There are many things the Tokyo Olympic Games will be remembered for. Indeed, rarely are we able to go into an Olympics so certain of its place in history. As the first Olympiad to ever be delayed, the first to be held amid a global pandemic, the first to play out without fans and coming after the longest wait for a Summer Games since the Second World War, there is little doubt the next 17 days of global, elite sport will stand out in the Olympic annals.
There is another, perhaps easily overlooked element of the still-named Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, that earns it a special place in history: it is the first to have a near 50:50 gender divide, with more female competitors than any Games before.
The exact number is just shy of outright equality, with 48.8% female competitors, to 51.2% male, but it is an increase from the 45% of women vying for medals in Rio, and 44.2% in London.
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To consider this in an historical context, women were banned from competing at the first modern games in Athens in 1896. Four years later, just 22 of the 997 competitors at the 1900 Paris Olympics were female, restricted as they were to five “ladies” events: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf.
For the Tokyo Olympics, Team GB is one of several squads, including China, Australia, Canada and the United States, to send more female athletes than male. In the case of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the numbers are 201 to 175.
Four of those women will be competing for the honour of becoming the first or, if they’re successful, among the first British female Olympians to win gold at three separate summer Games. Track cyclists Laura Kenny, rower Helen Glover, dressage rider Charlotte Dujardin and taekwondo player Jade Jones each have an eye on history after their respective successes in Rio and London. British women also feature heavily in the headlines of pre-Games stars. World champion Dina Asher Smith is the fastest British woman in track and field history, and a bone fide superstar off the track, while 13-year-old skateboarder Sky Brown is Team GB’s youngest ever athlete at a summer Olympics, and a realistic medal prospect in her sport’s Olympic debut.
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So far, so PC, but why does any of this matter? Why should it make a difference which gender of athlete is winning the gold medals, as long as they’ve earned their right to be on the top step of the podium and the front pages of newspapers?
It matters, because this is a platform, as acknowledged in the International Olympic Committee media handbook, in which “role models are created – showing people what, and how, they could, or should be.
“It’s about portraying women as equal in sport, with the same skills and strength of character as their male counterparts.”
According to the IOC, even in 2021, female athletes are 20% more likely to be spoken for by a male coach, rather than represented themselves. They are nine times more likely to be pictured with their spouse or partner than their male counterparts, and male athletes are 67% more likely to be a lead story. Imagine that, two athletes have trained just as hard, sacrificed just as much, and overcome equally difficult physical and mental obstacles, but the male athlete is two thirds more likely to become the subject of a lead news story, which leads is to automatically attach more importance to his achievement. Indeed, according to the IOC when female athletes are reported on, they are more likely to be described as ‘aged’, ‘older’ and ‘married’, while men are more readily lauded as ‘fast’ or ‘strong’.
It really is difficult to overplay the significance, subtlety and damage of this gender disparity. It is perhaps not surprising that even now, only one in five reporters at an Olympic Games are female, one in ten if you’re a photographer.
Traditionally, and still, elite sport is not seen as a space for strong, successful women, rather we are the anomaly. The IOC is urging all media outlets to “select more photos that portray female athletes as strong, confident and capable in a sporting context.” The fact it even needs stating, says a lot.
With these Games, the most gender balanced in history, and with the female athletes who have made it onto the greatest sporting stage of them all, we have the best possible opportunity to continue to push for and be a part of fundamental societal change.
The theme for these Tokyo 2020 is ‘United in Emotion’. Against the ongoing backdrop of a global pandemic, and the difficulties each and every one of us will have suffered over the last year, there is a greater need since the Second World War to be united, to be uplifted, to share in emotion that is both global and personal. Sport, and in particular the Olympic Games, has the power to do this like little else. But there is also an historical and ongoing need to provide inspiration for, and representation of strong, successful, female role models, in sport and beyond. Team GB’s female athletes have done all they can to put themselves in that position, it’s up to all of us to build on those achievements, to allow these Olympic Games to count for something much bigger than gold medals.
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