When the most glamorous sport in the world, Formula One, decided to ban the use of beautiful models at their events starting with the Australian Grand Prix in March earlier this year, the hope was that other sports would follow suit.
Judging by the increasing use of nubile young girls as cheerleaders at international rugby and cricket events, just to use two examples of several others, this is clearly not the case. Last month for instance, they were out in force at the T20 Cricket final of the Indian Premier League (IPL) in Mumbai between Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and Sunrisers Hyderabad, which was won by CSK thanks to an exciting century by Australian test star Shane Watson.
I also recently watched a 2018 Super Rugby match between the Blue Bulls and Stormers played at the iconic Loftus Versfeld stadium, one of the greatest venues in the world, and South African rugby. The sight of bikini-clad cheerleaders, never mind the cold of the Highveld and that they are usually featured in American football games, strutting their stuff in the South African capital, Pretoria, and their short-skirted colleagues at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai at the IPL final, was as mind boggling as it was culturally ridiculous. Both South Africa and India, despite the twin effects of globalization and the advent of social media, remain largely conservative societies.Only a few years ago, such vagaries would have been unheard of both in the sports and in the host societies. The irony is that most, if not all, of the girls are white Europeans, which only serves to reinforce racial stereotypes about women. Can you imagine Indian and Black South African girls doing this? Who knows? This might happen in the future, but at what cultural cost? India and South Africa have the dubious and unfortunate reputation of two of the countries with the highest incidence of patriarchy, violence against women and domestic abuse.
The sight of a team of beautiful women parading up and down the pit-lane, starting grid and winner's podium has long been associated with Formula One racing. Liberty Media, the American owners of Formula One racing, claim they are moving with the times and responding to the growing clamor not to objectify women. In fact, motor racing is merely following in the footsteps of International Darts, which similarly earlier this year banned the use of walk-on models at major tournaments.
Sports bodies and promoters have in the past justified the use of models merely as a marketing tool. Some of the models have predictably decried the Formula One ban, stressing that it would deprive them of a job and income. Feminists and a spate of women's groups, both on the left and right of the political spectrum, stress that the use of scantily clad girls merely objectifies women as sexual objects.
The reality is that sports today are a multi-billion dollar business run by billionaires, hedge funds and private equity firms. The old tradition of clubs owned and run by their members and supporters similar to mutual societies (building societies), of which Barcelona was a prime example, is long gone. Even Barcelona seems to have capitulated to the magnet of money. The club used to have a policy of not having sponsors and their logos blasted over their shirts.
Instead they had a noble tradition of a relationship with UNICEF, the U.N.'s children charity, whose logo appeared on their shirt. For that privilege, Barcelona donated millions of dollars to UNICEF. Not so with the Qatar Foundation, also a registered charity, which replaced UNICEF and in fact paid millions in sponsorship to Barcelona for that privilege.
Today it seems that only Bayern Munich of the big global soccer clubs have stuck to their mutual club ideal. The growing commercialization of sport and the objectification of women as a promotional tool to add "glamour and excitement" have gone hand in hand as the root of changing club ownership to big money and the inevitable football transfer market inflation set in, mostly at the expense of the genuine fan, who has to fork out ever-increasing prices for season and match tickets.
It was no longer a case of loyalty to club and country; but now also to the billionaire oligarchs, sheikhs, sports management firms, private equity specialists, tycoons and kleptocrats who have captured the ownership of most of the popular sports in the world. These people in many instances operate in cahoots with global and national sports bodies, politicians, former players, agents and sponsors in pursuit of social prestige and the bottom line.All the above must also be seen in the context of the global phenomenon sweeping the world in 2018 in which no country is spared scrutiny – that is the issue of women's role in society and the workplace. Women's marches have been prevalent all over aimed at renewing the fight for gender equality and justice, and against sexual harassment in the workplace.
Their clarion call is "Time's Up" – a legal defense fund set up to financially support women who have experienced sexual harassment, assault or abuse in the workplace. Such campaigns the world over, including in Turkey, is capitalizing on the activism precipitated by the #MeToo hashtag on social media in the wake of sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood Moghul Harvey Weinstein and stars Kevin Spacey and Matt Lauer. Last week, Weisntein finally appeared in a preliminary hearing in a New York court to answer several charges including non-consensual sex.
The objectification of women in sports, despite what the models, organizers and sponsors stress, is one manifestation of a multifaceted phenomenon, which includes patriarchy, misogyny, gender inequality, a lack of empowerment, and sexual harassment as well as domestic and workplace abuse.
Human ingenuity once again seems to prevail. For "innovation" in "de-objectification" and anti-discrimination against women in sports who have waited for it for cultural and other reasons, has been possible whether on the field of play, in leisure activities such as swimming and in the status of their team. The Capsters in Holland, for instance, have carved out a reputation in designing and manufacturing sports hijab gear, which is donned by athletes from the Middle East to Europe and the U.S., and the burkini, which is gaining popularity even among Western women.
In the U.K., Chelsea on the other hand a few days ago afforded the "same status" of their men's football team to their women's one by renaming Chelsea Ladies, which just won the Women's FA Cup at Wembley, as Chelsea Football Club Women. According to Chelsea, the change underlined the "ever-growing status" of the women's game and is a move away from referring to the men's side as the "first" team.
Short of being a killjoy, I get my excitement in sports from the antics, the brilliance and the effort of the players and coaches, and the rivalry the fans, male or female, especially of my beloved Springbok rugby team, Proteas cricket team and of course, Tottenham Hotspur football club, which I have supported for decades since I was a tiny 6-year-old.
* Independent London-based journalist and economist
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