In spite of its reputation of equality and inclusion, the Olympic Games has a long history of excluding female athletes. In the first modern Games of 1896, women were excluded entirely from the competition. Since then the portion of female athletes has increased dramatically (by an average of 25% per Olympics). Nevertheless, the most recent participation levels (around 40%) are below the 50% average implied by perfect gender equality. The chart below shows the expansion of female participation, as well as the participation deficit that remains.
Although women remain underrepresented at the Games, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) and participating countries deserve substantial praise for the consistency and rapidity by which female participation expanded. One question we might ask is which actors are most responsible for this expansion: the International Olympics Committee (IOC) or the participating countries?
The IOC has the ability to expand female participation by increasing the number and proportion of female events, while individual countries can improve female participation rates by increasing support for female athletes and ultimately sending more women to compete. The results of the IOC’s efforts to promote gender equality can be measured as female Olympic events as a percentage of total events. Participating countries are doing their part to improve equality if they send female athletes in at least the same proportion as the proportion of female events. For example, if 25% of Olympic events are for women, the US delegation of athletes should include at least 25% women.
The chart below demonstrates that for most of the Olympics’ history, countries did not do their part to increase female participation.
Between 1900 and the 1970s, the IOC deserves greater credit for expanding the opportunities for female athletes rapidly. However in the last couple Olympic Games, individual countries finally caught up the IOC and in 2008, the participation rates actually exceeded the portion of female events. Participating countries should be praised for this comeback.
Nevertheless, the current percentage of female participation (42.4%) and female events (42.1%) have not yet reached 50%, suggesting that the IOC needs to ramp up its efforts to increase gender equality. For the 2012 Olympics, the IOC only added one additional female event, women’s boxing. The IOC should consider adding several additional events such as netball and women’s cycling that already involve numerous female athletes. Many individual countries are doing their part and the IOC needs to continue to lead the way towards greater equality by expanding the number of female events.
Update: As further evidence that participating countries are improving female opportunities, the upcoming 2012 Olympics will include women from Saudi Arabia and Brunei for the first time. This means that in 2012 every participating country will have sent at least one woman to the Games.