Women's participation in sport has a long history, marked by major accomplishments by female athletes, important advances for gender equality, empowerment of women and girls, as well as division and discrimination.
Remarkable achievements include the efforts of Helene Madison of the United States. Madison was the first woman to swim the 100-yard freestyle in one minute at the Olympics in 1932. Another great sportswoman was Italian Maria-Teresa de Filippis, who became the first woman to compete in a European Grand Prix automobile race in 1958.
Other influential women athletes have included Nawal El Moutawakel, from Morocco, who was the first woman from an Islamic nation to win an Olympic medal. She raced to victory in the 400-metre hurdles at the 1984 Olympics. Meanwhile, Tegla Loroupe, of Kenya, was the first African woman to win a major marathon in 1994.
Gender discrimination has been a major topic over the years, as women were often considered too weak for sport, particularly in endurance events such as the marathon, weightlifting and cycling. In the past, it was often argued that sport was harmful for women's health, especially their reproductive health. Discrimination in physical education, recreational and competitive sport, sporting organizations and by sports media has been fuelled by such stereotypes.
Women are sometimes segregated involuntarily into various types of sports, events and competitions specifically targeted at women. Women's access to positions of leadership and decision-making is constrained from the local to the international level. People often place lower value on women's sport, which results in inadequate resources as well as unequal wages and prizes. In addition, in media, women's sport is marginalized and often represented in a different style, reflecting and reinforcing gender stereotypes.
Through exploitation and harassment in sport, some argue that men manifest the perception of male dominance, physical strength and power that are traditionally portrayed in male sport. Several critical elements have been identified for challenging gender discrimination and unequal gender relations. It can be argued that women's capabilities should be improved through education and health, while they should also have better access to and control over opportunities and resources, including employment and economic assets. Women's agency and leadership roles should be enhanced, while their human rights should be protected and promoted and their security, including freedom from violence, should be ensured.
Many of the clinical trials and epidemiological studies in health research have excluded women but the data available suggest that women derive numerous health benefits from an active lifestyle. Women can prevent numerous non-communicable diseases by participating in sport and physical activity. For girls, sport can have a positive effect on childhood health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases in later life.
Participation in sport and physical activity can bring women and girls not only improvements in health, but also specific social benefits. Through sport, women and girls have an alternative avenue to participate in the social and cultural life of their communities. Sport promotes enjoyment of freedom of expression, interpersonal networks, new opportunities and an increase in self-esteem. It offers a wide range of opportunities for education and for the development of various essential life skills, such as communication, teamwork, leadership, and negotiation.
Besides the benefits for women and girls themselves, their increased involvement can provide alternative norms, values, attitudes, knowledge, experiences ad capabilities and thus promote positive development in sports. Women's contribution, in leadership positions in particular, can result in diversity and alternative approaches, while also expanding the talent base in areas including coaching, management and sports journalism. Women and girls' involvement in sport can be used as a vehicle to promote gender equality.
Female leaders in sport can shape attitudes towards women's capabilities as leaders and decision-makers, particularly in traditional male domains. Women's participation in sport can contribute significantly to public life and community development. However, the positive outcomes of sport for gender equality and women's empowerment remain constrained by discrimination in all areas and at all levels of sport and physical activity.
Men and boys have a critical role in challenging and changing unequal powers relations, because they can and do play a positive role in promoting women's empowerment in various areas, such as the home, the community and the labor market. Their current dominance in the world of sport means it is critical for men to be involved and contribute to achieving gender equality in this area.