The first edition of the Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924 featured just 13 women, all of them figure skaters; almost a century later, at PyeongChang 2018, a record 1,242 female athletes were in action, competing across all seven winter sports.
Spearheaded by the IOC, former male bastions of winter sport have been tumbling down. In the last two decades women have broken through the glass ceiling in ice hockey (at Nagano 1998), bobsleigh (at Salt Lake City 2002) and most recently ski jumping (Sochi 2014).
Underlining the IOC’s commitment to promoting parity is the fact that the Winter Games now feature a number of mixed gender events, with curling mixed doubles and the Alpine skiing mixed team event joining luge and biathlon mixed relays, and of course, the figure skating pairs, ice dance and team event on the programme at PyeongChang 2018.
The Olympic Charter calls on the IOC to “to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women”. Fostering gender equality is among the 40 key recommendations contained in Agenda 2020, the roadmap for the future of the Olympic Movement.
There is still a way to travel before these goals are achieved, and there is no room for complacency, but the record number of female winter athletes taking part at PyeongChang 2018, and the fact that a number of sports have already achieved complete parity shows that good progress has been made.
None better than Bjørgen
Norwegian cross-country skier Marit Bjørgen made it onto the podium five times at PyeongChang 2018, more than any other athlete. By doing so she took her overall Olympic medal tally to 15, moving past the benchmark of 13 set by her compatriot Ole Einar Bjørndalen in biathlon in 2014 to become the most prolific medallist in the history of the Winter Games.
Moreover, in claiming her eighth gold medal in the final event of PyeongChang 2018 she drew level with Bjørndalen and yet another Norwegian Bjørn Dæhlie to claim a share in the record for the most titles.
The 37-year old Bjørgen, who has managed her record-breaking streak while devoting time to her duties as the mother of a young child, is a true icon of the Olympic stage and a source of inspiration for aspiring winter athletes in Norway and beyond.
Also notable was the fact that her final triumph, the women’s 30km, was one of two women’s events - the other being the curling final - that took place on the last day of competition in PyeongChang. This itself represented a break with the previous norm, as the final day of competition has in the past been given over to the men’s ice hockey final and the men’s 50km cross-country.
It meant that, for the first time, the Closing Ceremony included a medal ceremony for a women’s event; and it felt fitting that Bjørgen and her fellow medallists Krista Parmakoski (FIN) and Stina Nilsson (SWE) received their medals from IOC President Thomas Bach in front of a capacity crowd in the Olympic Stadium, alongside the winners of the men’s 50km cross-country event. It was another symbolic, but significant victory for the cause of gender equality on the Olympic stage.
Among all the many inspiring stories to come out of PyeongChang, one that truly captured the hearts of the host nation and caught the imagination of the rest of the world was that of Kim Eun-Jung, Kim Yeong-mi, Kim Seon-yeong, Kim Cho-hi et Kim Kyeong-ae AKA ‘the Garlic Girls’ AKA ‘Team Kim’ AKA the Republic of Korea’s women’s curling team. The exploits of the five team members, who all shared the same surname, who claimed a surprise silver transformed them into global social media and TV stars.
They set new viewing figures in the host nation when they took on the Japanese rink in the semi-finals, serving up a thrilling climax with victory in the final end at the Gangneung Curling Arena.
Although they lost to Sweden in the final, they helped put Korean curling on the map, ensuring that interest in the sport in the host country will reach new levels going forward.
The other Kim who stole headlines and won hearts at PyeongChang 2018 was 17-year old Chloé, the American halfpipe snowboarder of Korean parentage. Already the star of the women’s halfpipe circuit for several years, winning the first of four X Games titles aged just 14, and adding both slopestyle and halfpipe gold at the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer in 2016, the teenager dazzled on her full Olympic debut, with a brilliant display of freestyle artistry in the Phoenix Park halfpipe, scoring a near perfect 98.25 with her third and final run.
