More than a century after women first competed at the Olympic Games, female athlete numbers will finally be bordering 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 International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The number of women competing at the Olympic 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 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 of the importance of gender equality both on and off the field.
The long road to equality
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 women took part, constituting a meagre 2.2 per cent of the 997 total competitors.
Over the past 25 years, the IOC has been encouraging and working with National Olympic Committees 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.
Important decisions have been made to create a more gender-balanced event programme and athlete quotas for Tokyo 2020. Four IFs will move to gender-balanced events for the first time (Canoe, 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 (Canoe, Judo, Rowing, Sailing, Shooting and Weightlifting). Tokyo’s five new sports – baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, speed climbing and surfing – will all have women’s events.
Most recently, changes to the event programme for Tokyo 2020 double the number of mixed events compared to Rio 2016, while the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 will also see an increase in women’s and mixed events to reach a record 45.44 per cent female representation at a Winter Games.
The IOC is not only seeking to achieve statistical parity, but also understands that every opportunity provided for women's sport and female athletes in the Olympic Games has a flow-on impact for the promotion of gender equality, and the opportunities that are given to women’ athletes around the world.