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Slate’s “Body Positive” Coverage of Ethiopian Swimmer Habte Is An Epic Fail


When we think of Olympic athletes, we have been taught to think of svelte, visibly muscular bodies. The somewhat “chubby,” average-built Ethiopian swimmer Robel Kiros Habte has received so much hate — and, sadly enough, most of it has been fatphobic rage.

The media’s coverage of Habte has been appallingly fatphobic as well. With simple-minded headlines like the LA Times “Rio Olympics: Overweight, Slow Ethiopian Swimmer Draws Attention” (Good one, Chuck — see you at the next Olympic tryouts?)

Slate’s attempt at a body-positive Habte story goes very wrong.

Sadly, even those who tried their hand at “body positivity” could not even make it past the fatphobic lump in their throat that made everything said come out with a negative tone.  Slate does no better. The headline “That Slow, Chubby Ethiopian Totally Deserved To Be In the Olympics” is thinly veiled sarcasm at best — and gaslighting at worst.

“Habte swam like his bathing suit had lead in it, losing length after length until he was 12 seconds behind the other swimmers and off the TV screen altogether,” writes Slate’s Elliot Hannon. “Standing 5-foot-9 and weighing in at 178 pounds, complete with Dad Bod paunch, Habte looked more like those of us who watch the Olympics than those who actively participate,” Hannon, an expert on dad bods, explains.

Hannon continues: “According to Reuters, Habte was competing in Rio thanks to a ‘special invitation from world body FINA extended to athletes from under-represented countries.’ Why would Habte be invited to Rio rather than some other Ethiopian swimmer? Well, his father is reportedly the president of Ethiopia’s swimming federation.”

Hannon then contradicts himself:

“But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Habte shouldn’t have been in Rio. His time in the 100-meter freestyle on Tuesday is just a few seconds slower than the Ethiopian national record. And Habte himself holds the national record in the 50-meter freestyle. FINA’s rules state that “under-represented countries” can invite one male and one female swimmer to the Olympics. (Ethiopia’s female entrant, Rahel Fseha Gebresilassie, will swim on Friday.) Perhaps there’s a more qualified swimmer in Ethiopia. But it seems just as likely that Robel Kiros Habte was his country’s hope for Olympics swimming glory.”

Related: Dipa Karmakar, India’s First Female Olympic Gymnast, Wows Vault Crowd in Rio

The Slate article wavers between saying that Habte shouldn’t be in the Olympics because of his father’s position and that he has the right to participate. Many Olympians come to the games because of privilege — it is difficult to hone their craft without financial sponsorship. If this were truly an issue, why not come for any of the lower-scoring white athletes from monied backgrounds?

The layers of bias are thick and ill-concealed within this coverage, which has been hailed by some as “body positive.”

From one fatty to the rest of the world, I must take a moment to say this: even an Olympian who finishes DEAD LAST is still an OLYMPIC ATHLETE. And I continue with damn near certainty: any Olympic athlete who finishes last is STILL a better athlete than their critics.

The most appalling thing about the coverage of Habte is that the criticism hasn’t even been for his lesser performance which, mind you, was seventeen seconds behind the winner. While that may sound like a lot, think about it. SECONDS. Not minutes. These athletes, regardless of how and if they win the medal, are still losing by mere fractions of a minute.

I invite you to join me in a mini-experiment for perspective. You know … for science. Count it out loud:

One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. Four Mississippi. Five Mississippi. Six Mississippi. Seven Mississippi. Eight Mississippi. Nine Mississippi. Ten Mississippi. Eleven Mississippi. Twelve Mississippi. Thirteen Mississippi. Fourteen Mississippi. Fifteen Mississippi. Sixteen Mississippi. Seventeen Mississippi. 

The time that it took you to read that paragraph aloud is approximately the time differential between the first-place Olympic swimmer and the 59th — with approximately one body-length between the two. By Olympic standards, it’s a lifetime. For the average armchair critic, it’s a hell of a lot better than they can do.

With all of the hate, Habte, thankfully, still has many supporters who are there to cheer on their #HabeshaHero. As for Hannon, I’d like to see what you can do. I’ll bring the stopwatch.


Laurel Dickman is an intersectional feminist, plus size model, stylist, and fat activist that can also be found via her blogs, Exile In Dietville and 2 Broke Bitches. She grew up in the south between Florida and North Carolina, migrating to the Portland, OR in 2005. All three places inform her perspective of the world around her a great deal. While in Portland, she worked with the Alley 33 Annual Fashion Show, PudgePDX, PDX Fatshion, Plumplandia, and numerous other projects over the near decade that she was there. In August of 2014, she moved to the Bay area with her partner, David and trusty kitty, Dorian Gray. She continues her body positive and intersectional feminism through various forms of activism, fashion, photography projects, and writing from her home in the East Bay. She can be reached at laurel@wyvmag.com and encourages readers to reach out to her to collaborate!

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