In one of his treatises from the 1920s, Baron Pierre de Coubertin – the main instigator of the modern Olympic Games – declared that women’s participation in sport was only acceptable on one strict condition: no spectators.
Because why, after all, would anyone want to watch women playing sport unless they were – to put it in blunter terms than he does – really there to perve?
Better to make women’s sport invisible than to expose them to that sort of immorality.
Better to pull the image than expose them to trolls.
De Coubertin arrives at this conclusion through a process of elimination. The (presumed to be male) spectators couldn’t possibly be appreciating or learning from watching women play on any technical level, since female athletes will always only be ‘inferior copies’ of men.
So what else is there?
He insinuates that some women might actually be playing sport in order to get that kind of attention.
Take away the onlookers and not only will this ensure that women’s sport stays wholesome, but women might even lose interest altogether. Problem solved.
It is an extremely narrow view of what spectators are about, even allowing for the fact that De Coubertin is wrong to dismiss the possibility of a technical interest in women’s sport.
When he banishes spectators from the women’s stadium, he doesn’t just banish oglers and connoisseurs, he banishes supporters – a category of spectator that doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.
This is because De Coubertin sees spectators in general as a threat not just to the integrity of women’s sport but to sport in general, because the moral benefits of sport depend on it being a private, spiritual practice and not something you do for attention.
De Coubertin is a famous proponent of amateurism, but the ultimate root of all evil in sport is not money but the “taste for applause”.
We put champion athletes on show so their example can serve as an inspiration to others, but in general these spectacles should be reserved for special ceremonial occasions.
It’s hard to think of an understanding of sport more alien to how we think about it today.
When we talk about sport in its dominant form as the subject of sports sections, sports programs and sports news, we are talking about something that ultimately revolves around a set of spectacles, where by definition spectators are as crucial an element as players.
The importance of spectators is closely connected, of course, to the issue of money.
If you want people to pay to see you, you want to put on a good show.
But it’s again a very narrow view of the relationship between spectator and player to reduce it to an economic transaction.
The whole point of the supporter is that they are there through thick or thin, and Lord knows vast numbers of sportspeople play in front of audiences for nothing or close to nothing – female sportspeople in particular.
The real lifeblood of the relationship between players and spectators in our contemporary understanding of sport is not money but emotion, which is experienced by spectator and sportsperson alike: love and hate, joy and disappointment, rage and passion.
This photo of Tayla Harris has been the talking point of the AFL world this week. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media)
Technical appreciation is bundled up with this, of course, and no doubt appreciation of physical beauty as well – not to be confused with up-skirting (or up-shorting). But the heart and soul of the sporting event is, well, the heart and soul.
Citius, Altius, Fortius.
Faster, Higher, Stronger.
De Coubertin took this Olympic motto from a Dominican priest who used it in a speech at a school athletics carnival.
It was supposed to symbolise the elevation of mind, soul and body through sport and for De Coubertin it represented the “program of moral beauty” that sport was for him.
The root cause of De Coubertin’s exclusion of spectators from women’s sport is his exclusion of women from this program.
He refused to admit the possibility that women could also elevate themselves in this way, could also undertake this journey of self-transcendence, despite the fact that he saw this journey as a key expression of our very humanity.
As a result, he could not see how someone watching a woman play sport could be appreciating this expression of humanity and not just seeing a sex object or inferior version of a man.
Funnily enough, De Coubertin saw women’s role in sport as supporting one of their husband and son’s spiritual journey.
Sidelined and invisible.
Well stuff that, Pierre.
Citius, Altius, Fortius, Tayla Harris. Faster, Higher, Stronger.