More than a century after women first competed at the Olympic Games, female athlete numbers will finally be at parity with those of the men at Tokyo 2020. The drive towards gender equality – on and off the field of play - has picked up pace in the Olympic Movement in recent years, thanks in part to progressive initiatives by the IOC.
It has been more of a marathon than a sprint, but female Olympians are at last catching their male counterparts in the numbers game.
Tokyo 2020: the most gender-balanced Olympic Games in history
The number of women competing at the Games has increased significantly – from 34 per cent of the total at Atlanta 1996 to an expected new record of 48.8 per cent at Tokyo 2020, and a commitment to reach full gender equality for the Olympic Games Paris 2024. In October 2018, the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Buenos Aires 2018 were the first fully gender-balanced Olympic event ever.
In addition to being the most gender-balanced Summer Games in history, Tokyo 2020 will see full gender representation across all 206 teams. The IOC has also changed its rules to allow one male and one female athlete to jointly carry their flag during the Opening Ceremony, sending a powerful message to the world.
Increasing female participation
It has been a long road since the Paris 1900 Olympic Games, when the first female athletes competed in five events: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf. Only 22 took part, constituting a meagre 2.2 per cent of the 997 total competitors.
Over the past 25 years in particular, the IOC has been encouraging National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and International Federations (IFs) to increase female participation. Among the key factors in increasing female participation at the Olympic Games were the opening up of eligibility in the various sports involved; the quota places set by the IOC and filled by the IFs; and the increase of the number of medal events for female athletes.
The results speak for themselves, with the share of female competitors at the Games increasing from 10 per cent in 1928 and 20 per cent in 1960 to 48.8 per cent at Tokyo 2020.
In 1991, a major IOC initiative was passed: any new sport seeking to join the Olympic programme could do so only if it had disciplines for both genders. Numerous sports have systematically increased female participation, and Tokyo’s five new sports – baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, speed climbing and surfing – will all have women’s events.
In Tokyo, four IFs will move to gender-balanced events for the first time (canoeing, rowing, shooting and weightlifting). At discipline level, gender balance will be achieved in BMX racing, mountain biking and freestyle wrestling. In terms of athlete quotas, six IFs will move to gender balance for the first time (canoeing, judo, rowing, sailing, shooting and weightlifting).
Moving the entire Olympic Movement towards gender equality
Recognising that having gender-balanced Olympic Games is not enough, the IOC has acted to encourage the whole Olympic Movement to advance gender equality on and off the field of play; and in March 2018 it launched its Gender Equality Review Project.
The Project aims to strengthen gender equality across the entire Olympic Movement through action-oriented recommendations addressing five key themes: Sport, Portrayal, Funding, Governance and Human Resources. It is a tangible outcome of Olympic Agenda 2020, the strategic roadmap for the Olympic Movement
Leading by example
Away from the field of play, the IOC has taken other gender equality initiatives to place more women in positions of power; guard against discrimination and abuse; and foster greater female representation in the media.
In 2020, 46.6 per cent of IOC commission members are women, and the number of female IOC Members has risen to 36 per cent, 10 per cent more than in 2016, also adding more diversity in terms of age and regional representation.
Safety has also been paramount, with a strong focus on the prevention of harassment and abuse in sport. In 2017, the IOC released the IOC Athlete Safeguarding Toolkit. The toolkit was distributed to all IFs and NOCs to support them in their efforts to put measures in place to protect their athletes. In addition, the Olympic Charter was updated in 2019 to include the prevention of harassment and abuse.
A fair share of the limelight
At the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, gender balance of the schedules was carefully considered, with roughly equal time given to hours of competition, and an equal number of medals handed out to men and women on the last day.
At Tokyo 2020, there will be more women’s team gold medal events on the last weekend than men’s, while the order of play has been changed so that women’s competitions have the same prominence.
Beijing 2022, meanwhile, will be the first Olympic Winter Games where gender equality and balance have been considered right from the first stages of development.
IOC Media Operations are allocating 50 extra accreditations for female reporters, and are continuing their Young Reporters Programme, with a 50/50 gender balance at the Youth Olympic Games Dakar 2022.
IOC Women and Sport Awards
Introduced in 2000, the IOC Women and Sport Awards are given each year to women, men or organisations that have made remarkable contributions to the development, encouragement and reinforcement of women’s and girls’ participation in sport.
Six trophies are distributed each year, one for each of the five continents and one at world level. In 20 years of the Awards, there have been 122 recipients from 65 countries across the world.
The winners’ work to promote gender equality through different projects is also supported with a grant to help them continue and extend their work.
2020: a pivotal year for gender equality
The IOC has recently taken a leadership role in the UN Women Sports for Generation Equality Initiative, which aims to advance gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in and through sport. The Initiative was launched by UN Women in partnership with the IOC.
The sports movement is invited to join the Initiative to accelerate progress on a set of common principles and aligned objectives that will harness the power of sport in making gender equality a reality in and through sport.
The Sports for Generation Equality Initiative is born from the Global Generation Equality movement driven by UN Women. It is an invitation to bring in new partners and generations to embrace and revitalise the historic Beijing Platform for Action, and to make gender equality a lived reality. Agreed 25 years ago during the Fourth World Conference on Women, the Beijing Platform for Action is a guideline to remove the systematic barriers that hold women and girls back, and until now it remains the most ambitious international agenda for achieving gender equality in all spheres of society, including sport.