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Why the most ‘gender-equal’ Olympics were far from equal

Copyrights: Fundacion Golees

Why the most ‘gender-equal’ Olympics were far from equal

While 49% of the athletes at the Tokyo Olympics were women, there are still deeply rooted gender stereotypes that persist in sport, proving that gender equality goes beyond just numbers.

Tokyo 2020 was to be the first gender-equal Olympic Games in history, according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) statement on gender equality, with a female athlete participation of almost 49%. Yet profoundly rooted gender stereotypes have proved that gender equality in sport is not just about the numbers.

Tokyo 2020 has shown us that gender inequality is still a major issue to be tackled: from regulations and policies affecting women only (such as clothing, testosterone testing, or allowances for breastfeeding mothers) to sexist media coverage and the ever-present double standards. Even with the IOC's stated commitment to gender equality, Tokyo has not been a drastic departure from previous Olympic Games.
Research and years of experience in the field have taught Women Win's team that gender equality and inclusion in sport is not only about allowing the participation of people who have been historically excluded in the existing sports ecosystem. It is about re-thinking sport infrastructure and changing the dominant narratives to ascertain how sport can create safe, welcoming and respectful spaces for all.

Implementing gender inclusion strategies should not only be focused on achieving a 50% representation of women and men. It is a journey that requires a fundamental change in mindset and culture, together with intentional design, planning, investment, and gender-sensitive communication. This journey must be centred the experiences of the very girls and women who have experienced discrimination and exclusion from sport. From those playing at the grassroots to those competing at the Olympic Games, girls and women involved in sports are the experts with whom we need to re-imagine and re-create sport.

Challenging norms on and off the pitch

Our experience demonstrates that sport does enable girls and women to challenge socio-cultural norms and gender stereotypes on and off the playing field. When girls and women play, they transcend the gendered limits that society imposes, building the ability to do the same in other areas of life, such as in education and at work. The impact of sports continues off the pitch and throughout life – athletes take initiative, raise their voices and have the courage to take risks. 

It has been precisely due to the passion, initiative and courage of Olympic athletes that a light has been shone on some of the injustices still facing female athletes in the lead up to Tokyo 2020 and during the Games. Female athletes refused to choose between competing at the Olympics and breastfeeding their infants, instead lobbying for support to enable them to do both.

The controversy surrounding female track and field athletes with higher testosterone levels continued with the young Namibian track and field stars Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi now at its centre. While World Athletics President Sebastian Coe claimed their success 'vindicated the decision' to exclude them from other events, the young women refuse to be silenced, citing a strong global support system of allies fighting against the recent rulings.

In Tokyo, the German women’s gymnastics team decided to wear full body suits instead of bikini-cut leotards while significant media coverage and widespread public support, including celebrity endorsements, emerged for the Norwegian Handball Team who had refused to succumb to sexist uniform rules at the recent European Beach Handball Championships. Subsequently, sport associations from around the world, have called for the resignation of the presidents of both the international and the European handball federations.

Calling for change

So while Tokyo 2020 exposed how gender biases and sexist stereotypes still affect female athletes competing at the highest level and showcased some embarrassingly outdated patriarchal power dynamics that are still at the heart of sport, it also propelled positive media coverage and stimulated support for gender equality from organisations and fans around the world. With such a large global audience, the Olympics is one of the major events with the capacity to influence the ideas of sports administrators, policy-makers, analysts and spectators worldwide on gender equality in sports.

We are calling on all these actors to listen to the real experts - the female athletes themselves - to amplify their voices, hear their experiences and leverage their ideas in order to best confront inequality in sport.

We call on activists, policymakers and feminist organisations outside of the sports industry to bring their insights and recommendations to the table, because bridging the worlds of elite sport with those fighting for gender justice can further transform sport into a real game-changer for equality.

And we call on the IOC and sports organisations around the world to move towards a vision of gender equality reaching far beyond 50% female participation to a truly inclusive and equal playing field. We have three years until Paris. The world is watching.

This article was originally published on Align.


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Friday, August 20, 2021 - 10:45

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