Racism, Sexism, and Transphobia at the 2021 Summer Olympics


By Shane Riggins (Socialist Alternative)

The 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics began under extreme pressure from the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in Japan and some limited protest from workers worldwide against the Olympics beginning. 

For most of the working class the Olympics are an exciting and inspiring event. We root for our national champions, celebrate their talent and achievement while basking in the glow of international competition. But the Olympics is also a multi-billion-dollar vanity project of the wealthy ruling class to boost national interests while at the same time employing racist, sexist, and transphobic tactics – vital tools in the capitalist arsenal to maintain power and profits. And this year in particular, with woefully inadequate levels of COVID-19 vaccinations worldwide and the terrifying Delta variant spreading, the games have continued without spectators and mired in scandals from day one. 

Just in the past several months, CeCe Telfer a runner and trans woman was barred from competing in a women’s event; Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended on the basis of cannabis use; swimming caps specifically made for black women with hair braids were not permitted; and three English football player faced a torrent of racist abuse after a loss at the Euro 2020 cup. These cases highlight that, despite the “woke” signalling of a section of the ruling class, they are overall still committed to maintaining divisions in society based on race and gender. It will be important for the poor and working people of the world to not allow these attacks to go unchallenged. 

The Olympic History of Ruling-Class Propaganda 

Since the modern Olympics began in 1896, the games have been a way for the ruling class of each nation to express supremacy over other nations. In the Germany 1936 Games, the Nazis used the games to hide overt discrimination with one hand (village shops removed signs banning Jews during the games) while putting forward their Aryan racial supremacist ideology on the other. This propaganda took a big hit with the 14 out of 18 Black Americans that won medals competing in Berlin, most famously Jesse Owens and his four record-breaking gold medals.

During the Cold War between the U.S. and USSR, the competition for gold medals was another front of the conflict that also included the space race and proxy wars. In the late 1970s, as the postwar boom ground to a screeching halt, neoliberal policies began to be applied to the games.

A trend began of countries cutting social spending while using billions of dollars in public funds to pay for the games. These budget cuts, combined with an increase in public debt for Olympic facilities really highlights capitalism’s contradictory priorities. Social spending, working conditions, and benefits are stagnant or slashed yet multinational corporations get billions in contracts to build and provide cola to the Olympics – further funnelling public money into private profits. Even more alarming, more often than not, huge stadiums and facilities are built solely for use in the games, never to be used again. Athens and Sochi in particular are blighted by these facilities. All the while, the ruling class will maintain the fiction that the basic needs of working-class people cannot be met. 

In the lead up to the Olympics, the building of these facilities has included the demolition of poor neighborhoods and any signs of protest were met with severe police repression in many places. China in 2008 and Russia in 2014 both escalated to blatant police states arresting, assaulting and even torturing prisoners. In the seven years leading up to Brazil 2016, police murdered 2,500 people in Rio alone. 

It is unsurprising that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is made up of billionaires, business executives, and literal royalty. The process of election and selection of host cities are extremely undemocratic and run through with bribery and special treatment. Allowing this body to dictate policy for international sports is yet another burden that working-class people cannot afford.

The Olympics and Transphobia

The transphobic policies highlighted during this year’s Olympics were not formed in a vacuum but actually existed for years in the rules of the games.

These repressive and narrow rules to prevent trans people from competing in the Olympics are based on bad science. They look for reasons to disqualify trans people by relying on a long history of sex verification which scrutinizes trans and gender non-conforming people. Most recently, Caster Semenya, a South African runner was found to be intersex after these invasive tests. She’s barred from Olympics qualifying events unless she takes medication to lower her naturally high levels of testosterone. 

This is part of the same backwards ideology now expressing itself materially in the waves of legislation attacking trans youth, particularly the restrictions on access to health care and similar restrictions to accessing sports. This hateful ideology is spread by a vicious section of the ruling class who rely on crude discrimination which is then upheld by the police. The extreme violence and high rates at which trans people are murdered show that the fight back must go beyond corporate woke signalling every Pride month. Working people’s attitudes toward trans rights have developed by leaps and bounds over the last several decades. However, there is still tremendous room to grow with a section of society still holding backward beliefs about gender and sexuality. 

We need a genuine mass movement to win meaningful protections for trans people. This movement could demand that the Democrat-controlled legislature pass the Equality Act, the immediate introduction of trans-inclusive Medicare for All, and a major investment in stable, high quality, permanently affordable housing. These are demands that would especially benefit the trans community, but would also benefit huge sections of the working class at large. In the process of fighting on a united basis for these demands, backwards ideas among ordinary people could begin to be overcome. 

Racism at the Olympics 

Similarly to how the Olympics have exposed ongoing transphobia, they also shine a light on the racism in our capitalist society. At the turn of the 20th century, the ideology at hand was that Black people simply could not compete on the level of white people, this was used to justify segregation of the U.S. armed forces. This picture has changed and as the decades progressed, a brand of eugenics developed suggesting that Black people are physically advantaged when it comes to sports. One manifestation of this horrifyingly backward “science”  claims black people experience less pain and are therefore less worthy of compassion. This leads to a hyper exploitation of Black athletes, and Black women athletes in particular, as we’ve seen through racist policies at this year’s Olympics like the banning of swim caps made for black women’s braids, Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension for testing positive for marijuana, and the disturbing lack of empathy for Simone Biles’ brave decision not to compete when she felt unfit to do so. All of this amounts to an extreme exploitation of Black athletes in particular who are denied the right to make decisions about their own bodies and wellness.

Solidarity on Display at the Japan 2021 Olympics 

Despite this year’s Olympics exposing the ongoing blight of racism, sexism, and transphobia in our society, it has also shown the enormous level of solidarity that ordinary people are capable of. We see this through the outpouring of support for Simone Biles, Sha’Carri Richardson, Naomi Osaka, CeCe Telfer, and others. 

We also saw it through the support for the several women’s teams from gymnastics and beach volleyball who refused to wear the overly sexualized uniforms required by IOC standards. In response to the fines administered to the Norway beach handball team at a separate competition, pop artist Pink has publicly offered to pay their fine. More gay athletes have earned medals. We also saw Quinn and Laurel Hubbard compete, becoming the first openly transgender athletes to compete in the games. 

The Olympics are in many ways a microcosm of world relations. We see inter-imperialist rivalries, hyper-nationalism, exploitation, and ongoing oppression on display. Human athleticism, skill, and physicality should be celebrated and the Olympic games give us a window into the incredible talents of athletes around the world. However, on the basis of international competition and exploitation, the games will always reflect that reality. The Olympics have a very disturbing and exploitative underbelly and only on the basis of international solidarity can the inspiring potential of world events like this be unleashed. Just like with the rest of society, we need to do away with the profiteering and brutal exploitation that comes along with these games and fight for a world based on international solidarity and real, working-class democracy.

Racism, Sexism, and Transphobia at the 2021 Summer Olympics