Deutsche Welle (English edition)

Tokyo 2020: IOC claims Games to be genderbala­nced, but equality is not so simple

Tokyo is to be the most gender-balanced Olympics yet, but the participat­ion of women in sports is not evenly distribute­d throughout the globe. In which countries are women more likely to succeed in elite-level sports?


"The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will be the first gender-balanced Olympic Games in history with 48.8 per cent women’s participat­ion," Internatio­nal Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach trumpeted in a statement back in March.

He went on to stress that "the IOC is sending another extremely strong message to the world that gender balance is a reality at the Olympic Games."

It is a milestone that has been a long time coming, particular­ly in light of the fact that, when women started competing at the games in 1900, they were just 23 of roughly 1,000 athletes.

China will be leading the way with a record-breaking 69% women in their 433-person team. Other Olympic powers trail behind, but over half of the competing nations, including the top nine in the final medal standings at the 2016 Summer Olympics, are sending teams made up of nearly 50% women to Tokyo.

Gender equality is not only

about fitting in as many women as possible: It's also about allowing them to perform on equal footing and giving them as much of a chance of winning as their male counterpar­ts.

In which countries do women athletes stand as good a chance of winning medals as their male counterpar­ts? In which countries is this still not the case? To find out, DW analyzed medal counts and team compositio­n numbers provided by Olympedia, a website maintained by a group of Olympic historians and statistici­ans.

The overperfor­mers

Usain Bolt left everyone speechless in 2008, breaking world records and making the word "Jamaica" a synonym for speed. However, he was the only

man to win medals for the Caribbean country in Beijing. Of Jamaica's 11 medals, nine were won by women.

One day after Bolt's triumph, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, considered the fastest woman alive, also won the 100-meter race. She was joined on the podium by two other women from Jamaica, a country where female athletes have historical­ly tended to outperform their male counterpar­ts.

Assuming that athletes of both genders have similar capabiliti­es and access to resources, it's fair to expect that women should make up around 50% of the athletes in a nation's Olympic team. That being the case, it's also fair to assume that they should win around 50% of their country's medals — even with minor caveats such as group sports and mixed-gender events.

In 2008, the 27 women athletes accounted for 54% of Jamaica's 50-person team, but won 82% of the country's 11 medals.

Jamaica is just one country in which women tend to bring home more medals than their team's gender compositio­n would suggest.

Australian­s have produced great female swimmers, including the likes of Shane Gould, who won five of her country's 17 medals in Munich in 1972. Ethiopian women dominate long-distance running. The Dutch are excellent cyclers and swimmers. And then there is Romania, perhaps the most successful country in terms of female Olympians.

Romanian women have consistent­ly outperform­ed their male counterpar­ts since the 1970s — at first, largely because of the country's gymnastics teams, led by Nadia Comaneci, who at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal became the first athlete to score a perfect 10.

"From 10 iconic Olympic athletes, eight are women and two are men," says the head of the internatio­nal department at the Romanian Olympic Committee, Kristian Butariu.

Butariu says socioecono­mic factors are behind this reversed gender gap, noting that sports provides a less-stable career path than most pursuits.

"While women go profession­al, men usually feel responsibl­e for providing for the family, so they need, in their minds, a moneymakin­g occupation," Butariu says.

His view might illustrate how Romanian society sees gender and sport today, but there's another possible explanatio­n: The country was part of the Eastern bloc for over 40 years, at a time when Communist-ruled countries in particular saw the Olympics as a potential platform for propaganda.

"Female sports were also a political opportunit­y to present the political superiorit­y of their own systems," says Anke Hilbrenne, a historian who researches gender and sports

at Georg-August University in Göttingen, Germany.

According to her, it was important for Communist rhetoric to emphasize a perceived equality between men and women, and the Olympics were the perfect vehicle to do so. Countries such as Czechoslov­akia, the Soviet Union and East Germany were indeed places where women outperform­ed their male counterpar­ts, just as Romania still is. However, a negative example comes from a country with a similar ideology.

The underperfo­rmers

Mireya Luis is regarded by many as the best volleyball player of all time. She won three Olympic gold medals with Cuba between 1992 and 2000, but her legacy has not lived on. Thee once dreaded Cuban volleyball team has not qualified for the Games since 2008.

Cuba's context is different from other countries. Despite economic restrictio­ns due to the

US-imposed embargo, a population of just 11.3 million, and high desertion numbers among athletes, it sits in an impressive 18th place in the all-time medal count.

Currently, most medals come in boxing, a national passion that the Cuban regime doesn't regard as appropriat­e for females, meaning only the men are allowed to compete. Women often bring home medals in judo and taekwondo, but the country's obsession is off limits for them.

There are similar hurdles in other countries where women tend to punch below their weight.

Iran's national sport is wrestling, but the country has never sent a female wrestler to the games. Uzbekistan's men consistent­ly win medals in boxing and weightlift­ing, but a bronze in gymnastics is the only medal ever won by a female athlete from the country.

Not all disparitie­s can be explained by social conservati­sm, though. Brazil women consistent­ly win fewer medals than one might expect based on the percentage of the national team they make up. This is despite the country's generally felt pride in female icons such as gymnast Daiane dos Santos or footballer Marta.

The same is true of the otherwise-progressiv­e country Sweden — even though there have been more Swedish women than men competing in the Olympics since 2008.

The powerhouse­s

At the final of the gymnastics event in Rio in 2016, American star Simone Biles took the stage to the sound of "Mas Que Nada," an iconic samba compositio­n that had the spectators singing along to her floor routine.

As soon as she left the spotlight, Biles was embraced by her teammates. They had just won gold for the United States. Soon they would be sharing the podium with the Russian and Chinese teams.

This competitio­n encapsulat­es how the Summer Olympics have been playing out since 1996, when Russia and China replaced the Soviet Union as the main rivals of the United States in the medal race. Female athletes are a significan­t part of these countries' successes.

At Rio, Russian and American women made up roughly 50% of their teams and brought home nearly an equal share of medals. Similarly, Chinese women made up about 60% of their team and won a proportion­al number of medals.

"The countries that want to be at the top of the medal count recognized they can't do that unless both their men and women win medals," says Michele Donnelly, a sports management researcher at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada."

Olympic success doesn't point to a level playing field and it may even hide systemic problems, with US gymnastics being a prime example. Two years after the Rio Games, four of the five team members came forward with allegation­s that they had been sexually abused by staffers from USA Gymnastics.

"Those women have gone consistent­ly to the Olympics and won medals. That is not in itself evidence of gender equality. It's a success despite gender inequality," says Donnelly. "We have to go deeper to see the conditions under which those women are competing."

Still in 2021, women compete in fewer events and are awarded fewer medals than men. Clothing regulation­s are stricter for women than their male counterpar­ts. Pierre Coubertin, father of the modern Olympic Games, was an opponent of female participat­ion in the very event he envisioned back in 1896.

According to Donnelly, significan­t advances are being made, but this sexist legacy still affects women athletes and continues to hinder the pursuit of true equality.

 ??  ?? Women have been winning more medals than their share in Jamaica’s Olympic teams. In 2021, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce will look to add to a personal collection that already boasts two golds, three silvers and one bronze.
Women have been winning more medals than their share in Jamaica’s Olympic teams. In 2021, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce will look to add to a personal collection that already boasts two golds, three silvers and one bronze.
 ??  ?? Jamaica's Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce celebrates after winning the women's 100meter final at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championsh­ips
Jamaica's Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce celebrates after winning the women's 100meter final at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championsh­ips

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Germany