. Okay, tell us about it. 

Ria Tabacco Mar  04:14

So the swim cap ban… This involves a company that designed for the first time a swim cap that is specially designed to protect natural Black hair. This is huge, because pool water can be so damaging to natural Black hair. And the Black Swimming Association has said, we don’t want that to be a barrier to Black participation in the sport. So what great news to have a swim cap that actually fits our hair and adequately protects our hair. 

Now we learned the cap has been banned because it “does not fit the natural shape of the head.” And again, we have to ask, whose head are we talking about? Because I have to tell you, Michele, my head with all of my natural hair piled on it… Yeah, it looks different than someone who has very short hair or perhaps a white athlete who might have straight hair that doesn’t take up a lot of volume when it’s wet. 

Michele Goodwin  04:59

Okay, so now just to be clear with our audience, you’re not talking about some eugenics-y kind of stuff, right? Where a century ago, there were eugenicists, who said that Black people were inferior and that they had different shaped brains and different things like that. That’s not what you’re talking about. Could you explain a little bit more about natural hair? 

And it’s strange that we have to do this, right? I mean, it’s really strange that we have to do that. And that across the country right now, there are legislatures that are debating, and some enacting laws, so that Black women aren’t discriminated against because of their hair. Can you unpack a little bit of that?

Ria Tabacco Mar  05:38

There’s a lot to unpack, Michele. But let’s start with the swim caps themselves. Because you’re right, this is not about the shape of Black people’s heads without hair. This is a swim cap that is specifically designed to take account of the fact that natural Black hair just takes up more space than some other kinds of natural hair. 

And as some folks have pointed out, I mean, sort of very similar to Sha’Carri Richardson’s situation, you might think that having a larger swim cap that’s taking up more volume is actually a disadvantage for athletes moving through the water. So this is not about some kind of swim cap that’s going to give people an edge. It’s about a swim cap that potentially could disadvantage them in terms of speed, but actually adequately protects their hair and fits them appropriately. This comes—

Michele Goodwin  06:18

That’s the whole point, right, of the swim cap to begin with. Right? Right, if we’re clear, that’s the point. 

Ria Tabacco Mar  06:24

That is the point. And again, it just raises questions about who has been allowed to swim historically, you can’t think about this divorced from the context of racially segregated pools in this country and the exclusion of Black people from swimming opportunities. Now we finally have Black swimmers who are ready to enter the Olympics and to face this kind of ban… It’s just astounding. 

Michele Goodwin  06:44

I couldn’t agree with you more. And in fact, this discrimination that’s taken place at schools and discrimination on with regard to swimming pools in the United States… I mean, it’s stunning to think, but then not if one really pays attention to the social and legal history in our country, that Black people were specifically banned from entering swimming pools. And there were swimming pools that would be drained after the one day or half day of the month that Black people were allowed to swim in them in the United States. 

There was a case that went up to the United States Supreme Court about this, the ban on Black people swimming in taxpayer funded swimming pools, right. This is not even you know, at the country clubs where Black people were banned. We’re talking about Black tax payers, not being able to swim in the pools that their taxpaying dollars are funding. 

A public swimming pool in North Carolina that was closed briefly after several Black men went swimming with white companions. The incident prompted local outcry (David Hoffman / Flickr)

And you make a great point, which is that what we’re talking about, whether it’s Sha’Carri Richardson or we’re talking about these swim caps, we’re not talking about instances where there is some advantage that Black people are trying to gain on other people in the sport. So those are a couple of issues. But there’s even more that you’ve been writing about. What else should we be concerned about with this Olympics? 

Ria Tabacco Mar  08:12

So we can’t have this conversation without talking about the two Namibian runners who were excluded because of their natural testosterone levels. And I’m so glad, Michele, that you made that comment about marijuana and some caps not posing an advantage because in this case, the narrative is a bit more complicated, right? 

We have this idea that somehow testosterone gives athletes an advantage, and that somehow that advantage must be curbed or has to be scaled back. Now again, we are talking about Black cisgender women whose bodies naturally produce testosterone at a rate higher than some other women. So we are in the context of the Olympics. The Olympics, by definition, is about extreme human variation, right, extreme human achievement. 

And yet we have these runners being punished because they don’t conform to average levels of hormones in their blood, and expect them to actually take drugs to alter their natural hormone levels, or step out of the competition altogether, which is what they have chosen. And I just have to contrast the situation to another extraordinary athlete. And that’s Michael Phelps. 

