Begin typing your search above and press return to search.

Tokyo 2020

Will the fight for gender-equality finally triumph at the Tokyo Olympics?

With gender-equality still being a goal instead of a reality, can the Tokyo Olympics finally close the gap by being the first gender-balanced Games in the history of Olympics?

Will the fight for gender-equality finally triumph at the Tokyo Olympics?
The Tokyo Olympics will be the first gender-balanced Olympics in the history of the Games

Sohinee Basu

Updated: 23 Jun 2021 2:24 PM GMT

It might have taken well over a century - fraught with protests, controversies and a lot of blood, toil and sweat, but with the Tokyo Olympics just a stone's throw away now, we are looking at the first gender-balanced Games in the history of the Olympics to take place. In fact, the Tokyo Olympics is hopeful of meeting the 'equal' mark as female athletes are expected to see a 49% turnout, almost 'half' and proportionate to the male athletes at the quadrennial Games, for the first time.

"It has been more of a marathon than a sprint, but female Olympians are at last catching their male counterparts in the numbers game," the IOC said in a statement.

The taboo of being the 'weaker sex'

The 1922 Womens Olympic Games, Image Credit:Bertil Norberg/Public Domain

Associated to the idea of being the 'weaker sex' for the longest period of time, women have had to face marginalisation in practically every walk of life - the gambit of sports held similar fortunes for them, likewise. At the fag end of the 19th century when the Olympic Games were begun by the French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the aim was to showcase "the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism" with "female applause as reward." The figure of the woman - demure, fragile, perfectly fragile and feminine - did not dare feature remotely close to the Olympic idea, then proposed by Coubertin.

For Coubertin, the very thought of having women compete in the Olympic Games was inconceivable - how could they? Discriminatorily enough, Coubertin went onto say, "No matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks," and shrugged off the 'weaker sex' from his mind and the very first Olympics in 1896 held in Athens, Greece.

However, this exclusionism wasn't to be continued and women entered the Olympics from 1900, led by several movements. Restricted to sports which could suit their 'feminine' capacities - tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrianism and golf - 22 women out of 997 athletes took part in the 1900 Paris Olympics, making up only a meagre 2.2%.

A whole century has transpired since then and while it is still disheartening to state that gender equality is a goal and not a reality yet, the Olympic Games led by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have indeed come a long way. From just 34% female representation in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics to achieving 45% at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is expected to be a benchmark event as it is expecting a 49% female athlete participation - almost half and equal to the total number.

A brief history of the gender-equality meter in previous Olympics

Simone Biles, AFP

While the exclusion of women from Olympic sports might seem jarring now given that we can now roll off the names of at least five female Olympians who did sports proud - like, Serena Williams, Simone Biles, Natalie Coughlin, Yuna Kim and Allyson Felix, it wasn't so surprising in the 19th century. Consider for a second the conception of the Victorian woman as famously penned by Coventry Patmore in his poem - Angel in the House.

Man must be pleased; but him to please

Is woman's pleasure; down the gulf

Of his condoled necessities

She casts her best, she flings herself.

The very idea of the 'ideal' woman was to be submissive, demure, fragile and all-too-giving with all personal dreams and desires put to the grave to rest. The concept of a 'sportswoman' was ridiculous and unheard of. Sports, if at all, was played among the upper-class women and that too, for leisure and recreation purposes only - competing wasn't spared a thought, in this case.

Stemming from such staunch beliefs about the woman and who she is supposed to be according to the man, no wonder the first Olympic Games was played without any women participating in it.

We need to look no further than Pierre Coubertin's statements to grasp the ideologies of the society - "It is indecent that spectators should be exposed to the risk of seeing the body of a woman being smashed before their eyes. Besides, no matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks. Her nerves rule her muscles, nature wanted it that way."

Even though women began participating in the Olympic Games from 1900, they were kept away from the physically draining showpiece events of track and field. Slowly the number grew, more women began taking part but the IOC refused to budge and allow women to take part in the athletic events. Angered by this, Alice Milliat set up the Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale (FSFI) and hosted the first Women's Olympic Games at Paris in 1922 that featured all track and field events. With the sole objective to rouse the IOC, Milliat and co. emerged successful after 4 editions of the Women's Olympics as from the 1936 Olympics, women were allowed to take part in athletic events.

History hasn't been the kindest to women and truly being gender-equal but with a month to go for the Tokyo Olympics, it can be said that the fight hasn't been futile and a change is very much on the horizon. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will see women athletes participating in equal ratio to the men athletes at the Games. For the first time in Olympic history, the Tokyo Olympics is going to be the first gender-balanced Olympics.

Gender equality at the Olympics: Are we there yet?

Female athletes at the Rio Olympics

The need for gender equality, both at the participation and the governance level has been long-desired. Several battles have been fought for more inclusion and the journey hasn't been the smoothest but the destination is almost in sight with the Tokyo Olympics scheduled to begin from July 23rd.

"The IOC is committed to gender equality in all areas, from the athletes competing on and off the field of play to leadership roles in sports organisations", said IOC President Thomas Bach.

In fact, the Tokyo Olympics will also become the first Olympics to feature a transgender athlete in the Games. Lauren Hubbard, 43, from New Zealand will become the oldest weightlifter at the Games as she participates in the super-heavyweight 87+kg category in Tokyo. Hubbard, who was a regular in men's weightlifting tournaments till 2013, underwent transition from male to female and will now take part in Tokyo Olympics as the first transgender athlete in the history of the Games.

To preach the message of inclusivity further and to also implement it, the IOC has stated that every NOC must send at least one male and one female athlete to the Games. Moreover, for the first time, the Tokyo Olympics will see two flag bearers from every contingent - one male, one female, in yet another effort to make the Tokyo event inclusive and gender-balanced.

"Participation of both women and men in all fields, and the active participation of women will lead to the creation of a prosperous, vibrant and sustainable society and the realisation of a society in which everyone can live comfortably," said Marukawa Tamayo, Minister for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games, Minister in charge of Women's Empowerment and Minister of State for Gender Equality.

All in all, it does look hopeful and definitely positive for women at the Olympic Games. From being mere "cheerleaders" to actually being cheered for - on the track, on the courts, in the boxing rings, inside the velodrome or even as they swim, women have come a long way in Olympic sport history. The Tokyo Olympics, with a 49% women athletes turnout and a transgender athlete also in the mix, will be setting a strong, much-needed example for better, brighter more 'equal' days to come - for both men and women.

Next Story