Sunday, January 26, 2014

When it comes to women’s rights, tennis is the New Zealand of the sporting world. It was the first to see equality in prize money, well before other big dollar pro sports which still insist on putting women in the back seat (literally). On the court women can wear whatever they like (pending sponsor’s approval of course). Times have changed since the 90’s when female players in junior tournaments in Australia were still being forfeited for wearing shorts. Women umpire men’s matches and all seems well for females in the tennis community. It was 1973 when Billy Jean King and the eight “renegades” threatened to boycott the US Open, won equal prize money and changed the course of history. 

Four decades on, has the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) realised its dream of gender equality? According to Martina Navratilova, there is still a long way to go. She told BT Sport about the double standards that still exist, “With Serena it’s ‘she doesn’t have much competition.’ Well, Roger (Federer) didn’t have much competition for a while either but they weren’t bemoaning that fact, they were never saying there’s no depth in men’s tennis. They’re quick to say it about women.”

It’s not just the lack of competition in women’s sport that is granted double standards by media outlets around the world (and some spectators). When a woman is playing well, it’s because of the genius of their male coaches (think Li Na and Carlos Rodriguez) but men’s coaches only tweak their game and it’s the male player who is the genius. If the women aren’t winning a string of titles, it’s their hormones stopping them from being consistent. Never do we hear mention of Margaret Court’s 24 grand slam wins (the most ever) including taking all four in one calendar year. 

Women like Margaret Court are often written out of history in this way. When Andy Murray won Wimbledon last year, the headlines told us that he was the first Brit to do so in 77 years. Never mind that four British women had won Wimbledon during that time. 

When women grunt or scream after hitting the ball, journalists complain that their matches should come with complementary ear plugs. When Rafael Nadal or David Ferrer grunt we read nothing from the pen of journalists like Richard Hinds from the Sydney Morning Herald who seems to be obsessed with female players grunting. I believe the ATP and WTA should do something to crack down on grunting but to pretend it’s just a women’s issue is feeding into old sexist notions that women are only present on the earth for men to look at and God forbid they make unladylike noises or assert their opinion.  

The TV networks also do their best to make sure that women are never seen as equal to the men in tennis. During the Australian Open this year, Channel 7 often showed a men’s match on Hisense Arena instead of a women’s match on Rod Laver Arena (centre court). In one of these instances the match on Rod Laver was an epic which went to 10-8 in the third set between Maria Sharapova (Seeded 3) and Karin Knapp. Channel 7 did cross to the Sharapova match in the middle of the third set but for the rest of the time had shown the first set of a Wilfried Tsonga match on Hisense Arena. On a separate occasion Channel 7 televised a Gael Monfils match instead of a Victoria Azarenka match on centre court. Both of the women’s semi-finals were scheduled during the day whereas the men’s were in prime time at night. Too bad if you enjoy watching women’s tennis and are one of the millions of Australians who work during the day. You would be forgiven in assuming the women’s tennis had finished after the first week. Channel 7 almost never lets a woman commentate a men’s match but has no problem with Bruce McAvaney (who knows nothing about tennis) sit in the bunker and make asinine comments about how important it is for a player to win a game when they are 4-0 down. Thanks for that Bruce. 

When men win in straight sets, few people mind because they’ve played a whole three sets but when women win in straight sets it can look like a whitewash, the match can be short, it can look as though the loser had no fight and it can seem like ticket holders get less value for money. . 

Commentators on this issue conveniently forget that it’s not women’s fault that the tennis administrations through the ages have deemed them too weak to play five sets.  Now that women have forced tournament organisers to treat them as human beings and pay them equal prize money, sexist journalists have cried foul because women don’t work as hard for their money as the men. 

The debate about women playing five sets is brought up every time the Australian Open comes to the country. Everyone’s got an opinion but, of course, no one asks the female players whether they want to work harder for the same pay. If they don’t want to play five sets then it should not happen. Considering the sexism they have to endure day in day out we can call the extra pay they’re getting per hours worked as compensation.  Let’s not forget that the men’s smaller ATP events usually have higher prize money than the women’s WTA events. So the women have to work harder than the men to attract sponsorship dollars.

If a player is marketable, they will earn far more from their endorsements than in prize money. So they are under a lot of pressure to act according to the social norms that are forced upon all of us. Chris Evert was the original “glamour girl” in tennis and the media treated her very differently to her 80 match rival Martina Navratilova. Before one final in Florida, a paper labelled the match as “Good vs Evil”. Navratilova acknowledges that she was considered the “big muscular lesbian from a communist country” and it is common knowledge that she lost millions in endorsements when she came out of the closet in the 1980’s. 

Today, occasionally comments from the media move from simple objectification like, “glamour girl” or “Polish beauty” to more explicit sexism similar to Navratilova’s era. After the 2013 Wimbleon final, Marion Bartoli was told she was “never going to be a looker” during a radio rant by BBC commentator, John Inverdale. While Bartoli had to move on with her life and try to negotiate her way through these offensive statements, Inverdale went on to commentate the men’s final for the BBC the very next day. 

