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Gender Equity in Athletics and Sports

Equality for Women in the Olympics

“The people in the arena who saw what might have been the best 40 minutes of basketball ever played by the best women’s team in history couldn’t know what had gone into those 40 minutes.  It was not only a year of grueling workouts and exhausting travel, but decades of women — and men — selling cupcakes to buy uniforms, hounding athletic directors for scholarships, refusing to accept second-class status, believing in the game and in women when there wasn’t even a national tournament,  much less an Olympic one.”

Tara VanDerveer, Head Coach of the 1996 U.S. Women’s Olympic Basketball Team after winning the Gold Medal

Women first took part in the Olympics of 1900, with 22 women competing in only golf and tennis.  Since that time, women’s participation in the games has been slowly, but steadily, increasing.  In the 2012 London Olympic Games, women made up more than 44% of participants. The U.S. women earned 58 medals in all, including 29 Gold more than the U.S. men. 

The number of Olympic sports events for women has also increased, with women’s boxing finally being accepted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for 2012. Despite progress in female participation, inequities in treatment continued.  In 2010, The International Boxing Association suggested women should wear skirts to help “distinguish” them from the males, since all the fighters wear headgear.  At the October 2011 world championships, Poland Boxing made skirts compulsory, saying they are more "elegant." 

In 2012, the London Olympic Committee made skirts optional, but the controversy continues. Women’s bouts, even the gold-medal finals, were all scheduled for afternoons while the prime evening time slots were filled by men’s bouts. Women’s bouts were on consecutive days, while the men got days of rest between fights.

The 1978 Amateur Sports Act, requires the United States Olympic Committee and its National Governing Bodies to operate in a non-sex discriminatory manner for each sport.  In 1998, the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act revised the Amateur Sports Act by eliminating the requirement that competing in most international sports required amateur status.   It also expanded the role of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) to include the Paralympic Games and increased athlete representation of women.  But unlike Title IX for U.S athletes, this statute provides no legal recourse against the National Olympic Committees (NOCs) for failing to address gender equality issues.

Although the USOC Board of Directors has become more gender balanced, not much has changed for the 134 member (including honorary members) International Olympic Committee (IOC) which had only 24 female members as of 2012.  The IOC and the NOCs must continue to increase the participation of women in Olympic and Paralympic sports, with emphasis on gender equity in leadership roles for women.

Every four years, the IOC organizes a world conference on Women and Sports.  The last conference was held in February 2012 in Los Angeles, California.  The delegates unanimously approved “The Los Angeles Declaration," a series of recommendations aimed at promoting gender equality in sport and using sport as a tool to improve the lives of women around the world.

Despite these numerous accomplishments, there is still sex discrimination. Even though the 2012 Olympics was the first in which almost every country sent at least one woman, many Muslim countries still discourage female athletes from competing in public.

Following International Women's Day on March 8, 2013, Anita DeFrantz, Chairwoman of the IOC's Women and Sport Commission, spoke at the 57th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women to highlight the role of sports in the effort to eliminate and prevent violence against women and girls in the world.

Despite women’s progress, more must be done to increase the participation of women in Olympic and Paralympic sports and to increase the number of eligible women’s events. With the exception of the U.S., most countries support and fund their Olympic Teams.  U.S. athletes are funded by donations from corporations and individuals.

Additional Information

A fact sheet prepared by the International Olympic Committee on Women in the Olympic Movement.

The Sharp Center of the Women’s Sports Foundation Report on the Olympics and Paralympics games, reveals equity gaps in participation and leadership for women. 

Is the empowering female athletes mantra helping in the Olympic medal count?

Report on Gender Equity and Leadership in Olympic Bodies