More women are competing at the Rio Olympics than in any other year in history; female athletes are key protagonists as 45 percent of all competitors are women. That’s more than double the figure from 1976, just 40 years ago.
There are 4,700 female competitors of a total number of 10,444 athletes, a 6.8% increase since 2000 (International Olympic Committee, 2016). We take a look at the growth in female Olympic competitors and consider a male perspective of the gender gap in sports participation.
According to the International Olympic Committee when women were first allowed to compete at an Olympic Games in 1900, they represented just 2.2% of the competitors. Women had only five sports to compete in: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian, and golf, men had 19. At the 1990 Olympic Games, Charlotte Cooper of Great Britain was the first woman to become an Olympic champion, winning gold in tennis.
However, today women continually face an uphill struggle to achieve equal gender representation at the Olympics, as well as in sport and society more broadly.
Historically the Olympic Games have demonstrated that they can be an incredibly influential sporting spectacle; they can offer a rare opportunity for female athletes to showcase their talents who would not normally be given such a high profile platform. Only four years ago, Jessica Ennis-Hill won Olympic gold in the heptathlon for Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics, making her the British female poster girl for that Games' success just as Kelly Holmes had been in 2008.
As the Rio opening ceremony marked the beginning of an Olympic Games where more women will compete than in any other Games to date, it was also the same night that Olympic and Wimbledon champion Andy Murray became the first tennis player to carry the flag for Great Britain.
Whilst the honour celebrates Murray as an outstanding athlete, it is interesting that the person chosen to carry the team GB flag, should be a man who has always celebrated the positive influence of both women’s sport and women as influential figures in sport and society. Murray was the first top male player to work with a female coach – Amelie Mauresmo – and during their time together Murray rose from 12th to second in the world rankings.
The Murray-Mauresmo partnership ended after two successful years of working together that culminated in seven titles. However, Murray’s decision to work with Mauresmo – despite their success together – was not without question or criticism from the wider sporting world. This prompted Murray, speaking after a semi-final victory over the Czech Tomas Berdych, to make an impressive speech in which he paid tribute to his coach, Mauresmo, and highlighted the progress of female coaches.
“A lot of people criticised me for working with her (Mauresmo) and I think so far this week, women can be very good coaches as well,”
Reflecting on their partnership, Murray said he had become a feminist since witnessing first-hand the “criticism and prejudice” Amelie Mauresmo endured. Murray commented further:
“I’ve been called a feminist. If being a feminist is making sure that a woman is treated like a man, then I’m OK with that … I don’t like seeing a coach underestimated because she’s a woman, or female players told they should be paid less … I believe in equality. I have seen discrimination in sport. It’s incredibly disappointing and we need to call it out when we see it.”
Murray’s attitude and positive views may be a minority within men’s elite sport, but it is important that he is heard. No one can underestimate the power of a role model such as Murray on his young fans.
The role of women in sport as a whole should not be overlooked, with the Murray-Mauresmo partnership an example of this, it is therefore pivotal that we continually seek to understand the journey that female competitors have been on, whether this is at the Olympic Games, at professional level, or within schools and grassroots sports.
Written by Rory Anderson
To learn more about how Play for Change ambassador Bonita Norris is inspiring young females, read:
External article links:
International Olympic Committee 2016: https://stillmed.olympic.org/Documents/Reference_documents_Factsheets/Women_in_Olympic_Movement.pdf