Jumping hurdles: women in sports spectacle

Frauen während der Olympischen Spiele 1928 in Amsterdam.

The participation of 4,675 female athletes in the 2012 Olympics – about 45 per cent of all athletes – was a milestone on the way to gender equality.

The 2012 Olympic Games were considered a huge step towards gender equality thanks to three aspects: the presence of 4,675 female athletes competing in the event, which means 44.2% of the total number; the participation of women in all the sports and the absence of countries that forbid the participation of female athletes in their delegations.

Gender equality in sports and the role of sports in promoting women’s rights have been subject to permanent debate. Beyond the benefits that sports bring to female health, the recognition of its performance as an instrument for gender equality promotion is a consensus in today’s world. It is still a long way to go.

Only since 1981 the International Olympic Committee started accepting women among its members, and has been making gender equality “an issue” over the last two decades. Since the Olympic Charter of 1996, which assigned to the IOC the job of applying equality principles to men and women through the support and promotion of women in sports at every level and in every structure, some actions have put “the issue” in evidence. The launch of IOC’s Women in Sport Commission and the quadrennial World Conference on Women and Sport are two examples of that.

But how and why did gender equality become “an issue” in the Olympic Movement? Would the progress of female participation in the 2012 games really mean a definitive change regarding women’s place in sports?

Not so long ago, the “issue” of women in the Olympic Movement was not about including, but restricting their participation in the competitions. With no right to compete in the first modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens, women had a slow and gradual admission into Olympic competitions beginning in 1900. Chart 1 shows the evolution of female athletes’ numbers in the Olympic Games. Up to the 1948, London Olympicswomen were less than 10% of the total number of athletes. Until the 1980’s the female curve is almost a horizontal line. It was only at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics that it began to follow the growth of the total curve, although also keeping a difference between men and women for a while. It was only atthe 1996 Atlanta Olympics that the total number of athletes began to decrease, while the women athletes’ number kept on the rise, until it reached the 44.2% registered at London 2012.

Although sports do work as an instrument of inclusion for women in society full female participation in sports is still far from granted.

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Source: International Olympic Comitee (2013)

Leading positions

Significant female participation in the 2012 Olympics notwithstanding, the number of women in commanding posts in the Olympic Movement is still unimpressive. Only in 1981, they were allowed to work in the IOC, and to this day, their number (23.9%, out of 92 members) is still much smaller than the ones in the competition arenas. As for their participation in the Executive Committee, things are not very different. Only 4 out of 15 members (26.6%) are females, and, among the four Vice-Presidents, only one (25%) is a woman.

In 1998, IOC established a goal of 20% of command positions occupied by women by 2005. The result of a sample survey carried out in 135 of the current 205 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) shows that 62 of them (46% of the survey universe) have not yet reached that goal, and 10 (7.4%) still do not have at least one woman in their Executive Committees.

Chart 2 shows women’s participation in the main directive post of NOCs over the last 7 years. Not only is the female presence as NOCs Presidents very low (around 5% of all NOCs), but this number has also developed extremely slowly in that period; slower than what happened in the post of Secretary General (50%).

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Source: International Olympic Committee and Centre for Olympic Studies & Research of Loughborough University and International Olympic Committee (2014).

The conservative structure of these institutions, with a low turnover of its members and of chair positions may be the main reason for this imbalance. That is the case, for instance, of Carlos Nuzman, who has been chairing the Brazilian Olympic Committee (COB) since 1995.

Media exposure and salaries
As thoughts and actions-guiding entities the media controllers also detain the means for building and deconstructing classification categories and defining power hierarchies. There are two approaches that have been relating media to gender in sports: the time the media dedicates to women’s competitions and the way they portray the athletes.

Supported by surveys carried out by the United Nations in different states women are still marginalized by the media industry when it comes to sports, and that male events dominate the coverage at every level. The document alerts to the unequal representation of women in sports press, persistently influenced by gender stereotypes.

