The Olympic rings are meant to be a symbol of connectivity, diversity and equality. But controversies around the limitations of athlete uniforms call into question the depth of that goal, says Sophie Lutman, executive creative director at Siegel + Gale. Now is the time to deliver on the Olympic commitment to openness and diversity – and reap the rewards of true inclusion.
International Women’s Day (IWD) and the Winter Olympics have passed. For IWD, we saw companies sharing inspirational words and support online. It is time to reflect on how far we have come in promoting gender equality. Unfortunately, it looks like we didn’t go far enough. Take sexualization, often used as a selling tool in sports: ring girls in boxing, Sports Illustrated, cheerleaders in American football (the first male NFL cheerleaders not joining until 2020) and, until 2018, grid girls in Formula 1.
When talking about the Olympics, most people believe that part of equality is freedom of choice – but sometimes “choice” can be overstated. In 2021, Norway’s women’s beach handball team were fined €1,500 for ‘inappropriate clothing’ when they competed in shorts in a European semi-final in Bulgaria. Although not an Olympic sport, parallels can be drawn to some of the recent controversies surrounding the Games, with similar controversies in beach volleyball.
Since 2012, female athletes have had the option of wearing bikinis, one-piece suits, shorts or full suits during competitions. Looking at the description of the uniforms in the official 2019 FIVB guidelines, we see clear differences in the language used in the rules for male and female athletes. While men’s shorts should ‘not be baggy’, women’s shorts should ‘fit close’. While men’s tank tops should “have open arms”, women’s tank tops “must have deep armholes in the back, upper chest and stomach”. This language matters.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics (held in 2021) has seen its fair share of controversy and criticism, with Olympic organizing committee chairman Yoshiro Mori and creative chief Hiroshi Sasaki forced to resign over sexist comments . Such incidents are an extension of previous events, such as in London 2012 where it was suggested that female boxers fight in skirts to allow the public to more easily distinguish them from male boxers.
Whenever we see controversies such as banning soul caps in swimming, an athlete being asked to wear less or trying to force another to cover up, autonomy is taken away, rights are taken away and stereotypes are reinforced. Only stereotypes discourage diversity in competition and impoverish the sport by its absence.
Why is this such a problem, specifically for the Olympics?
What do the Olympics mean?
The Olympics website clearly states that the organization and the Games exist “to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating young people through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding in a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. While he could say all the right things, it is clear that currently this brand goal does not match some of the actions of the Olympic representatives.
This disconnect is not only between the organization and its purpose, but also between the brand and its audience. As customer and broader public expectations of brands grow, it’s increasingly clear that organizations need to not only stand up for something, but demonstrate that position authentically.
“Where your talents and the needs of the world intersect, there lies your calling.” This quote from Aristotle sums up the idea of the purpose of the brand: it is why we get up in the morning, or why an organization exists. Purpose is the common thread of a brand, the common thread that runs through an entire organization. When deeply implemented, it can help stakeholders across the organization to make decisions at both macro and micro levels.
Purpose is not created but discovered – based on the unique core and authentic truth of an organization. It can also help identify social causes a brand can credibly align with and conversations it should avoid.
The key here when it comes to the Olympics is authenticity. I am convinced that the members of the International Olympic Committee are not only aligned with the purpose of the brand, but also inherently believe in it. However, the goal may not have been embedded as deeply as it should be, making it difficult for it to work authentically across the organization. Media coverage of recent blunders provides a clear indicator of this problem. But it is also an opportunity.
miss an opportunity
What damage has been done to the value of the Olympic brand? It’s hard to say. Four years between summer games is a long time, even with the retrospective ease of access of the internet. Yet the Olympics have an opportunity to embrace their purpose and publicly push to extinguish not just gender discrimination, but prejudice of all kinds – never again a passive spectator.
The IOC can be a champion of diversity, inviting people from diverse backgrounds to try new sports, looking to the future with an open mind, modernizing traditional sports and introducing new ones. Move the brand to the opposite side of those controversies and allow athletes to perform at the elite level the public wants to see – and do it without the distractions caused by conversations about what they can wear when they compete.