A positive trend at Tokyo 2020 for female coaches and officials

The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 are aiming to be the most gender-balanced Olympic Games in history, but there is still a long way to go towards gender equality when it comes to female coaches and officials. Here, we shine a spotlight on some of the inspirational women coaching and officiating at Tokyo 2020 and get their thoughts on how to move closer to gender parity.

Iris Metspalu, the Estonian umpire who officiated the first medal match of Tokyo 2020. Iris Metspalu, the Estonian umpire who officiated the first medal match of Tokyo 2020 2021 Getty Images

Women’s sport has made huge progress in recent years, but work remains to advance gender equality among coaches and technical officials. Just 10 per cent of accredited coaches at the Olympic Summer and Winter Games over the past decade have been female, with women accounting for 30 per cent of technical officials over the same period. Initial figures show that there has been slight progress in Tokyo, with women making up 13 per cent of coaches and 30.5 per cent of technical officials.

To address the situation, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has launched a number of initiatives to ensure that International Federations (IFs), National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and Organising Committees open coaching and officiating pathways to more women. In 2020, the IOC’s gender equality webinar series highlighted some of the great work IFs are already doing to develop their pool of female coaches and technical officials, as well as providing concrete guidelines and tools for others to use.

Looking towards the future, the objectives of the IOC’s new Gender Equality and Inclusion Strategic Framework for 2021-2024 include the development of an action plan, in collaboration with IFs and NOCs, for more female coaches to be eligible for, and selected to participate in, World Championships and the Olympic Games.

At Tokyo 2020, we are already seeing the fruits of these efforts, with female coaches achieving outstanding results and women being assigned to officiate medal events and finals in their respective sports.

Beverly Priestman, Head Coach applauds prior to the Women's Gold Medal Match between Canada and Sweden Beverly Priestman, Head Coach applauds prior to the Women's Gold Medal Match between Canada and Sweden - 2021 Getty Images

New sports bring new opportunities

The Olympic programme and competition schedule have been revolutionised in recent years to create greater opportunities for female athletes, and this is also having an impact on the number of coaches and officials involved with the Games. The addition of sports such as skateboarding for Tokyo 2020, for example, has opened new pathways for the likes of Kat Williams, the Australian who was initially aiming to compete before switching her attention to coaching.

“I've known the younger female skaters for so long that I just felt that I needed to support them,” says Williams, who coaches women’s street skateboarder Hayley Wilson, and has also been serving as an assistant coach for the other women and men competing for Australia during the sport’s Olympic debut – some of whom are teenagers.

“I saw an opportunity and felt it was important for a female staff member to be here, especially for our girls who are competing. Skate Australia were supportive of me helping the girls and understood why it’s an important thing to happen. To have someone that understands what being a young female athlete feels like is really important.”

Williams herself was inspired by Mimi Knoop, a trailblazer for women’s skateboarding who is also in Tokyo coaching the US team and who believes that the sport’s addition to the Games is going to create more opportunities for aspiring coaches.

“When there wasn’t really a market for women’s skateboarding, a lot of skaters from my generation when they got to a certain age had bills to pay and had to go and find jobs,” she explains. “But with this new visibility that women’s skateboarding has, there are positions and roles coming up that I think will convince more women to want to stay involved.”

Female hockey official Tokyo 2020 2021 Getty Images

Supporting athletes from afar

It’s not only coaches and other entourage members who are actually in Tokyo who have played vital roles in athletes’ performances, either. With delegations limited due to COVID-19 restrictions, some are advising or consulting virtually, or did most of their work prior to the Games to get their athletes as well-prepared as possible for the biggest event of their lives.

Erin Carson, for example, is a Canadian strength coach who works with a number of Olympic endurance athletes – including cyclists Ruth Winder (USA) and Toms Skujiņš (Latvia), who competed in the women’s and men’s individual road races at Tokyo 2020 – from her base in Boulder, Colorado (USA). On day eight of the Games, her athlete Taylor Knibb won a silver medal for the USA in the first-ever Olympic triathlon mixed relay event, while Carson also played a key role in the career of Bermuda’s Flora Duffy as her strength coach for 10 years up to 2019. Duffy made history in Tokyo by winning her country’s first-ever Olympic gold medal, in the women’s individual triathlon.

Carson believes that results like this will not only help persuade more athletes to trust and work with female coaches, but will also convince more teams and National Federations (NFs) to see the value of female coaches – and work harder to bring more on board.

“Traditionally, it’s been men who have been the head coaches,” she explains. “And because there hasn't been a lot of funding for coaches in the past, there's only been so much work to go around. But with the additional funding we’re seeing now and the ability for people to make money, I think everyone should be looking to have at least two or three women on their coaching staff.”

This is something that Carson believes can have a positive impact not only on performance but also on the culture of teams and organisations.

“There is an emotional component to sport that has really come to light in Tokyo, and I think that the combination of men and women working together, and having that open communication, can really benefit an athlete,” she adds. “Diversity in coaching staff can have an incredibly positive effect on athletes, training groups and organisations.”

Team France Head Coach Valerie Garnier Team France Head Coach Valerie Garnier - 2021 Getty Images

Referees and officials

The IOC has also been working to increase the numbers of female referees and officials at the Games in collaboration with IFs.

Realising that there was a lack of gender equality amongst its officials, the Badminton World Federation (BWF) has implemented programmes to address this issue. Over the past five years, it has increased its percentage of female referees from 24 to 33 per cent, and recently appointed a number of semi-professional umpires, which has brought more opportunities for women. One of them is Iris Metspalu, the Estonian umpire who officiated the first medal match of Tokyo 2020.

“When I started, it was pretty much a man’s world,” she explains. “But now, there are 26 umpires here in Tokyo, seven of whom are women. I think this is quite a good thing, as we are definitely growing.”

For Metspalu, mentoring schemes are an important part of redressing the balance.

“As female officials, we share our experience and we are really glad to have more and more women around here,” she says. “We just need to use our powers, our minds and all our expertise to get to where we want to.

“So, let’s do it. Take the help and really use it – and fulfil our dreams.”

Find out more about the IOC’s work in promoting gender equality in sport.


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