Media representations reflect on yet another kind of gender-based discrimination: salaries. In June of 2015, Forbes magazine published the ranking of the 100 highest-paid athletes of the world during the previous 12 months. On the list there were only two women: Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova, on the 26th position, and American tennis player Serena Williams, on the 46th. Among the top 20 best paid there was not one woman.

In this process the media-sponsor relation is a two-way street. Athletes’ sponsors also advertise their brands in the media, and therefore have some pull in the definition of programs. The choice for who will be sponsored, on the other hand, is always tied to the media time each athlete gets. Since they have more exposure, men have the upper hand in the dispute for this source of income, thus perpetuating the long-existent inequalities.

Questioning a binary gender classification
The control over the “femininity” of the female athletes’ bodies has always been present in modern sports’ history. Socially built ideas and patters of femininity were determinant in the definition of which types of sports were open or not to women in the Olympic competitions. Michel Foucault called the influence of medical knowledge and medical authorities to dictate certain social behavior patters for women (and men) as “medicalization” of gender (“The History of Sexuality, 1976”).

Starting at the 1968 Olympic Games any woman who did not fit in the “femininity” standards was immediately suspected of doping or subject to having her gender identity questioned. In the 1971 Olympic Charter, compliance to submitting oneself to the femininity test, which included medical inspection of the athlete’s genitals, was a condition for any female’s participation in the Olympic Games. At the 2000 Olympics, the test was no longer mandatory, but it still exists in many International Sports Federations and, implicitly, in the tests made by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

Where are the dividing lines between being a man or a woman? What are the eligibility criteria for this categorization? Questions like these were debated during the IOC’s 5th International Conference on Women and Sports in 2012. According to panelists, there are distinct categories in sports because men and women are “physiologically different”. Many of them, however, recognize gender variations that do not fit into the binary classification man/woman. The concept of competitions justice itself was questioned by some. Would it be more unfair to have a little bit more testosterone than having longer fingers, or being taller? Would the competitive advantage of an intersexual person be stronger than those of each athlete’s performance limits? Would it be fair to bar a woman from a competition because of her hormonal levels?

The embarrassment and privacy breaches suffered by athletes and what kind of treatment transsexuals should receive are some of the questions raised in the debate about the limits of gender binarism and heteronormativity that persists in the sports world.

Final considerations
The strong female presence in the arenas and the absence of events without women’s competitions at the 2012 Olympics may suggest that gender-based barriers have been completely overcome in sports. A closer look, however, reveals that there is still a lot to be done before this change goes beyond discourse and becomes a reality in every segment of the sports spectacle.

In spite of almost century-long restrictions to women’s participation in a large number of Olympic competitions, concrete measures have been adopted towards female inclusion in all sporting practices. Now the composition and structure of the Olympic Movement itself, with its conservative and inequality-repeating character, must go through a restructuration. It is doubtful, however, to what degree the institutions that compose it are willing to do that.

Concrete measures of normative character also could be taken, such as quotas for command positions or equal-treatment rules in exclusivity contracts with TV networks and sponsors. It is doubtful, however, whether the IOC would be willing to take risks with billion-dollar contracts that generate almost all of its revenue, in the name of going against a pre-established androcentric order rooted in different cultures.

A great paradox has been established with relation to the question of gender equality – an imperative widely excepted. On one hand, women’s achievements in the labor market and, consequently, in the consumer market and in society, have led companies and institutions to change their discourse. In order to keep the financial and political capitals that support it, IOC has been forced to promote changes, allowing a larger female insertion in the competitions and accepting gender as an “issue”. After all, the exclusive association to the moral values of Olympism is the main good it offers to sponsors and broadcasters, buyers of the sports spectacle.

This does not mean, however, that the Olympic Movement or even those companies have changed their conservative organizational structures. To conciliate the mentioned paradox they changed discourses, made concessions and raised “questions”, while nonetheless the structure that maintains the androcentric system stays untouched.

Other questions that must be explored further are the male dominance in every segment of specialists or the problems related to sexual abuse or harassment. In order for all the gender-determined barriers to be eliminated, these issues must be faced head-on, in spite of the power implications they might represent. Only then sports will finally be able to fulfill entirely the liberating role it purports to have.

This article is also available in German.