Tokyo 2020 is defined as “the first Olympic Games of the same sex.”
With almost the same number of male and female athletes and a sports schedule that gives equal visibility to men’s and women’s events during prime time, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) says it has taken deliberate action to make sure this year’s Games will be “remarkable” in gender equality “both on and off the field.
But analysts say the rhetoric and reality remain “miles away.”
Analysts say discrimination is still widespread, from the sexualization of uniforms and sexist portrayal in the media to women who have to fight to bring their nursing children to games limited by the pandemic.
“This idea of equal numbers can actually mask the fact that there is still a lot to do,” said Dr. Michelle O’Shea, a senior lecturer at the School of Business at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. “Yes, we have women on the field and in the arena. But their experience is still very disturbing. “
Much of this has to do with the history of the exclusion of women in sports.
When the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece in 1896, women were deliberately barred from participating.
At the time, IOC founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin claimed that the Women’s Olympics would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and obscene.” According to him, the games were created for the “solemn and periodic elevation of male athletics” with “applause from women as a reward.”
“You can immediately see the kind of exclusion that women have faced against as part of the Olympic movement,” said Jordan Matthews, a senior lecturer in sports development at the University of Chichester, UK. “If they were allowed at all, it was to applaud the male athletes who actually participated.”
But the women responded, he says.
Under pressure from athletes such as French rower Alice Miliat, who has even launched a separate women’s Olympics, the IOC has begun to include more and more women’s events. Still, for years, women were “limited to more aesthetic events” or “even played and danced,” such as swimming, figure skating, and fencing.
“The idea was that it was more appropriate for female biology and less threatening to the dominant images of femininity at the time,” Matthews said. “Women were not expected to run too far because they could sweat, and we don’t want them to sweat. They may not throw things that far because we don’t want to damage their internal organs. “
Over time, the IOC gave way to athletes – albeit reluctantly.
It was only in 2012 that the global sports body allowed women to compete in all sports under the Olympic program, and it was not until 2014 that it committed itself to gender equality at the Games.
This year, women make up 48.8% of the 11,000 Olympians, up from 45.6% in 2016 and 44.2% in 2012.
In total, they compete in more than 300 events, including some that were previously open to men only, such as the 1,500-meter freestyle. They also participate in all new sports added to the games, including skateboarding and surfing, and also compete with men in several mixed-sex competitions, including athletics, swimming and triathlon.
Yet events such as the Olympic decathlon – where the world’s greatest athlete was crowned – continue to exclude women. The 50-kilometer race also bans women, with the IOC and World Athletics saying the women’s event currently lacks the depth and quality to justify Olympic status.
In gymnastics, meanwhile, men’s and women’s events continue to differ, said Josie Jones, manager of diversity and inclusion at Women in Sport, with men competing in events that “show strength” like a horse in a ring and rings, and women competing in events where “balance and artistic skills are displayed” such as beam and floor.
“The events on the ladies’ floor are also played a bit more like a dance, again a big emphasis on aesthetics,” she says. “I find this confusing. Yes, men are on average significantly bigger and stronger than women, but I find it hard to believe that women can’t “crush” well and men can’t keep up. “
– Are we stereotyping here? she adds.
Such sexist ideals also violate the rules of admissibility.
A clear example is the IOC’s regulations on testosterone.
According to the World Athletics, the rules say that athletes who are intersex or have differences in sexual development must artificially reduce testosterone levels below 5 nanomoles per liter if they want to participate in middle distance running competitions from 400 meters to 1500 meters.
This has disqualified several women, mostly from the global South.
Two Namibian runners – Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi – were withdrawn from the 400-meter race, although they were considered contenders for medals. South Africa’s Caster Semenya, Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui were also banned from competing in the 800-meter dash. and bronze.
Kara Ocobok, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame in the United States, says the testosterone rules are “problematic,” “sexist,” and “based on questionable science.”
They suggest that testosterone, mainly a male hormone, is “the most powerful secret sauce for athletic achievement,” she says. “And that’s just not true. There are so many other variables – including genetics, hormones, training and nutrition, and even just how an athlete feels in the morning at an event. “
She notes that only three of the 11 running events analyzed by World Athletics show a significant link between performance and testosterone, and says that other events that have shown a significant link – such as hammer throw and pole vault – are not even covered by the rules.
“We just don’t have the time to have good solid data to understand what can happen,” she said. “And I’m on the side of inclusion, when in fact we have the science to really inform about decision-making.”
Obstacles for women do not end with qualification.
This year, some women had to struggle to bring their breastfeeding children with them, as the IOC banned families from the Olympic Village. It only receded when stars such as Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher turned to social media to complain that she was forced to choose between “being a breastfeeding mother or an Olympic athlete.”
Then there is the issue of sexualization.
The US-based Gender Justice Group’s representation project says so analysis from prime-time media coverage in the first week of Tokyo 2020 found that female athletes are about ten times more likely to be visually objectified with a camera angle than male athletes.
He also found that two-thirds of female athletes wore revealing outfits compared to half of male athletes.
“Imagine you’re this athlete and you’re trying to introduce yourself, knowing that hundreds of millions of people are watching you and feeling uncomfortable in what you’re wearing,” said Lucy Piggott, a PhD student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “It’s something that male athletes rarely have to think about.”
That’s why, she says, “it’s so full of trails” that the German women’s gymnastics team decided to wear full-body suits instead of bikes with an Olympic jersey, and that the Norwegian beach handball team was fined and decided to wear shorts. instead of the necessary bikini bottoms at the recent European Beach Handball Championships.
None of this is surprising, says Piggott, given the low number of women in top sports jobs.
Only a third of the IOC’s executive board are women, while the number is even smaller for other Olympic and Paralympic sports bodies.
Study conducted by Piggott with Matthews of the University of Chichester found that women make up only 22% of the executive boards in international sports organizations and only 7% of the presidential or presidential roles.
Meanwhile, only 10% of accredited coaches at the Summer and Winter Olympics in the last decade are women.
“There has been tremendous progress in terms of gender equality for Olympic athletes,” she said. “But we still have a long way to go.”