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Are We Welcome? A Look At the 48th Artistic Gymnastics World Championships

As a fat person, I’ve never felt particularly welcome in the world of sports. In primary school I was consistently picked last in P.E. In middle school I changed into my gym clothes in the bathroom stalls to avoid being bullied in the locker room.

As an adult, my body often doesn’t fit in the stadium-style seating commonly used in sporting arenas. Athletic events are doing a disservice to fat people by denying them equal access to facilities as both participants and spectators. This column aims to challenge that.

Like your favourite ‘90s sitcom, “Are We Welcome?” will follow a simple formula. First, the event will be introduced. There will be a brief origin story and a glimpse at the event’s history. Any notable athletes will be profiled, especially if any of them are plus-size. Next, accessibility will be assessed. This will be discussed in terms of physical barriers (such as small seats, chairs with restricting armrests, and tiny toilet cubicles) and psychological barriers (such as societal standards and event marketing) to access.

Finally, practical tips will be given for enjoying the event as a fat spectator, and recommendations for best practices will be offered for event improvement.

First up: the 48th Annual Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Doha, Qatar.

About the Event

This month Doha, Qatar will be hosting the 48th Artistic Gymnastics World Championships from Thursday, Oct. 25 until Saturday, Nov. 3. Since the event originated in 1903, this will be the first time that the championships are hosted by a Middle Eastern country. While the event was originally exclusive for men, women have been able to participate since 1934. As of today, there is no competition category for non-binary or gender-nonconforming athletes.

The event spans 10 days and includes qualification rounds, finals, and a number of ceremonies. The Artistic Gymnastics World Championships are especially significant to participants because those who medal will be granted entry to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.

While the list of participants includes includes 265 men and 244 women gymnasts from 78 nations, not a single gymnast appears to be visibly fat or visibly disabled.

Prior to this year’s event, the most successful participating nation was the Soviet Union with 256 cumulative medals, 111 of which are gold. American gymnastics superstar Simone Biles is currently the most decorated female gymnast in the history of the games with a whopping 10 gold medals. This year will mark her return to the competition after she returned from a two-year hiatus to continue breaking records in the sport. Japan’s Kohei Uchimura is another fan favourite who is due to return following an injury at the 2017 championships in Montréal.

Accessibility

The 48th Artistic Gymnastics World Championships will take place inside Doha’s Aspire Dome, which is the world’s largest indoor multi-purpose dome. It boasts a capacity of 15,500 people and the ability to host 13 different sporting events simultaneously.

With such a grand event facility, it is suspicious that there is no information available online regarding accessibility, such as a venue map or official accessibility policy.

A venue seating plan (that can only be accessed when attempting to purchase tickets) indicates that there are three varying quality tiers for spectator seating (gold, silver, and bronze, of course), a section marked “NA” which is likely reserved for athletes/coaches/press, and a very small section marked “special needs” which is presumably allocated for wheelchair users.

I reached out for clarification via the contact forms on both the official event website and the venue website, but have received no response at time of publication.

This made me wonder: does Qatar have any legislation that protects disabled people or other marginalised groups? Upon further investigation, I discovered that Qatari law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in areas including medical care, education, transportation, employment, and access to public facilities. However, it is unclear what amount of access is required. It is possible that by reserving a small number of seats for “special needs,” the Aspire Dome is in compliance with legislation.

The accessibility issues discussed up to this point are all physical barriers to access, but there are additional barriers that can prevent people from attending events either as a participant or as a spectator.

Psychological barriers to access are any non-physical barriers, such as society’s attitude toward marginalised people, event marketing, or any other factors that might dissuade marginalised people from attending.

One of the most glaringly obvious issues is the enforcement of the gender binary. Sporting events still want to file people into only two categories: male or female. Even the Gay Games, “an event for inclusion and respect of diversity,” state in their official gender policy that participants must disclose a) the sex they were assigned at birth and b) their gender of competition: male or female. While the Gay Games justify the policy by stating that is due to the limited recognition of only two genders in modern sports, this can still bar people who are non-binary or gender-nonconforming from competing.

Recommendations

For fat spectators, my greatest recommendation is what you already know: do your research. Seek out reviews of the facility. Try to find info (that I tried, and tried, and could not find) about seating. How big are the seats? Do the seats have restrictive armrests? Are the toilet cubicles wide enough to accommodate plus size bodies?

If you attend, be sure to leave a review on AllGo – The Plus Size Review App! This app is incredible and is all about fat accessibility and we are big, big fans. Seriously, check it out!

For event professionals, more information is absolutely mandatory. Regarding accessibility, accommodations must be made for people with disabilities who are standing persons, who use a manual wheelchair, who use an electric armchair, with visual impairment, or with hearing impairment. This event fails in that respect.

The best practice would be for event professionals to include marginalised people in all aspects of the event. Only by listening to those who are excluded can the events industry grow and make strides toward inclusion.