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Inside Beta

Stop The Sexualization Of Female Climbers

During a Bouldering World Cup, inappropriate slow-motion footage of a female athlete was aired. What does it mean for climbing when the IFSC and the climbing community effectively condones the objectification of female athletes?

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During the 2021 Innsbruck Bouldering World Cup semifinal, an Austrian athlete was featured on the livestream as she brushed a problem. The camera zoomed directly in on her posterior and the footage was aired in slow motion. The footage was later deemed to be “upsetting and disrespectful” by the athlete on Instagram.

She stated, “I’m an athlete and here to show my best performance. To be honest I do really feel so embarrassed to know that thousands of people saw this. We need to stop sexualizing women in sports and start to appreciate their performance.”

Brief apologies from the IFSC (since deleted) and the Austrian National news (only visible on twitter, deleted from Instagram) were issued.

The footage was aired because an entire chain of events occurred: A cameraman had a “lapse in judgement” and zoomed directly into the posterior of a female athlete, the person responsible for choosing camera angles specifically chose that camera, edited the footage (slow motion) for a replay, and a button was pressed to allow that footage to be aired. From a multitude of camera angles, this one had been selected. Multiple people actively and consciously made the decision to stream something harmful, which is a problem in and of itself. Somehow, the IFSC Media commission and marketing & TV deemed the material to be suitable for streaming on Youtube. 

In the aftermath, the athlete received irreparably harsh judgement on the internet, including inappropriate and disrespectful direct messages to her social accounts. [Editorial Note: She did not wish to discuss these messages publicly]

Female athletes attend competitions because it is their job as athletes. In showing up, they show up as athletes, not objects to be sexualized, objectified and bluntly disrespected. What occurred was disrespectful to say the least, to both the athlete herself and to other female climbers. Representation matters. What does it mean for climbing when the IFSC and the climbing community effectively condones the objectification of female athletes? Such events are traumatic and should be treated as such, which includes the IFSC taking accountability for what has happened. And for climbers being more open and aware of gender issues in the climbing environment. The responsibility should not fall onto the victim in any case of such an event and it should not be on her shoulders to figure out how the situation should be handled by the governing system.

The climbing community is far from immune to the misogynistic, racist and patriarchal ways of the world. Our job is to hold each other accountable for such acts. If we want to create a safe and inclusive space for athletes and climbers of all types, action needs to happen, not a smattering of empty words. 

As athletes, each year we sign an international athletes license. Part of the license includes: 

“As a participant in an event authorized or recognized by the IFSC, I hereby declare my agreement with the following: I agree to be filmed, photographed or otherwise recorded while performing at IFSC competition and more generally in the context of the authorized or recognized IFSC events.” 

As athletes, we sign away our rights to how our bodies and performance are used in the media. It would be reasonable to hold the IFSC responsible for making sure the coverage is respectful and not harmful to those involved. 

The IFSC has an “IFSC Policy for the Safeguard and Protection of Athletes and Participants in Sport Climbing” where they state that: 

“Everyone in sport has the right to be protected from non-accidental violence, harassment and abuse irrespective of their race, color, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, disability, physical attributes, athletic ability or other status.” 

“All sport organizations must implement measures to prevent and respond to incidents of non-accidental violence, harassment and abuse. The effectiveness of such measures depends on the IFSC and its national federations to increase awareness of the indicators and impact of all forms of non-accidental violence.”

In this situation, the IFSC is responsible for increasing awareness of sexism and gender inequality and the impact of harmful media coverage to athletes and the sport as a whole. 

The same policy provides a definition for harassment: 

“Harassment and abuse can be based on any grounds including race or ethnic origin, culture, religion or belief, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, socio-economic status, physical attributes and athletic ability. It can include a one-off (one time) incident, or a series of incidents. It may be in person or online. Harassment may be intentional, unsolicited, and coercive. Harassment and abuse often result from an abuse of authority, meaning the misuse of power by people in positions of trust, influence, and authority (perceived or actual), against another individual.”

What happened during the broadcast was harassment on multiple levels. Harassment by the professionals hired to broadcast an international sporting event and by the governing body.

While the IFSC reposted an Instagram story from the Austrian broadcaster (ORF) as an apology, which lasted 24 hours and has not been saved with other stories, the organization has not actually taken any accountability for the incident. The livestream was temporarily removed from Youtube and re-edited to remove the harmful segment. However, deleting all evidence of the incident is not taking accountability. The IFSC should publicly address what happened and what action it would take to ensure that this would not occur again. As such, the apology from ORF is only empty words. They wrote: “We commit ourselves to keep working for a fair, equal and better representation of women’s sports.” What does this commitment entail? What work will be done to ensure the same mistake will not be made twice? 

It should be the job of the IFSC to ensure that host broadcasters represent climbing in a positive, inclusive, safe way. Such actions would include stringent contracts stipulating ethics and representation of athletes in all coverage.

Five of the IFSC core values are: Accessible, safe, healthy and educational activity for youth, equality between men and women, sport for all. The incident goes against each of these values. Climbing is not accessible to all when the female body is objectified, sexualized and clearly disrespected. Climbing is not safe when certain groups become marginalized and gaslighted. Climbing is not healthy OR educational for youth when role models are objectified and represented in a disrespectful manner. 

How is climbing a sport for all when female athletes are uncertain of how they will be portrayed when performing?

For anything to change, we need to begin with ourselves. This includes becoming aware of our own biases, judgements and intolerance towards those around us. I believe that as athletes we have become desensitized to quite some unhealthy and toxic behaviors. It is up to us to shift the narrative and culture, not just for ourselves, but for future generations. In this instance, what happened was disrespectful and was not handled decently.

The problem does not disappear if we ignore it. If the IFSC will not take care of its athletes, who will?


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