Ledecká breaks new ground
Prior to PyeongChang 2018, no female athlete had ever won gold in two different disciplines at the same edition of the Winter Games. And no athlete of either gender had ever straddled snowboard and skis in the stunning manner that the Czech Republic’s Ester Ledecká managed, winning gold in first the super-G and then the parallel giant snowboard.
Her victory in the former event was a true sensation, as she upset a host of Alpine specialists with a display of fluidity and precision. A week later, the multitalented Czech switched her gaze to her own speciality, the PGS, in which she was already the reigning world champion. Her gold in that event was no great surprise, but the resulting double was unprecedented and sent reverberations throughout the world of sport.
It made her, along with Bjorgen, the headline act of PyeongChang 2018, though the mantle took her a bit by surprise. “I certainly don’t feel like the superstar of these Games,” she said. “But it sounds good!”. When she arrived back in the Czech capital Prague she was greeted by a crowd of several thousand people who had gathered specially to pay tribute to her achievements.
Trailblazers and heroines
Alpine skier Sofia Goggia, who became Italy’s first Olympic women’s downhill champion in PyeongChang, was greeted by by a sea of microphones at Milan’s Malpensa Airport on her return to Italy, and she was given a hero’s welcome in her hometown of Bergamo.
There were similar welcomes for newly crowned moguls champion Perrine Laffont and her French compatriot Julia Pereira, who at the age of just 16 won a silver in the women’s snowboard cross.
Then there were the pioneers. Two more Alpine skiers, Sabrina Simander of Kenya and Ng Arabella Caroline Yili of Hong Kong, Togolese cross-country skier Mathilde Amivi-Petitjean, and Nigerian bobsledders Seun Adigun and Ngozi Onwumere all blazed a trail for their countries in their respective sports in PyeongChang.
Conversely, Brazil’s Jaqueline Mourao competed in her sixth edition of the Games in an Olympic career that has spanned 20 years and three different disciplines: mountain bike, biathlon and most recently cross-country skiing.
Meanwhile, Alpine skier Noelle Barahona of Chile competed at her fourth successive edition of the Winter Games, 12 years after she became the Winter Games youngest ever Alpine skier at Turin 2006. In PyeongChang the honour of being the ‘baby’ of the Games went to Chinese halfpipe skier Meng Wu, who was born on 2 October 2002.
Fast and female
Kikkan Randall, who with Jessica Diggins claimed the USA’s first ever cross-country gold at the Winter Games by clinching victory in a dramatic women’s team sprint, and was days later elected as a member of the IOC Athletes Commission, is very much committed to engaging girls in sport, something she has been doing through an organisation called Fast and Female.
“While competing in the World Cup for the first few years as the only woman on the US team, I became good friends with Chandra Crawford, an Olympic gold medallist from Canada. She started Fast and Female [prompted by the statistic] that girls are six times more likely to drop out of sports than boys.”
“We both knew how important it was for sports to be central in girls’ lives, whether they wanted to be a competitive athlete or just be healthy and active and involved. “She started hosting these small events, bringing her teammates on board to be inspirational role models. When I heard about the programme I signed on. It was a passion very close to my heart, so it was a great banner to unite under. I kind of took charge of things in the US and started getting events going on around the country.”
Seeing girls finding their own confidence, enjoying sports, and setting them on the right path is so rewarding and is something I'm excited to spend more time doing. Kikkan Randall USA - Kikkan Randall USA
“It's such an exciting, powerful organisation, one that can do so much good, that it was hard at times to not put more energy into it when I had to focus on competing.
“Now that I'm retiring I'm really looking forward to really capitalising on the fact that we have these amazing female athlete role models. When we can connect them with the girls in person they're going to see that athletes are not superheroes who we're born out of a dinosaur egg somewhere, but that they grew up doing things, facing challenges, and that they support the next generation coming up.
“I've already witnessed first-hand what just an hour with a role model and your hero can do. Seeing girls finding their own confidence, enjoying sports, and setting them on the right path is so rewarding and is something I'm excited to spend more time doing.”