“Uninteresting,” “improper,” “unaesthetic,” and “impractical,” are the four words a Frenchman used in his strong opposition to women’s participation in the Olympic Games. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of what we consider to be the modern Olympic games, believed an athletic competition with women was improper, and that only men could be heroes.
“No matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks,” de Coubertin said.
The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Women in the Olympic Movement factsheet indicates that 22 women first competed in five sports at the 1900 Olympic Games: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian, and golf. Additionally, tennis and golf were exclusively considered female sports. Today, only two women-only sports – rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming – remain.
The participation of female athletes has increased tremendously over the last century. While women made up only 13 percent of competitors at the 1964 Tokyo Games, they constituted more than 44 percent of competitors at the 2012 London Games. The 2012 Games also marked the first time women could compete in every Olympic sport. Since then, all new sports must contain women’s events. A chart from PRI indicates that the majority of sports contain equal amounts of men’s and women’s events, but four sports continue to hold a much higher percentage of men’s events – boxing, wrestling, canoeing, and shooting.
However, some of those percentages will change in the 2020 Tokyo Games, as canoeing, rowing, shooting, and weightlifting move to gender-balanced events for the first time, according to Konbini. All of these sports – along with judo, rowing, and sailing – will have an equal amount of male and female athletes. These games will also feature twice as many mixed events. Around 48.8 percent of Olympic athletes are women, which will make it the most balanced Olympic Games to date.
When it comes to results, female athletes outpaced men at the 2016 Rio Games with 61 medals, NPR states. American women alone secured 27 of the 46 total gold medals in the following sports: artistic gymnastics, swimming, basketball, rowing, and water polo.
Although women can compete in many more events than they used to, men can still compete in more events than women. The 2016 Rio Games featured 161 men-only events compared to 145 women-only or mixed events. Considering this, a gender gap still exists in the Olympics.
The IOC combats this divide with a section on the Olympic Games website, Women in Sport, and has increased recognition of women in sports through national, regional, and international platforms or events. The IOC also hosts regional seminars and workshops, builds partnerships with other organizations, and seeks to increase gender equality in sports through the Gender Equality Review Project, which addresses five themes: sport, portrayal, funding, governance, and human resources.
In 2012, the organization signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations Women that promotes gender equality and empowers women. The UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, also sits on the IOC Women in Sport Commission.
“Because men are in the majority of leaders, they have a big responsibility to open the way to use the power that they have to improve the condition of women,” Ngcuka said.
Ngcuka additionally explained how women do not only face underrepresentation – they also deal with unequal pay and sexual harassment. Ngcuka feels that this generation can reverse that trend.
“Every boy and every girl has to think about equality and make it happen because it’s the best thing that can happen to humanity,” Ngcuka said.
Although full equality in the Olympics hasn’t been achieved yet, the female athletes who have competed have already crushed de Coubertin’s notion that women cannot compete, nor take home as many medals, as their male counterparts in sports.
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