By Sabrina Willard
As we reach (roughly) the halfway point in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, it seems timely to reflect on the significance of what is always an exhilarating and highly-anticipated event for the international community. Sochi, as it is with all Olympic Games, is a moment in time when people of various backgrounds are tossed together on the world stage and hyper-analyzed by seven billion pairs of eyeballs. It can therefore be a telling benchmark for how the world is progressing in terms of social acceptance and equality, revealing fascinating (and sometimes ugly) insights into how much further we still need to go on these fronts. Importantly for us, the limelight also magnifies the current treatment of women in the sports arena and calls into question any glaring mistreatment or oversight.
The Olympic Charter is the principle document that sets the terms and conditions by which the Olympic Games are governed. One such condition declares that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is “to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures, with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women.” But are the IOC’s efforts to uphold this particular provision falling short?
Yes, we are progressing in the world of sports. Women were first allowed to compete four years after the inaugural Olympic Games were held (despite push-back from the man credited with the revival of the modern Games, Pierre de Coubertin). During that first year, women comprised 22 out of the 997 total athletes competing in tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf. Just two of the five sports offered in 1900 included women-only events compared to the London Games in 2012, which was the first year in history that women have competed in every sport offered and accounted for more than 44 percent of the participants. In fact, the participation of women in the Olympics at all levels has steadily, if not dramatically, increased over the last 20 years. This is thanks in part to the IOC, which has set various equalizing precedents, such as the 1991 rule that all new events to be included in the Games must have complimentary women’s events, adding more women-only events to events already offered, as well as hosting an international conference every four years that strategizes on ways to promote gender equality in sports. But, as the IOC calls-out in its own “Women in the Olympic Movement” document, “the percentage of women in the governing and administrative bodies of the Olympics has remained low” (Women in the Olympic Movement, October 2013).
To address this issue, the IOC previously “set the objective of reserving at least 20% of decision-making positions for women (particularly in all executive and legislative bodies) within their structures by the end of 2005,” but this goal was not met. (Note: the document did not specify what year the objective was set.) However, it has stated that it is “aware that such an objective can be attained only in successive stages,” adding that “a first objective (having at least 10% of women in decision-making positions by December 2000) was met.”
Slate recently posted an article providing context on women at the Winter Games, and the headline “Smaller Hill, Shorter Sled: How the Olympics Infantilize Women Athletes” leaves no doubt as to the author’s particular take on the IOC’s efforts to promote gender equality thus far. She uses ski jumping as an example of how “in 2014, many women’s Olympics sports are still stuck in that protracted transitional period between basic entry and complete participation” (Slate, February 2014). Most notably, she reported that it took women 90 years (and a lawsuit five years ago during the Vancouver Games) to finally be allowed to compete in this event. Yet, even now, men are allowed the option of jumping from a higher hill and on teams of four while women aren’t. This is true for events across the board at Sochi, she notes, where “women are still skiing shorter distances, launching from more diminutive hills, and competing on teams of smaller sizes.”
So, assuming that the IOC’s programs to promote gender equality are doing what it says they are doing, why are women’s Olympic events still being “half-assed”? (As the Slate journalist put it.) One theory suggests that the continued pervasiveness of male chauvinism in the sports world has a lot to do with it.
Gian-Franco Kasper, President of the International Ski Federation, was reported saying in 2005 that ski jumping “seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” Further, Alexander Arefyev, the Russian men’s ski jumping coach at Sochi, has recently claimed that the sport requires “too much hard labor” for a woman’s body.
Why is this sort of talk acceptable, and why aren’t we hearing more uproar from the very people who are the supposed protectors of gender equality at the Games? Dr. Amy Bass, a professor of history at The College of New Rochelle who led NBC’s research team during the 2012 London Games, explained that the International Olympic Committee “is a very elitist and very male organization.” She also stated that “the abbreviation of women’s competition is a testament to the lingering belief that female bodies are physically incapable of going as long, hard, or high as male ones.”
Whether or not this is actually true of the IOC, I am becoming increasingly convinced that the only way women have a shot at clearing the hurdle of sexism in Olympic sports is to infiltrate the system at the executive level. We need to get in there and offer much-needed perspective and guidance on how future Games can be organized to better provide for the rising number of female athletes. Ironically, we need to do exactly what the IOC claims it has been trying to do for years: increase the percentage of women in the governing and administrative bodies of the Olympics.
This is our call-to-action. This top-down approach is the best chance we have of achieving gender equality at the Olympics.