Mikako Kotani said that Tokyo 2020 organisers implemented measures to reduce female sexual objectification ©Getty Images

Two-time Olympic artistic swimming medallist Mikako Kotani is seeking to protect sportswomen from being sexually objectified as she looks to build on the gender rights legacy of Tokyo 2020.

Kotani, who was the sports director for Tokyo 2020, remarked during a recent interview with Japanese publication Kyodo News that a series of measures were introduced at the Games to ensure female athletes were not being photographed in a sexualised manner while competing.

Those who were permitted to spectate, despite the restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, were warned not to take photos for sexual purposes upon entry.

"We had the right to check images that were deemed suspicious and ask people to delete them," she told Kyodo News.

"It was good the rule was clear that violators would be ejected.

"Athletes perform better when they feel they are in a safe environment."

Kotani, who led the drive to promote gender quality at the Games, remarked that public awareness surrounding female objectification rose after a man was arrested in May 2021 for sharing titillating images of female athletes on sexual and pornographic websites online without their consent.

The case marked the first time Japanese police formed a case on the problem.

Germany’s women’s gymnastics team led the way in campaigning for gender rights as they symbolically wore full-body unitards rather than traditional bikini-cut leotards at Tokyo 2020.

The German gymnastics team changed their outfit to protest sexualisation of women ©Getty Images
The German gymnastics team changed their outfit to protest sexualisation of women ©Getty Images

This was a protest against the sexualisation of women in sport.

Kotani said: "I was impressed at how they took action to empower female athletes and promote values through sport, rather than just thinking about how to win or perform well competitively."

This is a contrast to how this issue was tackled in the past, with Kotani saying that sexism was rooted within sport.

Even if it was recognised consciously, change was considered impossible as "that’s just the way things were".

During her athlete career, Kotani competed in synchronised swimming - which was renamed artistic swimming by the International Swimming Federation in 2017 - and she went on to win bronze medals at the Seoul 1988 Olympics in the women’s solo and duet.

The Games was also marked by Kotani becoming Japan’s first female Opening Ceremony flag bearer.

Kotani was the national champion in solo artistic swimming for four years in a row from 1987 to 1990 and the national champion in duet from 1985 to 1988.

She also secured one silver and four bronze medals between two World Championships in 1986 and 1991.

However, Kotani admitted that she did not realise she was a victim of sexual objectification while competing.

Mikako Kotani has held a series of sport leadership roles since retiring aged 26 ©Getty Images
Mikako Kotani has held a series of sport leadership roles since retiring aged 26 ©Getty Images

"When I was in my teens a photo of me in a white bathing suit with legs out of the water hit the cover of a magazine, and I was surprised that it sparked a public debate," Kotani said.

"Back then I was just happy synchro swimming was on the cover, but later I realised there are people who look at it that way [as a sexual image]."

Kotani retired aged 26 and pursued sporting administrative roles, which led her to become an Executive Board member for the Japanese Olympic Committee and a member of its Athletes' Commission and Women's Sport Commission in the past.

She also served as Executive Committee member of the World Olympians Association, the director of the Olympians Association of Japan and an ambassador for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Bid Committee.

Kotani is urging for sporting bodies to do more to ensure female athletes are protected.

"Some people who take pictures of [female] athletes are pure sports fans, and not everything we were able to do during the Tokyo Olympics we can do at local events," Kotani said.

"Sporting organisations have to find creative ways to stop covert photography.

"I hope our efforts at the Tokyo Olympics improve Japanese society and lead to a better future.

"Our work only becomes meaningful when that happens."