On 18 February, the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee set sail into a new era – that of the presidency of seven-time Olympian Hashimoto Seiko, unanimously appointed by the Tokyo 2020 Executive Board (EB). With less than four months to go to the Olympic Games, the new Tokyo 2020 President is wasting little time, having already added 12 women to the Organising Committee’s EB as the first step in her commitment to gender equality and female empowerment.
In the latest article in our series on inspirational women and men in leadership roles who are tackling gender inequalities, the IOC spoke to President Hashimoto on the challenges ahead of her.
You are a seven-time Olympian, but also served as Japan’s Minister of Olympic Games, Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality. Please take us through your career.
“My taking part in seven Olympic Games goes all the way back to when I found out I had kidney disease as a third-grade elementary school student. Overcoming that was my life’s mission – even before I became an athlete – and doing so laid the foundation of my career. After I went into politics, I appeared in my last Games at Atlanta 1996. As far as I can recall, only two other politicians competed at an Olympics, and I felt it was important to keep competing at that time.
“In the first six Games I took part in I was only an athlete. But in Atlanta, I was also a politician and, in hindsight, I think it was a turning point for me. It helped me understand that I needed to look at the Olympics and Paralympics from various points of views.”
Which female athlete inspired you most in your sporting career?
“The athlete who influenced me more than anyone was Christa Luding-Rothenburger. She has her place carved out not only in Germany, but also in speed skating and cycling history. She was outstanding in the first Olympic Winter Games I took part in in Sarajevo [winning speed skating gold], and went on to compete at Calgary 1988 as well. And that same year, she also decided to enter the Olympic Games Seoul 1988 in track cycling.
“I wanted to compete in the Summer and Winter Games like her, a medallist in both. She also won a medal after having a child, and later became a city council member in Dresden, then of East Germany. She was a housewife, an athlete and a politician at the same time and even attended university. I couldn’t believe someone like that existed in this world. I learned from Ms Luding-Rothenburger all the possibilities available in life beyond the career as an athlete.”
How has your experience as an athlete helped you be a leader?
“From my mid-20s until I retired, I was an athlete-coach for my corporate team. That meant not only did I have to compete, but I also had to educate the younger athletes. My coach at the time told me I had to help develop the top skaters in the country to help myself stay competitive; I had to be an example for the younger skaters at all times. When I figured out my responsibilities as both an athlete and a coach, that was when I was able to step up and lead.”
How different is gender equality now compared to what it was during your competitive career?
“I was 16 in my first year of high school when I first competed internationally. I was shocked to see how good the environment was for female athletes abroad compared to Japan. At the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, 49 per cent of athletes will be women, which is a very high percentage. But for true gender equality, I think women must be able to lead a lifestyle of their choice not only as athletes, but once they finish their careers as well.
“For female athletes to keep having productive careers, the right set-up has to exist – one that is different for men. For example, when you look at prize money, women still make a lot less than men. We need the world to appreciate female athletes more to bridge that gap. If society can offer women something beyond the competitions, that will lead to even more female athletes having great careers.”
How can gender equality be improved in Japanese society?
“A recent gender gap report had Japan ranked 121st in the world, primarily because of the low percentage of women in politics. Japan might be very conscious of health issues but, when it comes to business and politics, women have been anything but prevalent. We are an unbalanced country based on that ranking.
“After being appointed Tokyo 2020 President, right away I launched a team dedicated to gender equality and increased the number of women on the EB to 42 per cent. The world is watching and the Organising Committee itself has to move fast on gender equality, diversity and inclusion so it will lead to government and societal reform. I see this as an opportunity to change unconscious bias to change the mindset of the entire nation.”
How will Tokyo 2020 promote gender equality, and how will it happen?
“Tokyo 2020 has been very specific about the importance of gender equality, diversity and inclusion all along. It is important that we communicate and reiterate our position once again, mainly through the gender equality team we have launched.
“The Organising Committee has less than five months until the Games; we do not have a lot of time. Behind the work of our gender equality team, the crucial point is to make sure we leave a lasting legacy for future generations. Tokyo 2020 is the first-ever Olympic Games to be postponed and we need to pass on what we learned, and what we lost, through the postponement so we can be proud of what we achieve here.”
What do you think of the IOC promoting gender equality beyond the field of play?
“Behind Olympic Agenda 2020, the IOC has pushed hard for the presence of more women across the board – be it the EB, IOC membership, or commissions – and it has shown. A message was sent around the world on the importance of gender equality. Hand in hand with the IOC, we hope to stress the cruciality of diversity and inclusion through these Games.”