Gender equality trailblazer urges sport to back women

“More females should fill senior positions in media and administration”, says triple Olympic gold medallist Donna de Varona.

Gender discrimination forced triple Olympic gold medallist Donna de Varona (USA) to quit swimming as a teenager. Now she is calling for more female executives in international federations and changes in media coverage of women’s sport.

“We have to refer to women in a different way, elevate them as when we’re covering men’s sport and put more women on primetime television,” said the 71-year-old, who is pictured above addressing trainees on the IOC's Young Reporters programme on Thursday. We need more women announcers and more women in executive positions.”

De Varona won her first Olympic title aged 13 at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games, becoming a worldwide celebrity featured on the covers of sports magazines.

“The storylines usually went, ‘The little girl that swam so fast’, ‘the pretty little girl’ or ‘the little mermaid’. Not, ‘The world record holder’. Not, ‘The one that beat the whole lot at the Olympics’.”

However, after winning two more gold medals at Tokyo 1964, she was forced to quit the sport. While her male training partners were handed university scholarships, de Varona could not continue without an income. At 17, she decided to become a TV commentator to stay close to the sport.

“I thought that if I become a journalist then some day I can talk about how unfair it is – male athletes getting more than women. I am going to try to make a difference.”


She covered swimming at the Mexico City 1968 Games but when she ventured into reporting on other sports, many male colleagues “resented” her presence. 

“I had to hustle harder and faster than anybody else. I would have to work at Thanksgiving, Christmas and every holiday because in order to gain respect from my producers and co-workers I had to pay my dues. I would have to carry coffee, get up early in the morning, do anything I possibly could to get respect. And in some ways I never did.”

Adding to her swimming medals, de Varona is today an award-winning journalist, activist and founding member of the Women’s Sports Foundation. She has seen lots of improvements for women in sports since her Olympic debut 58 years ago, when the 5338 competitors included only 611 women. Buenos Aires 2018 is the first Games in Olympic history where half the athletes will be female.

I’ve been on this journey (towards gender equality) for a long time but what I’m excited about is that on the field of play, women have been accepted and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as well as the federations, has taken leadership Donna de Varona USA

However, according to IOC figures from 2015, only 14% of IOC-recognised international federations’ executive board members were women. As another example of gender inequality in sports, de Varona points out that the final day of competition at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games featured 10 men’s gold medal events and only two for women.

“We have an old tradition where the people who’ve been involved with making these decisions have been making these decisions since I was 18, 19, 20 and 30. They are still involved. So in order to really get there, to open up their minds, you need the facts and hopefully these facts can open up their minds so that in 2020 (Tokyo Olympic Games) we don’t have only two finals on the last day, we have an equal number.”

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