Women and Sport: Leaping forward

When Great Britain’s Nicola Adams landed her final punch to win the first ever Olympic old medal in women’s boxing at the London 2012 Olympic Games, it was a significant moment not only for the then 29-year-old, but also for many girls and young women across the globe.

Golf was one of the five sports that women participated in at the 1900 Games

The inclusion of women’s boxing on the programme for London meant that, for the first time in the history of the modern Olympic Games, women were able to compete in every sport on the Olympic programme.

Two years later in Sochi, another milestone was reached when the IOC included a women’s ski jumping event at the Olympic Winter Games for the first time.

These were the latest in a long list of gender equality breakthroughs at the Games over the last century, with women’s participation on the Olympic stage growing steadily thanks to the continuous efforts of the IOC, in cooperation with International Federations (IFs) and National Olympic Committees (NOCs).

Great Britain’s Nicola Adams became the first ever women’s boxing Olympic champion in 2012

When women first took part in the Olympic Games – in Paris in 1900 – they accounted for just 2.2 per cent of the total number of competitors (22 out of 997). Female participation has increased steadily since then. The Nanjing Youth Olympic Games in 2014 set a new record with women athletes accounting for 49 per cent of the total, a giant step that shows that parity is very close.

The percentages of women Olympians at the London Games and Sochi Games – 44 per cent and over 40 per cent respectively – are also promising and the result of determined work over more than a century as the world moves to recognise the importance of providing sport to all.

Sonja Henie was a three-time Olympic champion in figure skating

Over the years, the success of legendary female athletes at the Olympic Games – such as Babe Didrikson, Sonja Henie, Nadia Comaneci and Jackie Joyner-Kersee – has provided inspirational stories for women all over the globe, while the likes of Nawal El Moutawakel have helped break down barriers for girls across the world.

Their efforts paved the way for others to achieve their dreams at the Games and, today, every one of the 204 NOCs has women Olympians who can stand as role models for the younger generation. Indeed, London 2012 saw the participation of female athletes from Brunei Darussalam, Saudi Arabia and Qatar for the first time, meaning that all 204 NOCs have now been represented by women at the Olympic Games.

Nawal El Moutawakel (right) was the first Muslim woman to win Olympic gold

Sport leaders have an important role to play in ensuring that women’s participation continues to grow in this manner. Clear policies and targeted programmes are needed in order to ensure that girls and women have access to sport at all levels in the same way as boys do.

As IOC Member and Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al- Sabah explains: “The potential for sport to contribute to the social, economic and political empowerment of women and girls is clear and has been recognised by civil society, the Olympic Movement and others. Now is the time to act on this recognition and bring the benefits of sport to women and girls.”

But the Olympic Movement’s efforts are not solely focused on getting more women to compete in the Games. They also aim to boost the number of women  in decision-making positions within sport.

 Alena Zavarzina (RUS) was one of 1,120 women athletes at Sochi 2014

 “The fight is not over,” adds Sheikh Al-Sabah. “We need more women in coaching and in governing bodies, in sport businesses and in the media. Women are not an isolated group in our society. They constitute half of the world’s population, if not more. Women are educated. They have strength, endurance and willpower. There is no single reason that they should be left behind.

“I am calling on NOC leaders in particular and the entire Olympic Movement, men and women, to lead the change by creating the environment and opportunities that will make our societies better and more inclusive.”

To help achieve these goals, the IOC set an objective in 1996 that all sporting bodies belonging to the Olympic Movement must reserve at least 20 per cent of decision-making positions for women by the end of 2005.

Since then, a growing number of NOCs and IFs have shown their willingness to work on achieving gender parity within their organisations. Twelve women are currently presidents of NOCs and 30 women hold the role of secretary-general. In addition, a greater number of women now occupy senior leadership positions as vice-presidents, deputy secretaries-general and treasurers. However, as Sheikh Al-Sabah says, the fight is not over.

The IOC is leading by example when it comes to mobilising female representation in its own internal structure. Compared to just two female IOC Members in 1981, there are now 24. In addition, four women now sit on the 15-Member IOC Executive Board – the highest number in its history.

In addition, more and more women are chairing IOC commissions, such as the Coordination Commissions for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (chaired by Nawal El Moutawakel), the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games (chaired by Gunilla Lindberg), the 2nd Winter Youth Olympic Games in 2016 in Lillehammer (chaired by Angela Ruggiero), as well as the Women and Sport Commission (chaired by Lydia Nsekera) and the Athletes’ Commission, which is chaired by Claudia Bokel.

