Notwithstanding nearly the same number of male and female athletes, and a sporting schedule that gives equal visibility for men and women’s events during primetime hours, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) says it took deliberate action to make sure this year’s Games constitute a “landmark in gender equality”, both on and off the field of play.
From the sexualisation of uniforms and sexist portrayals in the media to women having to fight to bring their breastfed children to the pandemic-restricted Games, analysts say discrimination remains rife.
“This idea of equal numbers can actually conceal the fact that there’s still so much more to be done,” says Michelle O’Shea, senior lecturer at the School of Business at Western Sydney University in Australia. “Yes, we’ve got women on the pitch and in the arena. But their experiences are still very concerning.”
Much of this has to do with a history of women’s exclusion in sport. When the first modern Olympics was held in 1896 in Athens, Greece, women were deliberately barred from taking part.
At the time, the founder of the IOC, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, argued an Olympics with women would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and indecent”. The Games, he said, were created for “the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism” with “female applause as a reward”.
“Straight away, you can see the kind of exclusion that women were up against as part of the Olympic movement,” says Jordan Matthews, senior lecturer in Sport Development at the University of Chichester, United Kingdom. “If they were allowed in at all, it was to applaud the male athletes who were actually taking part.”
But women fought back. Under pressure from athletes such as French rower Alice Milliat who even launched a separate Olympics for women, the IOC began including more and more female events. Still, for years, women were “confined to more aesthetic events” or “even play and dance routines” such as swimming, figure skating and fencing.
“The idea around this was that it was more suitable to female biology and less threatening to dominant images of femininity around the time,” says Matthews. “Women weren’t expected to run too far because they might sweat and we don’t want them sweating. They might not throw things as far because we don’t want them to damage their internal organs.”
Over time, the IOC did cede ground to women athletes reluctantly though as it was only in 2012 that the global sporting body allowed women to compete in all sports on the Olympic programme and it was only in 2014 that it committed to gender parity at the Games.
This year, women make up 48.8 percent of the 11,000 Olympians, up from 45.6 percent in 2016 and 44.2 percent in 2012.
Altogether, they are competing in more than 300 events, including in some that were previously only open to males, such as the 1,500m freestyle. They are also taking part in all of the new sports added to the Games, including skateboarding and surfing, and are also competing alongside men in several mixed-gender races, including in athletics, swimming and triathlon.
Still, events such as the Olympic decathlon – where the world’s greatest athlete is crowned – continue to exclude women. The 50km race walk also bars women, with the IOC and World Athletics saying the women’s event currently lacks the depth and quality to justify Olympic status.
Meanwhile, in Gymnastics, male and female events continue to differ, notes Josie Jones, the diversity and inclusion manager at Women in Sport, with men competing in events that “show strength” like pommel horse and rings and women competing in events “where balance and artistic skill are on show” like beam and floor.
“The women’s floor events are also set to music a bit more like a dance, again a big focus on the aesthetics,” she says. “I find this perplexing. Yes, men are on average substantially bigger and stronger than women, but I find it hard to believe that women couldn’t ‘pommel’ well and men couldn’t keep a rhythm.”
Such sexist ideals also plague rules around eligibility. A prime example is the IOC regulations on testosterone. Set by World Athletics, the rules say female athletes who are intersex or have differences in sex development need to artificially reduce their testosterone levels to below 5 nanomoles per litre if they want to take part in the middle-distance running events of 400m to 1,500m.
This has resulted in the disqualification of several women, primarily from the global South. Two Namibian runners – Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi – were pulled from the 400m race, despite being considered medal contenders. South Africa’s Caster Semenya, Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba and Kenya’s Margaret Wambui were also barred from competing in the 800m race – the three had swept the event in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, with Semenya winning the gold, and Niyonsaba and Wambu taking the silver and bronze, respectively.
Cara Ocobock, 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 imply testosterone, a primarily male hormone, is “the all-powerful secret sauce of athletic performance”, she says. “And that’s just not true. There are so many other variables – including genetics, hormones, training and nutrition, and even just how the athlete feels on the morning of an event.”
She notes that only three of the 11 running events analysed by World Athletics showed a significant relationship between performances and testosterone, and says that other events that did show a significant relationship – like the hammer throw and pole vault – are not even covered by the regulations.
“We are just not at a point of having good solid data to understand what might be going on,” she says. “And I fall on the side of inclusion until we actually have the science to really inform decision making.”