Olympics full of teaching moments for upcoming study abroad program

Gabby Yearwood in bow tie

Sports are just a form of play, using artificial rules, and the outcome doesn’t mean much in the end.

But one of sports’ biggest moments — the Olympics — is designed to keep a traditional view of the world in place: to show that being citizens of a particular country matters most, and that keeping gender categories binary and separate really matters.

That’s why anthropology faculty member Gabby Yearwood finds the experience to be full of teaching moments, and why he’s leading the Pitt Study Abroad program, “Sport As Global Spectacle: 2020 Summer Olympics,” in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan from July 11 to Aug. 10. Yearwood is now busy securing tickets for students to several Olympic events, organizing excursions to local cultural sites and arranging talks with Japanese officials about planning and running this extravaganza.

“The Olympics is a very large event that re-tells and re-informs what we want the world to look like,” Yearwood says.

For one, it re-emphasizes the stark divide between men and women — particularly in deciding who can compete against whom — and treats women who excel as suspect.

“When a woman is very good at a sport and doesn’t have normative standards of beauty,” Yearwood says, “somebody can say, ‘I think she is a guy.’ ”

He points to the case of Caster Semenya, the South African track star who was subject to International Olympic Committee (IOC) gender testing. She was found to have atypically high testosterone levels and has been banned from competing among other female athletes in international track meets, including the Olympics.

No one looked at Usain Bolt, a leading Jamaican male track athlete, and said, “This looks like a woman — he must be cheating,” Yearwood says. Nor did the well-documented physical attributes of Olympic swimming star Michael Phelps — abnormal by any standard — disqualify him from competing.

“They give him an advantage and he is seen as OK,” Yearwood says. “We should ban tall people from basketball because tall people are advantaged.”

The academic component of the Olympics study abroad program will discuss this subject and more — including the way the event claims to rise above politics but instead greatly reinforces the idea of nationalism.

The IOC has an anti-protest policy, banning athletes from attempting political demonstrations during the competition — such as the famous gloved fists raised by two African-American medalists at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

“At the same time the Olympics has always been politicized,” says Yearwood, citing the 1936 Berlin Olympics used by Adolf Hitler to try to show his regime was somehow normal — and still superior; the 2014 Russian Olympics, where leader Vladimir Putin forbade anyone speaking out in support of LGBT rights; the 1980 victory by the U.S. hockey team over Russia, seen as a proxy victory in the Cold War; and various boycotts by both the U.S. and Russia through the years.

“I love the Olympics — don’t get me wrong,” Yearwood says. However, “they want to protect the image of the Olympics as a perfect bubble, where all the world’s concerns are washed away at that moment. But to claim that the Olympics is an apolitical place is somewhat hypocritical. “

Yearwood grew up in Canada and says television coverage of the Olympics there is much different than it is in the U.S. He recalls every round of every sport — all day, every day — earning a spot on TV screens up north. In the U.S., the focus is more on the U.S. athletes’ personal stories — even their families — than on the competitions themselves, which “fuels nationalism, fuels patriotism,” he points out.

The Olympics mirrors the trash talk among rival NFL or NBA cities, he says, shifting it to country versus country competition. “To me, the Olympics are that, on the highest level,” Yearwood concludes. “As an anthropologist, that’s what we turn our lens toward … looking toward the human experience and what that means.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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