Behind the rhetoric: Olympic gender equality beyond the numbers

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Michele K. Donnelly
Sport Management, Brock University


Michele Donnelly is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Sport Management, Brock University. Her research follows three lines of inquiry: social inequality, alternative sports and subcultures, and qualitative research methods.

According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), this summer’s Paris 2024 Olympic Games will be “historic” because “there will be an equal number of male and female athletes, full gender parity”. In March 2024, the IOC renewed these claims, and launched the hashtag “genderequalOlympics”. It is important to celebrate achievements that move us closer to gender equality; however, the suggestion that the Paris 2024 Games are gender equal is not only misleading, it is harmful. There is still so much work to do to ensure a truly gender equal Olympic Games.

At Paris 2024:

  • For the first time, the 10,500 athlete quota places are divided equally between men and women. This is gender parity (or gender balance), and it is a significant achievement. It is not gender equality.
    • Notably, the IOC (2021) already celebrated achieving “gender balance” with respect to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. On International Women’s Day in 2021, they claimed “Almost 49 per cent of the athletes participating will be women, according to the IOC quota allocation. These will be the first gender-balanced Games in history”. Overstating achievements, and inaccurately using terms such as “gender balance” and “gender equality” do not serve anybody’s interests. They dangerously send the message that the goal – gender equality – is accomplished and no more work is needed. This is very clearly not the case for the Olympic Games.
  • The sport programme includes 157 men’s events, 152 women’s events, and 20 mixed-gender events. There are still more opportunities for men athletes to win medals than for women athletes. Equalizing the number of events is necessary before any claims about “gender equal Olympics” are warranted.
    • International Sport Federations (IFs) propose a programme of events for each edition of the Games; however, the IOC is ultimately responsible for approving (or rejecting) those proposals and for the Olympic Games’ sport programme.
  • According to the IOC, 28 out of 32 sports will be fully gender equal in Paris. This refers exclusively to the number of athletes, and does not take into account the conditions of participation. In many of these sports, there continue to be different requirements for men and women athletes with respect to uniforms, equipment, length of races, and more. Adopting and promoting a more complete definition of gender equality – beyond the numbers – is necessary before claiming a “gender equal Olympics”.

It is crucial that we critically consider the IOC’s claims about gender equality and hold the IOC and IFs accountable. Gender equality has not yet been achieved, and will not be achieved if we stop demanding it.

There is no definition of gender equality that suggests it may be achieved by taking away from one group (men) to add to the other (women).

Importantly, the IOC’s actions – in the name of “gender equality” – have not been athlete-centred. By establishing seemingly contradictory recommendations in Agenda 2020, the “strategic roadmap for the Olympic Movement”, and then prioritizing one over the other, the IOC has created a nearly impossible situation. Specifically, recommendation 9 to “Set a framework for the Olympic programme” sets limits for the number of athletes (10,500) and events (310) at the Summer Olympic Games. The IOC will enforce the athlete limit for the first time at Paris 2024, and fewer athletes will compete in Paris than at least the two previous summer Olympic Games (11,319 athletes at Tokyo 2020; 11,180 athletes at Rio 2016).

Recommendation 11 to “Foster gender equality” identified that women should comprise 50% of the athletes, and the need “to stimulate women’s participation and involvement in sport by creating more participation opportunities at the Olympic Games”. IFs have been told that they must increase the number of opportunities for women athletes to compete at the Games (recommendation 11); however, they cannot add to the number of athletes or events they propose for the Olympic programme (recommendation 9), they can only replace existing athlete quota places and events.

Increasing opportunities for women athletes while forcing IFs to decrease the overall number of athletes has resulted in lost opportunities for men and women athletes. For example, Canadian 50km race walker, Evan Dunfee won a bronze medal at Tokyo 2020 and learned soon after that the men’s 50km race walk was eliminated from the Paris 2024 sport programme. It would be replaced with a mixed-gender event that, at the time the IOC approved World Athletics’ proposed event programme, had yet to be invented. The explanation offered was the need to “equalize” men’s and women’s events because the women’s 50km race walk had not been an Olympic event (despite being contested at the World Championships since 2017). According to Dunfee: “We’d been pushing for years for a women’s 50k… We should’ve had a women’s 50k at the Olympics. That should have been the solution”. Instead, the IOC told CBC Radio, “In order to achieve full gender parity without being able to increase the number of events, the IOC [Executive Board] offered World Athletics the opportunity to replace the men’s 50km race walk event with a new mixed-gender event”.

[Note: Most mixed-gender events are contested by men and women athletes who have qualified to be at the Olympic Games in the single-gender version of their event. For example, the 25 teams that compete in the new mixed-gender race walk event – marathon race walk mixed relay – at Paris 2024 will be made up of one man and one woman who have each qualified to compete, respectively, in the men’s and women’s 20km race walk events. In short, mixed-gender events have been used to add medal events to the Olympic sport programme without adding athletes.]

Athletes – such as the men and women who compete in the 50km race walk; the men who competed in double trap, 50m rifle prone, and 50m pistol events in Shooting; the men and women who competed in keelboat Sailing events; etc. – should not be punished for decisions over which they have had no control, and it is unacceptable and harmful to cut men’s quota places and men’s and wome’’s events in the name of ”gender equality”. There is no definition of gender equality that suggests it may be achieved by taking away from one group (men) to add to the other (women). And, by explaining the elimination of men’s events and athlete quota places as necessary for “gender equality”, the IOC and IFs foment negative feelings about – and backlash against – movement towards true gender equality at the Olympic Games.

Copyright © Michele K. Donnelly 2024

References

#GenderEqualOlympics: Celebrating full gender parity on the field of play at Paris 2024 (5 March, 2024). https://olympics.com/ioc/news/genderequalolympics-celebrating-full-gender-parity-on-the-field-of-play-at-paris-2024
Drost, Philip (11 June, 2024). His Olympic event was cut, but he’s finding a new way to compete in Paris. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/evan-dunfee-olympics-1.7231740
International Olympic Committee (2014). Olympic Agenda 2020 – 20 + 20 Recommendations. https://stillmed.olympic.org/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/Documents/Olympic-Agenda-2020/Olympic-Agenda-2020-20-20-Recommendations.pdf#_ga=1.203116817.105971277.1482485635
Tokyo 2020 first ever gender-balanced Olympic Games in history, record number of female competitors at Paralympic Games (8 March, 2021). https://olympics.com/ioc/news/tokyo-2020-first-ever-gender-balanced-olympic-games-in-history-record-number-of-female-competitors-at-paralympic-games

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