How this obsession with beauty translates into income is revealed by the difference in endorsements for Sharapova and Serena Williams. Although Williams is the better player and earns more in prize money, the white skinned, blonde Russian, Sharapova earned $10 million more than Williams last financial year.  In 2012-2013 Williams earned $8.5 million in prize money and $12 million in endorsements whereas Sharapova earned $6 million in prizemoney and $23 million in endorsements. 

Through the stories of Navratilova, Bartoli, Williams or through their own experiences, sportswomen learn very quickly to look and behaving a certain way to win sponsorship. This means wearing very short skirts, make up, jewellery; anything impractical and prohibitive to playing tennis to their full potential and doing everything they can to be physically attractive. Or even posing nude as Agnieszka Radwanska did for ESPN Magazine.

Maria Sharapova has been the highest paid sportswoman in the world for the last nine years. This is incredible and shows the impact of Billy Jean King and the WTA founders threatening to boycott one tournament 41 years ago. It was brave but it was also a simple gesture that could be emulated if there are other female athletes willing to organise and fight for what they deserve. Although tennis has come so much further than every other sport, when you look closely at women’s tennis today, the contrast from the men’s game is stark. The sexism in tennis today is more subtle than it used to be Or we are desensitised to it because we face it every day, everywhere  – through unequal pay at work, objectification of women’s bodies in pop culture and every time we play or watch other women’s sport. Regardless of how subtle the sexism in tennis is, it will still take enormous bravery to speak out against it. So that the female players are not in isolation when they do so they need to maintain solidarity and keep organising. Lessons we can take into every aspect of life, even if we’re not great sportswomen ourselves.

Friday, December 7, 2012

If there was a competition for corporate grubbiness ruining sporting events, the Olympics would take gold every time.

This was never so apparent than during this year’s London Olympics. Even the most nationalistic, idealistic Olympics spiriteers couldn’t help but be disappointed when the IOC went all fun police on London butchers making sausages into the shape of the Olympic rings. Some East Londoners were equally as unimpressed when they came home to find that their national guard had set up missiles on the roof of their apartment buildings aimed at the Olympic village to protect it from terrorists.
In Australia, the free to air Channel 9 coverage was causing sports lovers to vent their frustrations on social media. Unless Aussies had Foxtel we were left watching Channel 9’s Olympics swimming championships and having to endure Carl Stefanovic in between events (and the people in London with missiles on their rooves thought they had it bad).
The sponsors with their Gestapo style control of branding, the UK Government with their missiles and the media with their dodgy TV rights deals are all major players in the business of greedily profiting from the Olympics. But any story about corporate greed and the Olympic Games has to start at the very top of its empire, with the International Olympic Committee. 
The IOC are the guardians of Olympism. Despite what it sounds like Olympism is not discrimination against Olympic medallists. Rather, it’s the brand that’s exclusively owned and controlled by the IOC which is used to generate revenue to help fund Olympic Games.
The IOC has 106 members who decide on who gets to host each Olympics and other major decisions of the organisation. IOC members include aristocrats, CEO’s, sports officials, Olympians and at least 10 royals who are all rubber stamped onto the committee by the 15 member executive board.
Members are not elected by anyone in their own country and as a result there is nothing democratic about the IOC and it is accountable to no one. Often member seats stay in the same family for decades. Like the Grimaldis of Monaco who have been members for 3 generations or the Guells from Spain who kept their seat in the family for 63 years. And it’s no wonder that IOC members participate in nepotism wherever they can. Although members don’t get a salary, the perks of being an IOC member are lavish. They get travel allowances for their annual meetings, are flown first class and stay in only the best hotels. During each Olympics they are chauffeured around in limos on roads sectioned off for the “Olympic family” and are given the very best seats to any Olympic event they wish. Members used to receive bribes in the form of cash, expensive gifts or holidays or other favours from aspiring host nations but this has decreased in recent years after an investigation into bribery rocked the IOC in 1999.
However, the IOC is far more than just a vehicle for wealthy dignitaries to swan around the world getting wined and dined. It owns a very valuable brand which it sells off to the highest bidders each four year cycle.  It’s estimated that leading up to London 2012, the IOC generated about $3.9 billion for its TV rights and $1billion in sponsorship revenue. While the Olympic rules get stricter each year for athletes, spectators and locals who have the misfortune of living near the Olympic village, the IOC’s high morals don’t extend to the sponsors it chooses.
This year, amongst the main sponsors for the Olympics were McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Dow, Visa, General Electric and BP.
Coca-Cola has been associated with the Olympics since 1928 and McDonalds since 1976. In the lead up to London Jacques Rogge the IOC president was quoted as saying, "Both companies bring forward the spirit of the Olympic Games through creative and engaging global programs that promote physical activity and the values that the Olympic Games are all about."  I don’t know about you, but for me, nothing displays the Olympic spirit like the 1500 seat McDonalds that was erected inside the Olympic village serving Big Macs to 55 000 customers a day while the Olympics were on. Maybe, when using the motto, “Faster, higher, stronger” the IOC should clarify that they are referring to its spectators’ blood pressure. 
Coca-Cola and McDonalds aren’t the only companies in the line-up that the IOC should have shunned if they had any morals at all. Dow Chemical is still being blamed for not cleaning up the mess it created after a gas leak in Bhopal in India in 1984.
And, to top it all off, the IOC allowed BP, notorious for being responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill just two years ago, to be their official sustainability partner. BP managed to use its Olympics ads to jump eight points in the brand perception ratings in the US. Protesters in London saw this hypocrisy and splashed a series of BP Olympics billboards with paint that made them look like they were covered in oil.
The IOC behaves very much like a corporation itself and goes to great lengths to ensure it makes huge profits and that its “Olympic family” - its members and associates are well looked after. And they don’t let a few ethically unsound sponsors get in the way of this. Nor do they mind that, despite promising the host nation a boost to local jobs, the economy and sports facilities, the Olympics often ends up leaving a black hole in the economy, thousands of displaced residents and overbuilding.
The real cost of this year’s Olympics to British tax payers was 9.3 billion pounds. This blew out from original government estimates of 2.5 billion pounds. And all while the country was in the midst of recession and austerity. The UK government, under obligation from the IOC, passed laws to create a tax haven for all the Olympics global sponsors which ensured they didn’t have to pay any tax on salaries or profits generated during the Olympics. Thankfully, after an online petition collected 225 000 signatures, McDonalds, Coca Cola, Visa, and the other big sponsors pledged that they would pay tax on their Olympics profits at the full UK Government rate.

