The International Olympic Committee has declared these Olympic Winter Games to be the “most gender-balanced” to date with women constituting 45% of athletes. These Beijing games will feature the highest number of women’s events, four new mixed-gender events, and full gender balance will be achieved for the first time in several events thanks to changes in athlete quotas.
But I’m confused…are we supposed to be celebrating that we nearly have gender parity?
Because as anyone who has ever participated in sports knows: “nearly never won the race.”
I’ve played sports my whole life. It’s all I’ve ever known. Something else I’ve only ever known? It has never been equal. Gender discrimination has always plagued sport and it is no secret that “sport has been built, designed, and organised for male participants.” Examples include wearing uniforms designed to fit males, getting assigned the worst training slots, little to no media coverage, men receiving the lion’s share of funding…the list is endless.
According to the IOC, 48.8% of the 11,000 athletes at the Tokyo Olympic Games were women while at the Paralympics, 40.5% of athletes were women. Yes, it has come a long way since the very first modern day games in 1896 where women were completely barred from competing — but that’s not exactly a hard baseline to improve on.
The bottom line is we still haven’t achieved a fully gender-balanced Olympic Winter Games. Or Olympic Games. Or Paralympic Games.
Ironically enough, what these numbers won’t tell you is that in order to boost statistics for women, men’s participation has been hindered by international federation decisions. The removal of men’s events and the reduction in quotas for men in order to add women is incredibly problematic. In other words, one group is progressing to the detriment of the other. Doesn’t that sound familiar…
Perhaps the IOC should look no further than its own organization to practice its very public commitment to gender equality. Not only has there never been a woman president, but women only make up 33.3% of its executive board and only 37.5% of committee members are female. Is it any wonder then, that trickle-down effects are felt whereby women compete in fewer events than men, are awarded fewer medals, and have stricter uniform regulations?
While increasing female representation across the board is important, it is not the full picture. Gender equality is not just simply about “adding women” — something that is too often conveniently forgotten. Gender equality based on statistics about female participation or medal hauls does not indicate a level-playing field and can actually mask widespread systemic problems. Look no further than USA Gymnastics as proof of incredible female success at unimaginable and irreversible cost.
Beyond the numbers, we need to look at the differences in rules, uniforms, equipment, race distances, etc., in order to understand how these gendered differences reinforce hegemonic understandings of gender. We also need to have a real look at the barriers faced by nonbinary, trans, and other gender nonconforming athletes.
Barriers to sport such as income and ethnicity compound with gender, unsurprisingly leading to higher dropout rates among females. A recent study determined that girls are dropping out of sports at 1.5 times the rate that boys do by age 14 and, by age 17, more than half of girls will quit playing sports altogether.
We know it’s important to keep women and girls in sport — the benefits are well documented — but high dropout rates have far-reaching effects beyond missing out on these benefits. The less women there are in sport, the less quality female coaches there are, and so the vicious cycle continues. A US national survey cited 68% of current players as having a male coach and/or male assistant coach. This isn’t a problem per se, but the limited exposure to female role models in sports is — “If she can’t see it, she can’t be it.”
Which brings us to media coverage and representation.
According to a study on exposure to women in sports, “the coverage of women’s sports did not supersede coverage of dogs and horses until 1992.”
Go back and read that again.
Not only do women still receive less coverage than men’s sports, when the media does broadcast women’s sports, arguably the focus is less on achievement and more on physical appearance, sexuality, or perceived “femininity”. Moreover, networks adhering to the maxim that “sex sells” as a way to promote women’s sports is incredibly damaging and disrespectful to women. Particular sports like beach volleyball or athletics certainly spring to mind when we think about carefully selected angles chosen by these television stations. Carefully selected images or exploitation of women’s bodies? You decide.
It is often asserted that women’s sports are just not as exciting compared to men’s sports hence why they are broadcast less. But is this not a self-fulfilling prophecy? Does less media coverage perpetuate the idea that women’s sports are “boring” and less deserving of airtime? The same study mentioned above did in fact conclude that increased exposure and coverage of women’s sports will increase interest in and decrease prejudice towards women’s sports and female athletes. The media can play a role in changing attitudes and perceptions and it starts with more consistent exposure.
More airtime is intrinsically tied up in investment, sponsorship, and marketing. We’ve all heard the well-worn excuses of “oh but women’s sports don’t generate as much revenue” or “there’s not as many fans”. But let’s unpack this for a minute. If a women’s team, or league, does not receive the same marketing budget as their male counterparts — for doing the same job — how can they possibly be expected to generate the same revenue? How can they build a fanbase to generate said revenue, with less promotion and less investment? Systematic discrimination like this enables an environment that prohibits women’s advancement in sport.
We need to see gender equality — and equity — as equal access to resources and facilities, performing on equal footing, closing pay gaps, equal investment, greater coverage, and equal promotion. Until these barriers are addressed, there will not be equality in sport. In the meantime, I’m going to continue playing and (hopefully) serving as a role model for younger players.
This piece first appeared here, and is republished with permission.
Rebecca O’Keeffe previously competed in European Championships with the Irish National Basketball team. She also played Gaelic Football in both the Gulf Gaelic Games and the South East Asian Gaelic Games, winning silverware in both. She currently works in human rights advocacy and research having recently completed her MPhil in International Peace Studies.