Should body shaming be an Olympic sport?

Read time 4min 40sec

I was a chubby kid. I remember standing in a line at the tuck shop in junior school and overhearing the two girls in front of me commenting about how "fat" I was. The truth is, I was fat, but that didn't make their words any less nasty, nor did it make them easier to hear. This seemingly insignificant incident, that I am certain neither of them will remember, is a moment from my childhood that I will never forget.

Today, these "incidents" are probably still happening on school playgrounds but they are also increasingly happening in online spaces. I find it hard to even imagine how I would've reacted had this exchange occurred on a global network like Facebook or Twitter. Had it happened on one of these platforms, chances are the number of people hating on my figure would probably have been much larger and the comments more venomous.

Just ask some of the athletes competing at this year's Olympic games in Rio. When Mexico's Alexa Moreno, 22, placed 31st in the all-around gymnastics competition, I'm sure she was pretty chuffed. Hailing from a country that isn't known for its gymnastics prowess, the fact that she made it to the games at all is a pretty decent feat.

But rather than applaud the talented young woman for her ability to compete against the best, and just miss a spot in the top 10 in the vault event, a few ugly Internet users opted to poke fun at her appearance. One malicious tweeter commented that the athlete had a body equivalent to that of two gymnasts and questioned why she hadn't dieted before the games. Another posted an image of a cartoon pig in reference to Moreno. According to the official Rio 2016 Web site, Moreno is actually a rather diminutive human -1.47m tall and weighing a mere 45kg.

But before you chastise me for only addressing this issue from a female perspective, it wasn't only women who were in the firing line of awful individuals. The abdominal region of Ethiopian Olympic debutant, Robel Kiros Habte, was the target of much criticism after he finished last in the men's 100m freestyle heats. For Habte, his ranking was irrelevant. "It didn't matter where I finished," he told Reuters. "Everybody, every day you wake up in Ethiopia, you run. Not swimming. But I didn't want to run; I wanted to be a swimmer. It didn't matter where I finished."

An Ethiopian news site labelled him "out of shape", with one commenter nicknaming the athlete "Robel the Whale". Some even went so far as to suggest the only way a swimmer with an ample frame could qualify for the games would be if his father, who happens to be president of the country's swimming federation, had pulled some strings to get him there. Regardless, I know I certainly wouldn't be able to finish a race within less than 15 seconds of the most talented swimmers in the world. And I doubt any of his critics would either.

Calling out Caster

Back in 2009, an 18-year-old Caster Semenya was subjected to sex-determination testing after emerging victorious in her first senior championship. The point of the testing was to confirm her eligibility to race as a woman. The reason for the scepticism being her incredible athleticism. Oh, and her incredibly muscular physique. In an act of society dictating feminine standards and policing femininity, the New Yorker described Semenya as "breathtakingly butch".

In just a few days, Semenya will almost certainly be a topic of conversation yet again when she steps up to compete in the Rio Olympics. The favourite in several events, and pitted to break the longest-standing running world record for track and field, she remains one of the most controversial women competing in international athletics. Her critics argue her success is a result of a medical condition called hyperandrogenism, which causes Semenya to have higher testosterone levels, giving her a competitive advantage. Her supporters contest that these assertions are not supported by any concrete research.

Ahead of Rio 2016, one sceptic, UK marathon record-holder Paula Radcliffe, noted Semenya's unbelievable dominance robbed the competition of its validity; devaluing the sport. I would challenge that in most competitive sport there will be an individual or team who is favoured to win. Consider Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt as just two examples.

According to some of the best coaches and trainers, the average athlete will invest about four to eight years training in a sport before being selected for an Olympic team. Yes, there are exceptions but the reality is that to compete in such a prestigious competition, you really need to be at the top of your game.

Perhaps we should spend more time praising them for their 'sticktoitism' and determination, and less time commenting on whether we deem their frame to be acceptable for international competition.

See also