You know, a lot has been written about Michael Phelps, and the extreme extreme human variation that enabled him to be so successful, so to name just a few: He’s double jointed in his ankle. No one ever told Michael Phelps get surgery on those ankles, or else you can’t swim in the Olympics. Right? His body produces half the lactic acid of an average person. And of course, this is what, lactic acid is what causes muscles to fatigue, so that partially explains his extreme performance. No one said, take drugs to cause your body to produce the same amount of lactic acid as an average person in order to compete in the Olympics. Not, to the contrary, we celebrate those differences, those extreme differences in the case of Michael Phelps as part of what makes him a marvel, makes him superhuman.

Michael Phelps at the 2016 Rio Olympics. (Wikimedia Commons)

Yet when it comes to Black women, those things are not only are they not celebrated, but they’re actually used as a reason to exclude them from competition altogether. 

Michele Goodwin

And in the article that that you co authored with ReNika Moore, and Schanelle Saldanha, you talk about that brilliantly, beautifully. You say that the very differences that are overlooked and even celebrated for other athletes are weaponized against Black women. And you talk about Michael Phelps, and you know, and what some have called the unique genetic blessings, that he has those unusually long arms that you’ve mentioned, the double jointed ankles, and the body that produces, as you’ve said, half the lactic acid of the average athlete, and yet he is celebrated. There are great endorsement deals, he’s done well for himself in the Olympics and outside of the Olympics, and has been celebrated as an American hero in sport. 

And meanwhile, there’s a very different kind of response that Black women have experienced. And so you speak so beautifully about this glaring double standard. But you also mentioned too that, when there have been those who’ve sought to protest this even peacefully, such as hammer thrower, Gwen Berry, who practiced her right to peacefully protest racial injustice, at the track and field trials, you mentioned that some lawmakers actually called for her to be removed from the Olympic teams. Is that right? 

Ria Tabacco Mar  11:36

It is right, Michele. And it’s absolutely wild. Because when you put these series of events together, what you’re left with is the impression that Black women athletes can be required to take drugs to alter their bodies, to cut or chemically alter their hair in order to wear swim caps, to miss out on competition all together because of tragic personal loss in their lives. And then when they have the gall to complain about it, they’re ostracized as well. 

So we are told quite clearly right, put up or shut up. But there is no opportunity to be ourselves and to bring our full selves onto the playing field, the way that other athletes again, are not only allowed to do but are celebrated for doing. Because nothing about Olympic athletes is average, nothing about Michael Phelps is average. 

And it’s worth pointing out, it’s not just those differences that we can’t see, right, it’s even the very ordinary differences that we do see, and that we take for granted. Michael Phelps is six feet four inches tall, the average American man is about 5’10”, maybe even a bit shorter, right? So even in these very obvious ways, we accept this human variation, we celebrate the diversity of the human form, again, when it comes to white men, but when it comes to Black women, we are policing what it means to be a woman. And that is really targeted, particularly on Black women. 

Michele Goodwin  12:52

Oh my gosh. So now I’ve just gotten chills, because you’ve taken us all the way back to the beginning, right? I mean, this policing of Black women and Black women being in service to others and not in service to themselves is part of a foundational story on these lands that were Native American lands right, are, and that is that this policing goes way back and this policing is part of the Olympics. 

But you know, it’s not new to the Olympics, is it, and it’s not necessarily new to sport. 

Ria Tabacco Mar  13:26

It’s not new, Michele. And I mean, you’ve taken us all the way back. But one place we can go is just a few years ago to look at the origins of the testosterone rule that has now been used in 2021 to ban the two runners from Namibia. Where did that rule come from? 

Just a few years ago, that rule was adopted specifically to exclude Caster Semenya, who’s a Black South African runner, from competing. And Caster Semenya was another athlete where people questioned whether she was really a woman, or whether she was really 100 percent a woman, again because of her natural levels of testosterone produced in her body. And what’s so remarkable about the rule, when you look at it today, is that the Namibian runners have been banned from competing, they’ve been banned from the 400 meter race. They have not been banned from shorter races. Why not? Because the rule only applies to those events that Caster Semenya was winning in 2018. 

Michele Goodwin  14:19

Oh, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop. You have got to be kidding. 

Ria Tabacco Mar  14:25

This is the Caster Semenya rule. It was gerrymandered specifically to include one Black woman, to exclude one Black woman who was— 

Michele Goodwin  14:33

—So we’re talking about gerrymandering not just in suppressing Black people from voting, but gerrymandering in sport.  

