The first Olympic Games of the modern era in 1896 were not open to women. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the father of the modern Olympic Games said their inclusion would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect.”
By 1900, 11 women were allowed to compete in the Olympics for the first time in lawn tennis and golf.
The participation of women in the Olympic Movement at all levels has changed considerably since that time. The IOC has pressed for more women’s involvement at the Olympic Games, in cooperation with the respective International Sports Federations (IFs) and the Organizing Committees for the Olympic Games (OCOGs), and urged more women to take leadership positions in sports administration.
At the 2008 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing, a world record was set in the participation of women. There were 4,746 female athletes out of the 11,196 total Olympians competing, or more than 42 percent. At the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore last summer, 46 percent of the athletes were girls.
With the IOC’s continuing efforts, for the first time it appears that the London games in 2012 will have an equal number of men and women athletes giving their best across all the Olympic sports. The addition of women’s boxing to the 2012 Olympic Games in London marks the first time in history that women will compete in every sport that men do.
Yet, even current IOC President Jacques Rogge recognizes that despite the numerous accomplishments of women in sport, there are still many things left to be done. That’s why the IOC recently kicked off the registration process for the fifth IOC World Conference on Women and Sport, which is scheduled Feb. 16-18, 2012 in Los Angeles. The event is being jointly organized by the IOC, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games. The theme is “Together Stronger: The Future of Sport.” The IOC is calling on all stakeholders, both women and men, “to work together to remove some of the barriers to gender equality in sport that still exist.
The IOC has made women’s participation in sporting activities one of its major concerns since the early 1980s. The IOC also started to work on women’s involvement at leadership levels in sport in 1981 under the initiative of former President Juan Antonio Samaranch, who wanted to have more women co-opted as IOC members.
While the participation of women in the Olympics has steadily increased, the record of women in leadership positions has not.
The number of women competing has grown from 11.5 percent of athletes in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome to 23 percent in 1984 in Los Angeles to 38 percent in 2000 in Sydney and then to a record 42 percent in the 2008 Beijing Games.
Meanwhile, under Samaranch in 1981 the IOC had 16 women out of 107 members. Today, that total is 15 women out of 135 members. Out of the USOC’s 11-member Board of Directors only three are women. The USOC’s 58-member Executive Committee has 21 female members.
In 2007, the Olympic Charter was amended to include, for the first time in history, an explicit reference to the need for work in this area:
“The IOC encourages and supports the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures, with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women.”—Rule 2, paragraph 7, Olympic Charter in force as of July 7, 2007
The IOC encourages more women to take on greater roles in sports organizations and has different programs in place to equip them with the skills and tools to lead. Customized seminars and training programs help women move into sports administration and other leadership positions. Furthermore, the IOC offers financial support to National Olympic Committees (NOCs) in the developing world for projects that promote equality on the field of play and in sports administration.
The IOC’s World Conference on Women and Sport, which takes place every four years, is an important platform to assess the progress made and prioritize future action. The last conference held in Jordan in 2008 attracted more than 600 participants from 116 countries and concluded with a strong action plan, the success of which will also be assessed in Los Angeles.
Two key recommendations from the 2008 predominantly female conference participants:
- The IOC Women and Sport Commission should make it mandatory for all NOCs to have women on their executive bodies.
- The IOC should strongly encourage men in decision-making positions to participate in women and sport forums and it should require that delegations attending policy-making forums are gender-based.
The IOC has received the message and has gotten it right. With the upcoming 2012 Women and Sport conference on the horizon, its leadership is emphasizing that only by all men and women working together can the future of sport and the Olympic Movement grow stronger.
To read more about IOC efforts to increase women’s participation and leadership roles visit http://www.olympic.org/women-and-sport
Duwayne Escobedo has had a long career in journalism and has worked as a political consultant. He currently serves as the Director of Communications at the United States Sports Academy where he is also the editor of The Sport Journal, the world’s largest online, peer-reviewed journal of sport. Read it online at http://www.thesportjournal.org. For more information on programs offered at the Academy please go to http://www.ussa.edu.