Games Wide Open: The Olympics to Reach Gender Parity

Games Wide Open: The Olympics to Reach Gender Parity

The slogan for the 2024 Paris Olympics is “Games Wide Open” and for female Olympians, this may finally be true. 

The IOC, or the International Olympic Committee said, in a prepared statement, they chose the slogan because, “Since day one, the Paris 2024 project has been all about openness.” The statement also detailed how the Paris Games will be historic in many ways. For example, this will be the first Olympic games with an even split of male and female athletes participating. 

The IOC set a goal of gender parity following the 2016 Rio Games, with an initial deadline of the Tokyo Games in 2020. This, however, was not achieved

48% of athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics were female and most recently 45% of athletes at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics were female. However, this summer marks the first time there will be an equal number of female and male athletes participating in the Olympics’ 128-year history. 5,250 women and 5,250 men will come from countries all over the world to make history in Paris.

But why did it take this long?

“Because the discrimination against women and the attitudes about what women can and cannot do remain very staunchly entrenched in different cultural views in different views around gender roles. Clearly, the US is ahead in many respects. But we also are lagging behind in many respects” said Dr. Nancy Lough, the co-director of the Sport Innovation Institute at UNLV.

Even though it took 128 years to reach this milestone, the Olympics have come a long way since the first female athletes participated in the games. For example, In 1900, 22 of the 997 athletes were women and they competed in lawn tennis and golf.

“There were many, many limits placed on women, and some of those were justified by physicians who said that, you know, the female body could not compete. In fact, there was a period of time in which they claimed that a woman’s uterus would fall out if she did certain physical activities” stated Lough.

However, until 1928, it was never explicitly stated that the inclusion of female athletes was sanctioned. They had to be granted permission to compete.

“If we look at the 1984 Olympic Games, that was the first time that women were allowed to run the marathon. We had a US woman, Joan Benoit, actually win the US Olympic Marathon. So that was a huge victory. But at the same time, we had a spectacle of a woman that was clearly dehydrated. And you know, as she crossed the finish line, lots and lots of questions emerged, again, about whether this is something that it was appropriate for women or not. Fortunately, we were allowed to continue,” Lough said.

As time continued, even more women’s events were added to the ever-growing list. 

That list has continued to expand this year, with new events in men’s and women’s Kayak Cross and Breaking.

However, the transition of women’s inclusion into the game was not smooth, “We actually have women being subjected to femininity tests. Early on, they had to walk naked in front of a panel of men to prove they were women. Then later by 1967, it was a femininity test where you had cells scraped from your mouth and put under a microscope. The general assumption was there were only so well that women could do it only so far women could go before they were seen as unnatural,” said Bonnie Morris, a member of the National Women’s History Museum’s Scholar Advisor Council.

The implication is you can succeed as an athlete, but fail as a woman

Bonnie Morris

What propelled the inclusion of more women into the games was Title IX. The 1972 Education Amendments Act, prohibited gender discrimination in any educational program that receives government funding. 

“It opened up recruiting budgets, practice time, access to facilities, NCAA exposure, media exposure, harder training, greater funding for teams, all the things you need to be a traveling team and also to bring in talented players. It also forced universities to understand that the women represented them as much as the men. And it opened up more funding for women in Olympic sports that are part of the university training program,” said Morris.

Among them was gymnast Dominque Moceanu who participated in the 1996 Winter Olympics.

“I’m fortunate to have been part of one of the few sports where women garner as much (if not more) media attention and coverage as men. So when it comes to audiences and media coverage, I can say that our US Women’s Gymnastics team was not treated worse than or in any way ‘lesser than’ our male counterparts”

Dominique Moceanu
Photo Credit: Dave Black
Dominique Moceanu competing in a gymnastics competition

But while the US was making strides toward including more female athletes, the rest of the world was falling behind.

According to Morris, “What’s interesting is that in the 90s, while we saw American women breaking through there were something like 56 countries that did not permit women to go to the Olympics at all, primarily Muslim.”

Despite all the work that the IOC has done to reach gender parity there are still several glaring issues. First, female Olympians are not allowed to compete in the decathlon, a series of 10 track and field events, and the 50-kilometer race walk.

In the past, men had not been able to compete in synchronized swimming and it had been a women’s only sport. However, this was amended this year with the inclusion of men’s Artistic Swimming at this summer’s games. Women who seek to compete in the decathlon have not yet been afforded that luxury, due to the belief that women’s bodies are not suited for the intense physical demands of the decathlon. The closest women have gotten is the inclusion of the heptathlon, a series of 7 track and field events, which men can compete too.

Only at the 2012 London Olympics did women compete in every sport offered at the Summer Games where the decathlon was not offered. This changed with more events being added for Rio.

Additionally, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics marked the first time that countries were encouraged to nominate one man and one woman to bear their flag. Previously it had not been explicitly prohibited but many countries had elected not to have women bear their flags.

Although there will be an equal split of male and female athletes in the Olympics, that equality has not yet reached the coaching staff. Only 13% of coaches at the Tokyo 2020 games were women, but the IOC has a new program that hopes to combat this. 

The WISH or “Women in Sport High-Performance Pathway” is a mentorship and training program that seeks to develop leadership opportunities and career pathways for female coaches. So far 6 alums of the WISH program are set to coach in the Paris 2024 games, and the IOC hopes many more will take advantage of the opportunity

However, the fight for equality in sports does not end with the Olympics. Many other women’s leagues face struggles that their male counterparts do not. For example, players in The WNBA and PWSL have gained media attention for their shockingly low wages when compared to their male counterparts. The 2023 World Cup was a recent example, where the prize pool for men was $440 million, and for women, it was $152 million

Following the WNBA Draft, many people were shocked to learn the stark difference between the leagues’ salaries. As the number one overall pick in the WNBA Draft, Caitlin Clark of the Indiana Fever will earn $338,056 over 4 years on her rookie contract. Whereas the number one overall pick of the NBA Draft, Victor Wembenyama will earn $55 million over his 4-year rookie contract.

“So as far as gender parity in sport, the beautiful thing about it is that sport is such a microcosm of society. So when we when we see sport, which we do, because of the visibility of the media, we see women performing in a way that starts to challenge the norms of what women can do. If it weren’t for support, I think we would be much further behind in other areas of gender equity”

Nancy Lough

However, there have been strides made toward gender equity, like the U.S. Women’s National Team who reached a collective bargaining agreement with the men’s team in 2022. This decision pooled the World Cup prize money from both teams and made it evenly distributed among all players. This was the first decision of its kind.

Dominique Moceanu with her Olympic medals

Changes are also coming from former athletes themselves, “I have fought hard for improved systems of checks and balances and accountability in my own sport as well as others, to protect future generations of all athletes – male and female – from abuse”, said Moceanu. She now owns her own gym training the next generation of athletes.

Those same athletes will continue to break down barriers and help advocate for change, just as their predecessors have done for decades.

But Dr. Lough said it best, “It’s going to take your generation and every generation after you to continue to this fight. It is a fight and make no mistake, it’s a fight whenever you’re trying to get power away from those who have it.”

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