London was not alone in forking out big for its Olympics. To host the Olympics in 2004, it is estimated that Athens spent over $15 billion and in 2008 China spent $42 billion. While the host nations scrounge around for tax dollars to pay off their Olympics debts, Jacques Rogge boasted to Reuters this year that since 2001 the IOC’s reserves have grown from $105 million to $558 million. 

Much of the IOC’s healthy bank balance is contributed to its every increasing TV rights deals. For us in Australia this meant that Nine and Foxtel paid about $128 million to the International Olympic Committee for the rights to screen the 2010 Winter Olympics and the London Games. As part of the deal Channel 9 weren’t allowed to show any different Olympic coverage on its digital only channels. In contrast, Foxtel were able to show eight channels. The other networks had to abide by the 3 x 3 x 3 rule between 16 July and 15 August. They were only allowed to show three minutes of Olympic footage in a program separated by three hours, three times a day and within this they couldn’t show any more than 30 seconds of an event. Nor could any footage be used more than 48 hours after an event had occurred or before Nine or Foxtel had shown it. 
While the TV networks were limiting our viewing pleasure, the print media were joining them in a take no prisoners competition to create the most sensational stories of the games to sell more papers. During the lull in pre-Games stories, the Herald Sun ran a series of photos of Liesel Jones in her togs beside an article describing her as out of shape. Implying that an extremely fit athlete is fat is incredible dangerous because it adds to the continual bombardment of sexist messages and in turn worsens body image issues amongst women.
That’s not to say that, by criticising Leisel Jones, the Australian media’s nationalism is fading. When the 16 year old Chinese swimmer, Ye Shiwen, swam faster than Ryan Lochte (the male winner) in the last 50m freestyle leg of the 400m individual medley and won two gold medals, the media latched on to speculation that she was a drugs cheat. Ye Shiwen rightly pointed out that swimmers from other countries don’t receive the same negative media. When Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, no one alleged drug use (even though it turned out that Phelps was a pot head). Most explanations thrown around for Phelps’ achievements were his size 14 feet, his long, thin torso, height and large armspan and proportionally short legs.  This was a similar story when Ian Thorpe was Australia’s golden child a few years earlier. According to her parents, Ye Shiwen also has very large hands and feet and has had the added advantage of being in an elite state run swimming program since she was 6. There are elements of racism and sexism in this story but that goes unnoticed by the mainstream media outlets that cover the games.
You might think that the Brits had it a little better than us this year because, while they couldn’t escape their reactionary mainstream media, it would have been easier for them to go and watch the games live since it was being held in their own backyard. But although local London workers paid for most of the Olympics via their taxes and by vacating their homes for construction of the Olympics venues, most were only able to afford to watch the Opening Ceremony on TV. All the good seats are given away free to Olympics administrators and their VIP mates, heads of state, European royals, diplomats, heads of corporate sponsors and other high government functionaries and the rest of the tickets were on sale $600 each.  Let’s hope after all their sacrifice, the BBC didn’t rub it in their faces by getting some rich pomp like Eddie Macguire to commentate. Although I’m sure they would have.
Not everyone just puts up and shuts up with these sordid Olympics manoeuvrings. On the day after the opening ceremony in London 400 people rallied against the corporatisation of the Olympics. A spokesperson from the group calling itself the Official Protesters of the Olympic Games told reporters, “We're not opposed to the sports events, and we're all in favour of having a big party – but only if everyone's invited.“  It’s no wonder some people felt like this. Unfortunately, as capitalism grows older and corporations invade every aspect of our lives, sports are just another commodity to be exploited for profit. And with the IOC at the helm, it looks like things will only get worse for anyone who simply wants to enjoy the Olympic Games as a global celebration of human athletic achievement.

This is an edited extract of a speech I gave to Socialist Alternative in November 2012.