Olympic focus shifting away from important gender issues: Brock expert

As she watched the Canadian women’s hockey team take to the 2022 Winter Olympic ice in Beijing earlier this week wearing medical masks under their helmets, Shannon Kerwin called her children into the room to show them what determination and perseverance looked like.

Team Canada beat the Russian Olympic Committee team 6-1, but they did so wearing KN95 masks because their opponents hadn’t provided the Canadians with COVID-19 test results.

For Kerwin, Associate Professor of Sport Management at Brock and an expert in organizational and gender issues in sport, it was a great example and discussion starter for her nine-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son.

Shannon Kerwin, Associate Professor of Sport Management.

“I feel like it was a pretty big moment for anyone watching,” says Kerwin. “It was a phenomenal demonstration of the perseverance and commitment of our women athletes. There are a lot of individuals who suggest women athletes are less committed or there’s a lower expectation in terms of competition, but these women wanted to play and were going to do whatever it took to play safely.”

While her kids are growing up in an environment where seeing women compete at the highest level is the norm, Kerwin says the Olympics continue to miss the mark around gender equity.

“Yes, we see our women athletes and coaches on display at the Olympics. From a fan perspective, it’s exciting, but from a research perspective, there’s still so much to be done,” she says. “In some ways, seeing women competing and coaching at the Olympics makes us forget there are still so many inequities in terms of the styles of programs our women and girls are asked to participate in.”

Michele Donnelly agrees.

The Assistant Professor of Sport Management says no matter how much the International Olympic Committee boasts about how gender equitable more recent Olympic Games have been, there are significant inconsistencies and concerns.

“The concerns remain around who is there competing and how they are competing,” Donnelly says. “I worry that from a mainstream media perspective, there’s kind of an adoption and wholesale acceptance of the claims the IOC has made about gender equity.”

She points to ski jumping as a prime example of the issues that still exist.

Assistant Professor of Sport Management Michele Donnelly

Women athletes were finally allowed to compete in ski jumping at the Sochi Games in 2014, but they don’t compete on the same hill.

“The men jump from the normal hill and the large hill, but the women only jump from the normal hill, so there are still more events for men than women,” she says.

The IOC has also pointed to the addition of the mixed-gender team ski jumping event as an example of more events being added for women.

“There’s a celebration of the mixed-gender events as a real boon for gender equality and additions for women without the acknowledgement that they’re for both men and women,” Donnelly says.

There’s also the fact that on the IOC’s website dedicated to the gender equity movement, they count the addition of mixed events as a positive step for women in the goal of gender balance.

“It’s a numbers game to be able to balance the IOC’s seemingly contradictory commitments to gender equity while still controlling the size of the Games,” she says.

The mixed-gender luge relay is another example she points to, where the IOC says it’s an additional event for women, but in reality, three of the four athletes on each team are men.

Adding to Donnelly’s concern about the Beijing Games specifically is the lack of conversation around gender equity as all eyes are focused on pandemic issues and China’s human rights record.

“It’s not about replacing those conversations, it’s about how to have these really important conversations simultaneously,” she says. “It’s disheartening. It makes you wonder when and how we can return to that sense of momentum the gender equity conversation had going into the Tokyo Games.”

As for Team Canada, there are 109 men and 106 women competing in Beijing.

“Canada has sent more women than ever before to the Winter Games, which is great, but it’s 2022. How are we not sending an equal number?” Donnelly says. “If we’re not able to qualify an equal number of women as men for the Olympics, what does that say about our system?”

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