Female athletes race towards gender equality at Winter Olympics

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Female athletes at the Winter Olympics are making history in the race for gender equality, but with the sporting world rocked by sex abuse scandals, experts say more women must be at the helm.

Feb 12, 2018; Pyeongchang, South Korea; View of signage as wind blows at Jeongseon Alpine Centre during a weather delay for men's downhill training in alpine skiing. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in the history of the Winter Games, there are nearly as many female as male competitors - with women making up a record 43 percent of all athletes at Pyeongchang in South Korea, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said.

From Nigeria’s trailblazing bobsleigh team to teenage Maame Biney - the first African-American to make the U.S. Olympic short-track speed skating team - female athletes at the Games are also enjoying unprecedented media exposure, researchers say.

Angela Ruggiero, a senior American IOC member, said that achieving gender parity at the Games had always been a priority.

“Having visible female role models is one of the most important things that we as an organization do,” the four-time ice hockey world champion and Olympic gold medalist said in an interview from Pyeongchang.

“(It) sends a very strong message to the world in terms of what’s possible,” said Ruggiero, one of only four women on the 15-member executive board of the IOC, which has never had a woman at the helm since it was founded in 1894.


While female athletes are competing in record numbers at the Winter Olympics, women are still scarce in leadership roles in sport, said associate professor Cheryl Cooky, who researches gender inequality in sport at the U.S.-based Purdue University.

“When issues arise that are potentially controversial, having a diverse board, having women in those spaces, is really important in terms of challenging some of the entrenched ways of operating,” Cooky told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Changing the culture from the top-down is critical, Cooky said, after revelations that former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar molested hundreds of young female athletes over decades.

Former sports doctor Nassar last year pleaded guilty to molesting female athletes under the guise of medical treatment for nearly 20 years, and has been given two prison sentences in Michigan of 40 to 125 years and 40 to 175 years.

The IOC’s Ruggiero said having more women in senior roles could help to protect athletes from issues such as sexual abuse.

“If you have more men on the board they are not going to understand the perspective of a young woman athlete,” she said.

“It is important to have diversity in perspective ... to mitigate risk,” she added. “In this case it’s mitigating a very, very important risk in sport, which is abuse and harassment.”

Ruggiero said attracting more media coverage was key to increasing the visibility and profile of women athletes.

A spokesman for Britain’s Olympic team said it had the most female athletes of any country at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics, but added that more coverage of women’s events “would be hugely beneficial in the pursuit of balance and parity”.

Women athletes are more likely to be judged by their appearance, referred to as “girls”, and asked about their family responsibilities compared with men, said Cooky, co-author of ‘No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sport, and the Unevenness of Social Change’.

“Even though we might celebrate these important achievements and milestones, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done,” she added.