Strength, resilience and determination make sportswomen champions in the field. The same qualities are ensuring that more of them get there. Banned from the first modern Olympics, in 1896, only 22 competed among almost 1,000 athletes at the next games in Paris. This year Britain, the US and China have all sent more women than men to Tokyo, and overall, the number of female competitors has almost reached parity with male at last, at 48.8%.
The Games are a rare sporting realm in which women come very close to equality. Most gold medallists will receive the same financial reward from their country whether male or female. Over the years, female Olympians such as Nadia Comăneci and Jackie Joyner-Kersee have enjoyed instant name recognition and drawn spectators, just as male athletes have. Women’s events are valued in their own right.
Yet the Olympic movement remains overwhelmingly male – and it shows. Only a third of the International Olympic Committee’s executive board members are women. The IOC says it is committed to gender equality, and its decision to add more women’s events has unquestionably boosted female participation. In other regards, the Olympic movement is falling conspicuously short. The head of Tokyo’s organising committee was forced to resign in February after complaining that women talked too much. Last week, in an excruciating press conference, the Australian Olympics chief John Coates – also an IOC vice-president – appeared to publicly order Queensland’s premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to attend the opening ceremony.
Athletes are directly affected by outdated attitudes. This year saw a row over whether breastfeeding infants could accompany their mothers, due to Covid concerns. Many women have had to overcome far poorer resources and support at national level; the plethora of female champions on Team GB this year shows that equal funding produces excellence in equal measure, as Stephanie Hilborne, CEO of the Women in Sport charity, points out.
In May, six female fencers urged the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee to ban Alen Hadzic from the Tokyo games over multiple accusations of sexual assault, which he denies. Though he was made to travel separately and stay in different accommodation to teammates, he was still allowed to compete. Many see double standards, with women and people of colour judged more harshly than white male athletes. It is striking that the two female faces of this games so far – the extraordinary Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka – have both faltered. The pressure that all sports stars face these days is surely magnified for black women; and in Biles’s case even more so, as an outspoken survivor calling US Gymnastics to account for its failure to launch an independent inquiry into coach Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse. Yet the determination of both athletes to prioritise their mental health, to others’ displeasure, makes them even more admirable role models.
The Olympic movement is not solely responsible for the challenges that female competitors face. Other sporting bodies have a lot to answer for. Broadcasters still get it wrong, and so do fans. For many women, the Olympics is especially joyful as one of the few areas of popular culture in which women’s bodies are celebrated not for how they look but for what they can do; for individual strength, agility and achievement, not whether they please onlookers. Yet research by Cambridge University Press in 2016 suggested that among spectators as well as the media, women were too often trivialised or sexualised. Female Olympians have caught up, despite their unfavourable start. Now the IOC and others must follow suit.