LONDON, (Reuters) – Women boxers have claimed an early victory at the 2012 Olympics by knocking out the last all-male sport but the battle for sex equality at the Games rages on, and not just among women – male synchronized swimmers are also demanding equal rights.
London marks the first Olympics where women will compete in all 26 sports on offer, a major change from Stockholm 100 years ago when women could only participate in five of 110 events.
Campaigners for gender equality acknowledge there has been progress but stress the battle is far from over and the Games must symbolise, reflect and celebrate the dominant beliefs and values of society.
At the London Olympics, running from July 27 until Aug. 12, women are competing in 30 fewer events than men.
A total of 162 gold medals are up for grabs for male competitors while women can win only 132. At the 2008 Beijing Games there were 165 gold medals for men and 127 for women.
Annie Sugier, spokeswoman for the French coordination for the European Women’s Lobby, said several women’s groups were planning to hold a demonstration in London on July 25 to put seven demands to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) regarding discrimination and segregation.
“The objective of the Olympics is to build a better world through sport but the reality is that we still have all the stereotypes, discrimination, and prostitution around the Games,” Sugier told Reuters.
“The Olympics is the right place to enforce change as there is just one law for all. You have the instruments to enforce equality and equality is justice.”
Tackling sex inequality and other forms of discrimination at the Olympics is viewed as critical by campaigners. The Games are a high-profile global event where the same rules apply to all nations and these values can filter into other areas of life.
It is also unique for a sporting event as the audience is fairly evenly split between men and women and therefore a platform for women’s sport to be on a par with men’s events, to establish women as role models, and to encourage women to take up sport which can be a way to empower and build confidence.
Sugier, who has been campaigning for equality and neutrality at the Olympics for 20 years, said the IOC needed to act more decisively after stating its support for gender equality at the Olympics but so far failing to meet its targets. In 1996 the IOC set a target to ensure women held 20 percent of the positions in its ruling bodies by 2005 which included the 205 National Olympic Committees and the 35 Olympic International Olympic Sports Federations.
This has not been met, and Sugier says women on average only hold about 10 percent of these positions. Some of the National Olympic Committees have no women.
The board of the London Organising Committee, LOCOG, has only one woman among its 19 members, former Olympian Princess Anne, while the IOC has 20 women among its 105 members which falls just short of the 20 percent.
“With so few women serving in leadership positions and a lack of commitment among the male-dominated leadership, there has been little progress on supporting women as athletes and leaders,” said sports historian Dr Maureen Smith from California State University in a report for the U.S.-based Women’s Sports Foundation, founded by Billie Jean King in 1974. She said this lack of commitment started at grassroots and was typical of developmental levels all the way to the upper echelons of competitive Olympic and Paralympic sport. The gender gap has narrowed. At Beijing there was 4,746 women competitors which was a record 42 percent of the total.
But this was despite IOC President Jacques Rogge in 2004 stating that: “our ultimate goal must be 50-50 participation.” He did not, however, set a clear date for this proportion.