Examining Issues of Gender Equity in Olympic and Paralympic History

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Historical Background of Women's Participation in the Winter Olympics

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was established by Pierre de Coubertin and a group of 13 men in 1894. One of the reasons de Coubertin started the IOC and the Games was to create a festival where young men could display their athletic prowess. De Coubertin was strongly influenced in his decision to restrict the competitors to men by traditions derived from the ancient Olympic Games as well as contemporary social mores. The first Modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896 and included no women competitors, coaches or officials. Women were included for the first time in the 1900 Summer Games at Paris, in the sports of golf and tennis. (3) As the Games grew in the first third of the 20th century, women were slowly added to the program, performing admirably in swimming, diving and fencing. Stereotypical beliefs about women's limited physical capabilities, as well as cultural acceptance of competitive sport as a display of upper- and middle-class masculinity, were the primary factors resulting in restrictions on women's involvement.

During the first half of the 20th century, women physical educators in the United States reacted to the over-commercialization of men's sports and concerns for the health of women by campaigning against elite-level sports competition for women. In the 1932 Games, this U.S. female physical educator group worked behind the scenes to attempt to remove the women's athletics events. (4) While the 1936 Berlin Games saw the greatest number of women ever included to that time (328), the actual percentage of women competitors stood at only 8%, down slightly from the previous two summer Games. (5)

The post-war Games saw the entrance of Soviet Bloc nations into the Games, and women from the Soviet Union began their domination of gymnastics and some athletics events. Women were given more opportunities in the 1960s and 1970s as longer distances were added in athletics and swimming and team sports were expanded in volleyball and basketball. Throughout the 1980s the Olympic program grew as additional events were added for women and men. However, as recently as the Seoul Games in 1988, women comprised only 23% of the more than 7,000 participants.

Figure skating, an event now held during the Winter Olympic Games, was first contested at the 1908 Summer Games in London, and then again in 1920 during the Antwerp Summer Games. Women were included as participants in the Ladies Figure Skating event as well as the Mixed Pairs event. The Winter Olympic Games were established in 1924. Women made up 11 of 258 participants in these first Winter Games (4.3%). At the first Olympic Winter Games in 1924, of the 16 events, women were only included in individual and mixed-pair figure skating. It was not until 1936 that a second sport, Alpine Skiing, was added for women. Women continued to be included in all Winter Olympic Games with the percentage of female participants exceeding 20% for the first time in 1960 in Squaw Valley (21.7%). Of the events that women currently participate in, 11 were initiated significantly later than the respective men's events, 17 began at the same time as the respective men's events, and two were initiated before the respective men's events. Out of 84 events at the 2006 Games, women did not compete in Ski Jumping, Nordic Combined, four-person bobsled or doubles luge (they also did not participate in these events in 2010). Ski Cross was introduced for female and male athletes at the 2010 Games. Female Paralympians have not fared nearly as well as their Olympic counterparts, representing only 24.1% of the 2010 Paralympic participants.

The IOC created a Women and Sport Commission and held its 4th IOC World Conference on Women and Sport in 2008. However, the IOC rhetoric has only gained minimal response from the National Olympic Committees, the international sport federations and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC)--most of which still struggle to meet the IOC's request that women be represented at a minimal 20% standard in leadership positions. …