Each year, International Women's Day provides us with a reminder to see how far the Olympic Movement has come in the long struggle for gender equality in sport – and how far we still need to go.
London will host its third Olympic Games in less than five months, and the progress made with regard to women in sport since it first staged the event in 1908 is undeniable, even though improvement came in small steps initially rather than in leaps and bounds.
At the London 1908 Games, only 1.8 per cent of the competitors were women. By the second London Games in 1948, the figure had grown to 9.5 per cent – an improvement, yes, but hardly a ringing endorsement for gender equality.
Since then, the percentage of female participants has increased steadily at every edition of the Games — both summer and winter — as we move ever closer to parity.
More than 42 per cent of the competitors at the 2008 Games were women. We expect to improve on that in London this summer, in addition to taking another significant step forward: for the first time, women will compete in every sport on the Olympic programme. We took the first step in this important milestone when the IOC Executive Board approved the addition of women’s boxing to the programme in 2009.
The IOC is also pleased that women’s ski jumping has progressed to the point internationally that it will appear for the first time at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.
But while the Olympic Movement has made great progress over the years, we are still not where we need to be.
A Loughborough University report on “Gender Equality and Leadership in Olympic Bodies” highlighted the need to do a better job of developing, recruiting and mentoring women for leadership positions. As the report correctly noted, our ability to achieve gender equality is sometimes constrained by societal forces that limit women’s options and their ambitions. Sport can help break that cycle.
We will continue to use the influence of the IOC to bring about the day when all National Olympic Committees send female competitors to the Olympic Games. Indeed, only 15 years ago at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, 26 National Olympic Committees failed to include female athletes in their delegations. Four years ago in Beijing, the figure had dropped to just three. We hope to see more progress on this issue at the London Games.
A global spotlight
This summer, more than four billion people, well over half of the world’s population, will have access to the London Games on television, the internet or their mobile devices. About half of the audience will be women and girls, a gender balance few other sporting events can even hope to match.
That global reach makes the Olympic Games a powerful force for gender equality, and each female athlete competing at London 2012 will act as a positive role model for women around the world.
The Olympic Movement does not have the power to bring gender equality to all aspects of human interaction. But we can use sport to help girls and young women gain the confidence to challenge stereotypes that limit their opportunities in other endeavours.