Brock expert says Olympic gender equity efforts are good, but not good enough

In the leadup to International Women’s Day, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced new steps to make the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games the most gender equitable ever.

This includes allowing one female and one male flagbearer to represent each country at the Opening Ceremony and having at least one male and female competing from each country, whereas countries could send a single person in the past.

“The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will be the first gender-balanced Olympic Games in history with 48.8 per cent women’s participation,” IOC President Thomas Bach said Wednesday.

That’s good news to Brock University Sport Management Professor Michele Donnelly, who researches social inequality issues in international sport organizations.

“This change is important because the IOC has previously only made recommendations about gender equality,” Donnelly says. “They came without guidance or instructions about how international federations should work to achieve gender equality, and some of the recommendations have been contradictory.”

She points out the IOC’s Agenda 2020 strategic roadmap, which aimed for gender equality, but at the same time capping the number of athletes competing in Summer Olympic Games at 10,500. In order to hit their goals male athletes and men’s events would have to be removed in order to add female athletes and women’s events to the Games.

“Removing men to add women is not equality, nor an acceptable way to achieve gender equality,” Donnelly says. “This focus on quotas reveals that the IOC’s attention to gender equality is almost exclusively limited to parity in the number of athletes and events.”

She says the steps taken ignore some bigger equality issues in the Olympics.

“There are significant differences in the ways that women and men compete in some sports and events such as equipment, distances, rules, uniforms and the structure of competitions,” says Donnelly.

The decision to allow two flag bearers, however, is an important step for representation, she says.

“During one of the most visible and celebrated elements of the Opening Ceremony, the audience will see countries recognizing both men and women athletes rather than having to choose only one or the other,” she says. “It will be interesting to hear how commentators address this change during broadcasts. It introduces the potential to compare or question the athletes’ perceived deservedness, in terms of their accomplishments and contributions to their sports.”

As for how Canada is doing around gender equity in sport, Donnelly says there is also still work to be done.

“Canada has made significant commitments to gender equity in sport, including $30 million in the federal government’s 2018 Budget to achieve gender equity in sport at all levels by 2035,” she says. “However, Canadian women experience major inequalities with respect to participation, funding, resources, media coverage and leadership. Girls’ and women’s overall participation rates are significantly lower than boys’ and men’s, and there are even greater disparities in decision-making and leadership positions.”

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