This year’s Olympics offers a power that women are rarely afforded

A woman’s body is rarely just for her, but the inspirational women of Tokyo 2020 have shown that our bodies should be for us to command and control

Jess Phillips
Wednesday 04 August 2021 14:27
Simone Biles returns with stunning routine at balance beam final

I managed, at both the Athens Olympics in 2004 and the Beijing Olympics in 2008, to be off work with pregnancy-related illnesses. In 2004 miscarriage risk kept me off my feet for two weeks and in 2008 the exact opposite problem of being so fat with an enormous baby meant I could no longer see my feet let alone travel any distance on them.

With my body clapped out I sat in rapturous applause at the super strength and resilience of the physical form of others. I have been an Olympics fanatic ever since.

A woman’s body is rarely just for her; in youth it is something to be admired and judged by others. For years it goes on to be judged a success or a failure on its ability to house other people. In a job interview, a 30-year-old woman’s body looks like a risk to their prospective employer.

I have sat through debate after debate in parliament, at the United Nations and in conference halls across the world about women’s bodies and had to sit quietly in the chamber of the House of Commons while men, who no doubt have used women’s bodies to advance their own life goals and expectations, discussed what I should and shouldn’t be able to do with mine. In later life, a woman’s body is to be ignored by medical research and tolerated quietly by its owner. A woman’s body is so often a plaything and a political tool.

“The thing about watching Simone Biles perform, is that unlike watching other gymnasts I don’t feel the desire to look away in fear with the worry that she will hurt herself. She seems so in command of herself,” were my husband’s remarks as we sat with our sons and watched the best gymnast we will ever witness in our lifetime take to the balance beam. It sums up why I am so enthralled this year with the women of the Tokyo Games.

The pleasure I get is not just from the spins, lifts, kicks, flips, and speed of these amazing athletes, it is from watching women stretch and train their bodies to work on their command feels like a power we are rarely afforded.

Even in this games – where Biles temporarily withdrew and spoke up about the physical and mental effects of her job, and has been roundly slagged off by men who probably can't bend over to do up their shoelaces – I see a woman in command of herself, in charge of her body. The backdrop of her years of sexual abuse at the hands of her now-convicted former team doctor tells me that like so many women she will not always have felt so in command of her body, her career, her decisions. Watching her perform for her, doing what she wanted to do and landing on her feet with a smile felt like an act of sheer resistance.

The three-minute video of Laura Kenny before she stepped out in the velodrome to add more medals to her haul included a trot through her career. In the middle, an image of her full of baby was followed by a home video of her son on his own little bike. In her voiceover she told viewers how becoming a mum changed everything and yet here she was dressed in Lyrca ready to tell her body what it had to do. I wept at what an iconic woman she is and how lightly she wears it. I doubt many men in the same position would be competing after such a transformation to their physical form and I am almost certain that if they did we would be praising them every day for what they had come back from. For athletes like Kenny it is just one of those things.

As Emily Campbell wrapped her cutely manicured nails around the bar that carried eyewatering weights and lifted it over her patriotically dyed pigtail buns she roared with the power of a woman breaking a mould. From working with children with special educational needs to funding herself to get to the podium in Tokyo she tells a story of what a woman’s body and mind can do.

Since sponsor and brands pulled out of working with her because of the size of her body, she has taken up the mantel of campaigning for sports brands to make clothes bigger than a size 16. This woman’s body, strength and resilience will have a direct impact on the lives and activities of women currently excluded from the world of sport. She is using her body to change things.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics has been weird and in some ways flat, without question, but the women of these games have made bold statements about the power and strength of their bodies beyond that of ordinary superhuman athletes. They have shown women everywhere that our bodies are for us to command and control. The women of these Olympic games lift as they climb.

Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley. She is also the author of ‘Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics: My Life as an MP

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