CALGARY, AB, Mar 3, 2014/ Troy Media/ – In honour of International Women’s Day March 8, it seems fitting we turn our attention to our female Olympians, who performed so wonderfully well at Sochi, and made all of us back in Canada exceptionally proud.
How well did they do? Very well. If there were an all-female Olympics, Canada would have placed first in the medal count, with six gold, six silver and one bronze. CBC has a handy-dandy gender analysis of the Games which even proves it. At the all-male Olympics, Canada would have finished fourth.
Add to that fact that all three of Canada’s Olympic flag-bearers – Hayley Wickenheiser, Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse – were women. Wickenheiser was also elected by her fellow athletes to the International Olympic Committee’s Athletes’ Commission during the Sochi Games. So for Canada, Sochi really was a triumph for our female Olympians.
An important milestone occurred at Sochi too. It was the first Olympic Games, summer or winter, where there was an equal number of sports open to both men and women, as female ski jumpers finally won a long and hard-fought battle to compete. To do this, they had to surmount some powerful arguments made by male Olympic officials (similar to ones made to keep women out of the triple jump until 1996), such as this one from Gian Franco Kaspar, president of the International Ski Federation in 2005: “Don’t forget, it’s like jumping down from, let’s say, about two meters on the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” Such devastating logic is hard to counter.
That means all is good in the world of sports equality right? We’ve finally made it. This is what being equal looks like. Yes, absolutely. This is an achievement worthy of note and it deserves to be celebrated.
But, as in everything, the devil is in the details.
First of all, not all countries are doing as well as Canada. There were some 1,800 male athletes at these games, as opposed to 1,180 female athletes. There were 18 all-male teams (admittedly many one-person teams) with only four countries sending all-female teams. A special shout-out goes to Togo in West Africa, which sent a two-woman team to represent their tiny country at Sochi.
And Canada itself needs to be vigilant. We also sent more male Olympians to the Sochi Games than female Olympians. Our Olympic pipeline needs to make sure that girls have the same opportunities for support and coaching as do boys. Own the Podium, the non-profit organization designed to provide support for our athletes, supported 115 male athletes and 90 female athletes. Only speed skating had an equal breakdown of support for male and female athletes, and interestingly enough, speed skating is the only sport to have a female president. That points to yet another gap – women need more representation at sports administration leadership levels.
And there was another, more ominous trend. As women take on the big hills with the men, their skills need to be sharper. At Sochi, 16 of the 22 serious accidents at Extreme Park – where the half pipe, slopestyle, ski and snowboard cross, aerials and moguls took place – involved women. Even the men were worried about the slopestyle course. It’s not that women can’t compete on the same courses as men (they do so routinely at the invitation-only X Games), but that more women need to develop the higher level of skills necessary for bigger hills. This will only be accomplished through more training, support, and yes, a bit more time.
All of this is to say there is still further to go before we can say we have a truly gender-equal Olympic movement. Although all winter sports are now equal, events within said sports are still not. For example, there is still no four-woman bobsleigh event. Canada’s Olympic bobsleigh hero(ine), Kaillie Humphries, desperately wants one, even if that means she pushes for a mixed team.
And just to show I’m an equal opportunity realist, I am personally a big proponent of opening up synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics to men as well. And lest you think I mention this only in jest, some men are even beginning to train in earnest, while Japan has a been a leader in competitive men’s rhythmic gymnastics for over four decades.
Equal is as equal does, after all.
Lee Tunstall is an adjunct assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Calgary and holds a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge.
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