Caster Semenya at the 2012 London Olympics. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ria Tabacco Mar

It was designed to exclude her, and in the process, it is now excluding other Black women. And look, we can’t talk about this without talking about the exclusion of trans athletes as well, because so far the women we’re talking about are all cisgender women. But there’s another Black woman who was banned for the Olympics this year and that’s Cece Telfer. This is a transgender woman who was banned for exceeding the testosterone levels. And again, it’s so important to think about.  

Michele Goodwin

But why is this an issue that everybody should be concerned about? 

Ria Tabacco Mar  15:07

Well, the basis of the Olympics is to celebrate human achievement, it’s to celebrate the very best of the best. And many of us, myself included, get goosebumps when we see athletes, just achieving something that is so far beyond what we ever dreamed was possible, and certainly so far beyond what we can imagine our own bodies capable of producing. 

And so now to see these extraordinary athletes who have trained for years, really, for their entire lives, being excluded from this moment, this extraordinary moment, simply because of who they are and how their bodies were produced the day that they were born, should disturb all of us.

Michele Goodwin  15:43

Before I let you go, I want to talk about money as well, because there are gender pay gaps that exist in every profession. But it’s especially apparent in sports, where you have women’s teams like the US women’s national soccer team, where they continually outperform the men’s team. And yet they’re making 38 cents to the men’s team’s dollar

How in the world is one to wrap a head around this, whether or not that head is inside the right kind of swim cap?

Ria Tabacco Mar  16:15

I think the answer is with difficulty. I mean, one of the amazing thing about the US women’s national team is they’ve actually gone to court to challenge the pay disparity. And, you know, they lost before the district court, and they’re now appealing to the Ninth Circuit. And what’s extraordinary about the US women’s national team is not so much that there is a pay disparity, but that they’ve actually filed a lawsuit and they’re doing something about it, they’re trying. 

And that actually gives me hope, because we’ve seen these disparities for a long time. They’re nothing new. But what is new is this growing sense of outrage, this growing sense that we won’t take it anymore, that we won’t be silent. We’re going to speak the truth about the pay disparity, and we’re going to speak the truth about what’s expected of us that’s not expected of men.

Michele Goodwin  16:57

This is the point in the conversation when we get to silver linings, because when you think about that, women soccer players making 38 cents on the dollar, Black athletes who want to be able to swim with their natural hair have the cap that they want to use, being banned from the Olympics or not accepted at the Olympics, Black athletes being banned, either because of testosterone levels of Black women, or because of a non-enhancing drug that was legal to be used in the state where, you know, Sha’Carri Richardson was from… 

With all of that, it could seem, don’t go to the Olympics, don’t compete again, that things just seem dire. But is there a silver lining? Right? I mean, you’re not saying that people shouldn’t compete in the Olympics, although you know, people do boycott things. 

Ria Tabacco Mar  17:44

Well, what’s amazing is a number of these athletes have chosen not to compete rather than subject themselves to these kind of punitive rules. And that to me is a takeaway, right, that so many athletes are proudly standing up for themselves and telling us about what they’ve experienced. I mean, we could have seen runners, for example, choose to take drugs to alter their natural hormone levels in order to compete and they didn’t do that. We could see swimmers say, you know what, I’m going to cut my hair off, or I’m going to chemically alter it to a style that’s more conducive to fitting under some caps designed to fit on the heads of white athletes. 

And instead, we’ve seen a real… We’ve seen a real conversation about what is the cumulative impact of these policies. Who do they exclude? And whose Olympics are they? 

Michele Goodwin  18:27

That’s brilliant. Ria, thank you so much for joining us for this 15 Minutes of Feminism. Want to have you back because you are just too fabulous. Thanks so much. 

Ria Tabacco Mar  18:37

Thanks so much, Michele. It’s a real pleasure.

Michele Goodwin  18:40

That’s it for today’s 15 Minutes of Feminism, which is counted in Ms terms, which means that the clock is our own. I want to thank my guest Ria Tabacco Mar for joining us and being part of this critical and insightful conversation. And to our listeners, I thank you for tuning in for the full story. We hope you join us again for our next episode where we will be reporting, rebelling and you know, telling it like it is with very special guests tackling issues related to being Asian in America. 

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This has been your host Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is. “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” is a Ms Magazine joint production. Kathy Spillar and Michele Goodwin are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal and Oliver Haug. Our special media, social media intern is Lillian LaSalle. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez and Marsh Allen, and music by Chris J. Lee. And the fabulous Stephanie Wilner provides executive assistance.