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Gender Equality at the Olympics

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Thibauld Braet

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2022-02-25

Gender Equality at the Olympics

Last week, the winter Olympics in Beijing came to an end. For Belgium, this meant a successful edition with one female (Hanne Desmet) and one male (Bart Swings) medal. Belgian medals at the Winter Olympics are pretty rare anyway but the medal of Hanne Desmet was the first Belgian female one since the games of 1948 in Sankt Moritz!

At dataroots, we highly value diversity, putting the topic regularly on the agenda to see if everybody thinks we’re on the right track. The past decades, the topic has become very hot globally with several movements fighting to protect equal rights. It seems as in the business world, we’re moving in the right direction with more and more companies recognising the value of diversity. Diversity not only contributes to a better company culture but leads to better decision making as well as improving financial results.

However, in the world of sports, diversity seems to be an even more sensitive topic. One of the most prominent examples are the kneeling actions across a wide variety of sports to support the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd. This tragic but iconic event created an important movement to turn current affairs around. However, there are many other minority groups who don’t dare to stand out yet or make their voice being heard. While the acceptance of being gay largely increased in the general society, it’s still a taboo in many sports. But even when it comes to the most simplest one of equalities, gender equality, there’s still a battle to be fought.

If there is one organisation which claims to attach great importance to diversity, it's the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Consulting their webpage on diversity, already the first paragraph makes their stance towards the topic very clear.

The IOC, as the leader of the Olympic Movement, stands against discrimination of any kind, including race, colour, gender, sexual orientation, social, language, religion, political belief or social background. Our vision as an employer is to be inclusive, diverse and gender equal.

Automatically the question arises, how well are they living up to their own standard. It definitely wasn’t their standard from the start. At the first modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens, not a single woman participated. As a matter of fact, Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the IOC, even thought their participation would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect”. However, in the Paris Olympics of 1900,  Hélène de Pourtalès of Switzerland became the first women ever to participate in the Olympics as a sailor. Together with 21 other women (out of 997 athletes), she opened the door for woman at the Olympics. There was still a long way to go but it was already an important start.

Since then, we got closer and closer to equality but we’re not quite there yet. The numbers are what they are but the real question is, if there’s being put enough effort into closing the gap.

The IOC took many measures during the past years to ensure gender equality.

Equality was somewhat reached for the first time at the Olympics of 2012. For the first time, a female boxing competition was organised. Adding female boxing to the program meant every Olympic sport now had at least one female competition. Ironically though, there are still some sports without a male equivalent like synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics.

However, one sport can have many competitions or disciplines and in that aspect the scale still tips towards the male competitors. At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, female only events were responsible for 495 medals reached out while there were 530 medals for men to win.

So the IOC could already make some improvements in the organisation of the games but also when it comes down to their internal organisation, there is some room for improvement. As is currently still the case in the business world, most decision making positions are still taken by men although some remarkable improvements have been made over the years.

I think it's fair to say that the IOC has put quite some effort into levelling the playing field for men and women. While there is still some room for improvement, it's also up to the participating countries themselves to provide equal opportunities for men and women.

As of the 2020 Olympics, the IOC put a rule in place that every National Olympic Committee (NOC) should be represented by at least one male and one female athlete. Unfortunately, there are many countries where the male delegation is still significantly larger than the female one. Especially in Northern Africa and the Middle East this is a concerning observation. However, also in Europe, many countries stay well below the threshold of 50%

Some side note has to be made that this metric is quite susceptible to qualifying in a team competition or not. When we look for example to Honduras, they send 21 males to Tokyo compared to only two women but these 21 men include their full soccer team.

A better metric to evaluate the opportunities female athletes get is the amount of female athletes at the Olympics compared to the amount of female inhabitants. Here we see that this is strongly correlated with the overall level of welfare of countries. Especially poorer countries tend to send fewer women per inhabitant. When we look for example to Bangladesh, they sent only two female athletes while they have a population of 82 million women. On the other side of the spectrum we have New Zealand, where one women out of 25.000 will go to the Olympics. This means your chances as a women could be more than 3000 times bigger, just by being born in the right country!

Off course, this is also not the perfect metric as the IOC also puts a cap on the maximum amount of athletes a country can send to ensure athletes from every country have a chance to qualify. So your chances in a country with a large population like India are also just smaller because you have more competition for the same amount of spots. An even more appropriate metric to see how much effort a country puts into female sports could be the % of their GDP that goes into female sports but unfortunately that's not an easy dataset to find.

Conclusion

In general, I think we can conclude that some good progress has been made on moving closer to gender equality at the Olympics. The IOC has been trying to level the playing field between man and women by taking extra measures and they have strong ambitions to continue on this path in the future.  However, you can design a game as fair as possible, it's still up to the players to also play it fair. Both the position of women in society as well as overall welfare seem to have an influence. We thus not only still have a long way to go to provide equal opportunities in the world of sports but in society overall. If we tackle diversity on a societal level, there's a good chance the world of sports will automatically follow.


About this blog post

This was a first post in a series of post to follow. The idea is to pick a relevant topic and build a nice story behind it supported by statistics. This to tap into the topic of Storytelling with data. At dataroots we strongly believe that data on itself is useless if you cannot communicate it in a relevant way to your audience such that they can learn something from it and take action upon the gained insights.

Data stories - Thibauld Braet
There is no doubt that there resides a lot of value in your data! There is probably lots of it in your company, together with some smart…

Definitely keep an eye on our website if you're interested in future post!

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