Maziah Mahusin became Brunei’s first female Olympian

The former fencer, who won team silver at Athens in 2004 and is a member of the IOC Executive Board, believes that “sport is a fantastic opportunity for girls and women. It imposes its own equality: distinctions of class, race, sexual orientation and income are meaningless on the field of play. It provides opportunities to break free of barriers and negative stereotypes”.

“I feel proud to be among the women athletes who have decided to give back to sport what sport gave me throughout my sporting career. I am calling on my fellow athletes, both women and men, to encourage and advocate for women in sport. You can make a difference.

Claudia Bokel is the current Chair of the Athletes’ Commission and is also a Member of the IOC Executive Board

“Sport is a great way to elevate equality. If we succeed in reaching equality in sport, we can succeed in society.”

Despite these efforts, the IOC is aware that there is still tremendous work to be done before equality is achieved. In this regard, the IOC Women and Sport Commission ordered a study, which  was conducted by Loughborough University (Great Britain) in 2010, aimed at establishing the situation in relation to  the recruitment of women to executive committees of NOCs and IFs, identifying barriers that are still preventing women from taking up leadership positions, and proposing Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for successful elections. The report concluded that many barriers were still preventing women from accessing decision-making positions, a finding also noted by the participants in the 5th IOC Women and Sport Conference in Los Angeles in 2012.

The IOC is trying hard to tackle this issue from different angles, including providing training, mentoring and networking opportunities to women
in NOCs and National Federations to prepare them for elections. In 1995, the IOC also created a Women and Sport Working Group, which became a fully- fledged Commission in 2004. It is tasked with encouraging women’s participation in the Olympic Games and in sport in general, getting more women into sports leadership positions, raising awareness and spreading information.

“In 2015, the IOC will celebrate an important milestone – 20 years since the creation of the Working Group on Women and Sport,” explains Lydia Nsekera,  the current Chair of the Commission.  “It is another occasion to celebrate the achievement of these wonderful women athletes – powerful role models and mentors for young girls around the world. They prove that women can overcome societal expectations and achieve their dreams despite the obstacles in their way.

“We still have a long way to go before we reach complete equality. The change will only happen if every woman and man in sport, Olympians and leaders, makes a solemn commitment to stand up and lead the change.”

Today’s reality is that the world of sport, like other sectors of society, remains far from being gender-balanced. There is tremendous potential for cooperation, and consequently for joint and stronger actions for women’s advancement. To make real progress in its quest for gender equality, the IOC signed a historic agreement with the United Nations in April 2014 that focuses on using sport as a tool to build young girls’ and adolescents’ leadership capacity and addresses gender-based violence issues across the globe.

The framework includes working closely with the NOCs, IFs, UN Special Envoys and Goodwill Ambassadors, UN Specialised Agencies and UN Funds to build a sustainable system for empowerment of women at grassroots levels in various countries.

But gender parity will not be achieved if women alone are lobbying for change. Over the years, the movement for gender equality has been conceived as a struggle led only by women for women. But this is not a feminist fight; it is a solidarity movement that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other. Gender inequality is more than simply a women’s issue; it is a human rights issue.

Nsekera adds: “May I call on every woman to be prepared to work hard together with men to break existing barriers? We need to address the erroneous notion that women’s issues and gender equality are matters left only to women. The progress we want cannot be achieved by women fighting just by and for themselves. We need the cooperation and buy-in of men.”

The need for men to stand up and address the inequalities and discrimination faced by women and girls all over the world has been highlighted by the UN’s new global HeForShe campaign, which aims to get 100,000 men and boys involved in the fight to achieve gender equality.

The initiative was launched in September 2014 by British actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson, who delivered a stirring speech at the UN’s headquarters, extending a “formal invitation” to men to participate in the conversation about gender equality.

“Gender equality is your issue too,” she said. “We want to try to galvanise as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for change and we don’t just want to talk about it. We want to try and make sure that it’s tangible.”

With the progress made over the last century, the Olympic Games continue to provide tangible successes in the fight for gender equality, and the Olympic Movement looks set to play a significant role in the ongoing battle in the years to come – both in sport and society in general.

back to top