At the Olympics, gender equality is not that equal

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TOKYO – For the first time since the founding of the modern Olympic Games 125 years ago, the Games have almost reached gender parity.

Of the 11,000 or so athletes arriving in Tokyo, nearly 49% will be women, according to the International Olympic Committee, compared to 45.6% at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 and 44.2% at the London Olympics in 2012. (The IOC does not have data on the number of non-binary athletes at these Games.)

Many countries attribute this progress to sweeping policy changes, increased funding, and the promotion of female athletes in the mainstream media. But for other nations, equality is a long way off: men enjoy much more funding, media coverage and opportunities than their female counterparts.

Even if gains are made on the playing field, the composition of the predominantly male IOC remains lagging behind. Women represent 33.3% of its board of directors and 37.5% of committee members are women.

In recent months, the organization has grappled with a series of gender-related errors in the public arena. More recently, on Wednesday, John Coates, IOC Vice President, had a tense exchange with Annastacia Palaszczuk, Prime Minister of Queensland, Australia. He ordered her to attend the opening ceremony, although she said she would not.

– You are going to the opening ceremony, he said sternly, crossing his arms.

While the committee praised an initiative it has started to promote gender equality, Olympic athletes who are new mothers have complained about Covid-related restrictions in Tokyo that prohibit them from bringing their babies to the Games, a challenge for those who breastfeed their young children.

The IOC reversed its decision at the end of June, allowing nursing mothers to bring their infants. Some athletes, including Spain’s swimmer Ona Carbonell, said the restrictions in place made the accommodations impractical.

Yet there has been steady, albeit uneven, progress in athlete gender representation.

“When you have policies and resources dedicated to girls and women in sport, you get equal numbers and high performance,” said Nicole M. LaVoi, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the university. of Minnesota. “Obviously, many countries have found this very difficult. “

Consider the starting point.

The founder of the IOC, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, banned women from participating in the first Games of 1896. In 1900, 22 women were allowed to compete in five women’s sports, including croquet, while 975 men competed in all of them. areas, from athletics to rowing.

Women made up no more than 10 percent of participants until 1952; this ratio has increased since then. Women were not allowed to compete in any sport until 2012, and it was not until 2014 that the IOC’s planning program included working “to achieve 50% female participation in the Olympic Games”.

Ahead of the opening ceremony on Friday, many countries – including the United States, Australia, Great Britain, Canada and China – announced roster lineups comprising more women than men.

In the United States, Title IX, the 1972 law that provided girls with equal opportunities in sports in high school and college, propelled women to higher levels at a rate that few countries have. could match.

But these are the first Summer Olympics in which Britain has more female athletes, 201, than male, 175.

“There is no comparable legislation in the UK when it comes to sport, so there is still a big gap between the opportunities for boys and men and the opportunities for girls and women in sport,” he said. said Dr Heather Dichter, an associate professor of sports history at De Montfort University, Leicester, England. “Until recently, funding was tied to success.”

It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg game when it comes to providing adequate resources for women’s sport, she added. Some nations fund their athletes and teams based on past successes, which is difficult to achieve without funding. The cycle continues.

“So many countries are fighting this battle: are we funding elite athletes or are we funding grassroots organizations? Dr Dichter said. Supporting elite athletes could mean more Olympians; money for more local organizations could increase the pool of potential elite athletes. Funding for both, of course, is scarce.

“If a country has not provided resources for a sport,” said Dr Dichter, “it is quite difficult to qualify.”

Numbers aside, men still hold an advantage in competing for the most advantageous slots for their races, matches and TV time.

Nevertheless, the organizing committee continues to take symbolic gestures in favor of equality.

For the first time, the IOC encouraged each participating country to nominate a man and a woman as flag bearers during the opening ceremony. For some, like China and Mongolia, this means that a woman will be a flag bearer for the first time.

These Games will also include the launch of new sports: baseball, softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing. They all have male and female competitions, channeling new types of athletic talent into the Olympics. More mixed events – 18 in total – will take place, with the highest profile of those in the track and field and swimming relays. There will also be a mixed triathlon relay, a mixed doubles event in table tennis and mixed events in judo, archery and shooting.

However, certain events continue to exclude women. The Olympic decathlon – a series of 10 athletics events – is reserved for men. Jordan Gray, US record holder in the women’s world track decathlon, is campaigning for the event to be added to the Games in time for 2024. The 50-kilometer walk is also offered as an Olympic event for men.

Despite and because of all this, perhaps the biggest stars of the Games are women. Two of them are returning medalists and fan favorites Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles.

“The line of force here is that you see women in some countries – mostly white and westernized countries – really outperforming their male teammates, despite receiving less resources, less support, less viability, less what. whatever else, ”LaVoi said.

“Despite this, they still outperform men,” she added, highlighting the enduring star power of female athletes like Biles. “It’s pretty amazing.”


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