Gender equality and the 2012 Olympic Games

Kate Laine, Special Advisor, IWG

This year’s Olympic Games in London are heralded as the most gender equal in Olympic history and mark some significant achievements in terms of gender equality such as increases in women’s participation and parity of sport disciplines. Despite these encouraging developments, the shadow of gender inequality still lingers over the XXX Olympiad.

For the third time in history, the Olympic Games will be hosted by London, having hosted the Games previously in 1908 and 1948. In 1908 male athletes outnumbered female athletes 53 to 1. In 1948 the ratio had decreased to 10 to 1. The number of men and women participating in the 2012 Olympic Games approaches parity, though men will still outnumber women by 1,114, according to projections (for more comparisons between the three Games hosted by London, see Nevertheless, IOC President Jacque Rogge deserves appraise for actively promoting equal participation by men and women during his term of office. (See also Around the Rings, "Op Ed from IOC President - Striking a Blow for Gender Equality")

Another significant milestone towards female participation is the possibility that every team attending the 2012 London Games might include at least one female competitor for the first time ever. Women made their Olympic debut in 1900 at the Paris Summer Olympic Games at which only 21 female athletes competed. Only two decades ago, 35 NOCs sent male-only teams to Barcelona. By 2012 only three nations – all Muslim countries ruled by monarchies – have yet to send a woman to compete at the Olympic or Paralympic Games: Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia. This stands to change as Qatar plans to send three female Olympic competitors to London and Brunei has pledged to send one woman to the Olympic Games.  After initially issuing a statement that women would not be allowed to compete under the kingdom’s flag at this or future Games, Saudi Arabia recently amended its decision by stating:

"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is looking forward to its complete participation in the London 2012 Olympic Games through the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee, which will oversee the participation of women athletes who can qualify for the games."

It is still unknown if any female Saudi Arabian athletes will qualify for competition, leaving the possibility open that Saudi Arabian women will remain absent from the Olympic Games for, at least, four more years.

More and more women are competing in the Olympic Games; this is a promising trend. However, participation in a number of other important capacities still lags too far behind.

It has been widely trumpeted that the number of sports featured on the 2012 Olympic program will have “full parity” for the first time in Olympic history, and the Games have also made headlines by featuring women’s Boxing as an Olympic sport for the first time ever. It will be exciting to see who will become the first woman boxer to ever earn Olympic gold, and millions will watch these athletes compete for the first time in Olympic history in a stereotypical “masculine” sport. However, two sports disciplines in the 2012 Olympic program feature only women: Synchronized Swimming and Rhythmic Gymnastics, widely considered “feminine” sports. Can the 2012 games be truly heralded as offering “full parity” between the sexes? Surely the cause of gender equality in sport applies to both women and men?

Yet another troubling fact with respect to parity is that there will still be more events for men than for women at the 2012 London Games. This means that men have the opportunity earn more Olympic medals than their female counterparts. Examples of event inequality exist in Athletics, Canoeing, Rowing, Wrestling, Shooting, and Boxing. Additional events for men are in some cases more demanding that the event offerings for women (for example 50 km walk or the Decathlon).

“An inequitable offering of events at one of the most celebrated and watched sporting festivals in the world is not without serious implications,” argues University of Manitoba researcher Sarah Teetzel in her article “Rules and reform: eligibility, gender differences, and the Olympic Games”. “Sport influences some people’s assumptions about women’s value as human beings,” she continues pointedly, “and the organization of sports can create and amplify gender differences. A consequence of social inequality is women’s internalization of inferior status, which makes it difficult to identify when discrimination is occurring and to repeal the corresponding injustices. Offering shorter events for women perpetuates the assumption that women are weaker and therefore inferior to men. Assumptions of this nature often lead to stereotypes and value judgments about female athletes.”

Billions of people are projected to watch the 2012 London Olympic Games and media coverage of the games and, in some places, a whole host of advertising. Even more impressive is the fact that roughly half of those watching are expected to be women.  This leaves me wondering, what will they see when they tune it? Will they see women? How will these women’s bodies be shown (and how much will be showing)? What kinds of messages about female identity will they receive based on how women are presented in media coverage and advertisements? Here are a few give-ins and a couple of my own predictions:

  • At the closing ceremony, viewers around the world will traditionally see the IOC President personally present the gold medal to the men’s Marathon winner but not to the women’s gold medalist
  • During Boxing events they won’t see women forced to compete in skirts
  • They might see a little less skin on the Beach Volleyball court as athletes have been recently given permission to wear less revealing uniforms
  • They will see Muslim athletes wearing the Islamic headscarf known as the hijab
  • They won’t see any women canoers or men rhythmic gymnasts on the Olympic podium
  • They will most likely see sexual images of female athletes in commercials
  • They will see more male coaches and officials and probably more male commentators too
  • They will see a majority corporate sponsorships (and the most lucrative) go to male athletes
  • They might even see women barred from competition if these athletes’ testosterone levels judged to be “too high”
  • They might not even get to see Paralympic events televised at all.

The XXX Olympiad in London will be the most gender-equal Games in Olympic history and serves as an excellent example of the progress that has taken place in the Olympic Movement with respect to women’s involvement. Let’s take a moment to appreciate and applaud this significant achievement. Once the applause dies down and the crowds come and go from the Olympic Stadium, let’s follow in the example of the athletes whom we so admire and set our sights on breaking this gender equality record in four years’ time.