For the first time in history, the Olympics will achieve gender parity at Paris 2024

Left: a brunette woman holds the Olympic torch in Paris; Center: The Paris 2024 mascot; Right: A blonde woman smiles, holding up a bronze Olympic medal

The International Olympic Committee is going for gold when it comes to gender equality.

This year’s Olympics in Paris will be the first in history to achieve numerical gender parity on the field of play.

What does that mean, exactly? There will be an equal number of female and male athletes participating in the largest sporting event in the world.

According to the IOC, out of the 10,500 athletes participating in the Games, there will be 5,250 men and 5,250 women. 

These numbers are spread out more evenly than ever before, with gender parity for 28 out of 32 sports, as well as a more even distribution of medal events. 

There will be 152 women’s events, 157 men’s events, and 20 mixed-gender events — meaning over half of all medal events will be open to female athletes.

“In today’s world, no organization or country can afford to leave the skills of 50% of the population behind – either in sport or in society at large,” Tomas Bach, the IOC President, said in a statement. “That is why the IOC is committed to closing the gender gap on and off the field of play.”

These efforts began significantly in 1996 when the IOC enshrined the promotion of women as a formal mission in the Olympic Charter. The Tokyo 2020 Games were the most gender-balanced to date, with 48.7% of competing athletes identifying as women. 

A graph showing the increasing participation of female athletes at the Olympics, from 1896 to 2024
(C) IOC/Olympics.com

While the 50-50 gender split of the 2024 Games is an enormous achievement, made possible by a number of decades-long initiatives to curb inequality in the Olympics, the number of players on the field doesn't exactly mean that gender equality has been achieved. 

“While we have seen improvements in gender equality in sport, we need more, and quickly,” Marisol Casado, the chair of the IOC Gender Equality Working Group, said. “We can’t just arrive at 50-50 representation in competition and say the job is done.”

Fair scheduling, equal media coverage, and increased visibility

As part of its ongoing efforts to empower women athletes, the IOC created a major “Portrayal Guidelines” report in 2021, which pointed to three major challenges for women’s sports.

These include underrepresentation in media, lack of recognition, and the fact that many participants are identified as “women, females, wives, or mothers” before they are acknowledged as athletes. 

The report also provided a myriad of statistics about women’s athletic media coverage. Its findings indicated that a humbling 4% of sports media content focused on women athletes, as well as the sad reality that women made up just 20% of accredited media professionals at the Games.

This isn’t exclusive to the Olympics, either. A lack of media coverage of women’s athletic events has even prompted women to open their own female-centered sports bars to showcase women’s events — since folks can hardly find them anywhere else.

But with this gender parity milestone, the IOC is continuing its efforts to ensure fair scheduling and equal media coverage of women athletes.

For instance, gender balance is now a factor in the development of the Olympic competition schedule, ensuring male and female competitors get equal broadcast time during the busiest viewing hours of each day.

A female broadcaster smiles while a male broadcaster stands beside her
(C) Paris 2024

“Supporters of women’s sport often look to the media for coverage in the hope it will raise the profile of women’s sport,” Nancy Lee, the gender equality advisor for the IOC, said in a statement. “But if women’s events are not scheduled proportionally, there can’t be equal coverage.”

This is no easy feat. Developing the schedule across all sports events and venues can take approximately five years. The process also involves four major committees — the IOC, the Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, all International Sports Federations, and the Olympic Broadcasting Services — to achieve.

Aside from the goal of gender equality, organizers must consider factors like sports regulations, transport logistics, operational considerations, sporting priorities for the host country, and of course, time zones across the globe. 

One change audiences may notice in 2024 is the new arrangement of combat and strength sports, with men and women’s competitors alternating, instead of having women’s and men’s competitions scheduled at two separate times of the day.

“You might ask why this makes a difference for gender balance, particularly since broadcast coverage spans global time zones,” Lee said. “It’s important because alternating events between men and women illustrates fairness and confronts the myth that women’s sport is less important.”

The IOC is also hiring more female staff in broadcasting positions for Paris 2024, including 35 new female commentators, which will raise the percentage of women in that role to nearly 40%.

This represents a nearly 80% increase since the last summer Games in Tokyo, and an over 200% increase since Rio 2016.

That aforementioned set of Portrayal Guidelines from the IOC is a major addition to the coverage of Olympic events. 

The guidelines are issued to content creators and media outlets, providing clear and consistent direction on how to cover the Olympics in an inclusive way. They also encourage media professionals to create databases of female experts, athletes, coaches, sports scientists, and more. 

“Sport has the power to shift how women and minorities are seen and how they see themselves,” the guide’s introduction reads. 

“As leaders, communicators, content creators and media outlets within the sports  movement, we set the tone as to how sportspeople and athletes – globally – are … portrayed, across all forms of media and communication.”

The Eiffel Tower is surrounded by people waving French flags
(C) IOC/Greg Martin

Another exciting component of visibility for women in the upcoming Games is that this year’s Olympic marathon route takes inspiration from the Women’s March of 1789. This historical tribute is dedicated to the women who walked from Paris to Versailles to protest against food scarcity — a turning point in the French Revolution. 

Paris is also working to improve how women are perceived in athletics, even choosing a woman’s face for its unique 2024 Olympic logo and renaming some sports facilities for the Games.

“Because equality also involves visibility, the renaming of these sports facilities with women’s names is a key challenge,” Tony Estanguet, president of Paris 2024, said in a 2023 statement. 

“We thank the local authorities working with us who, through these symbolic actions — which are not only strong but also concrete — contribute to making sport more inclusive and equal.”

Continuing progress

As exciting as all of this progress is, the IOC still has plenty of work ahead to fully realize gender equality on the world’s playing field.

Of course, it’s important to note that these efforts of gender equality are already incomplete when only viewing progress through the binary lens of male versus female, excluding an important group of talented athletes who are non-binary or transgender — and are systematically excluded from sports

Disagreements about “biological” differences or advantages between cisgender and trans or non-binary athletes come from the same systems that continue to enforce different requirements between men’s and women’s events.

For instance, male and female competitions still differ when it comes to things like lengths of races, weight categories, what equipment is used, judging standards, uniforms, and more. 

A Black woman rock climber scales a wall at the Olympic qualifiers in 2020
(C) IOC Media

“It’s about looking at the Games with a broad understanding of gender equality,” Michele Donnelly, who teaches sport management at Brock University in Ontario, told The 19th. “[I’m] taking the broader perspective of gender equality to understand it beyond numerical equality, to actually look at the conditions of participation.”

There are also major gaps in gender in leadership roles at the Olympics. While the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were touted as a triumph for gender parity, only 13% of coaches were women.

To address this issue, the IOC has continued to work in partnership with International Federations to open up more coaching roles to women. This also includes the Women in Sport High Performance Pathway program, which aims to provide training to 100 female coaches leading up to the Paris Games.

While many programs and initiatives, including these leadership programs and an increase of mixed-gender events, continue to grow under the IOC, gender equality remains a goal reached by incremental progress. 

This year’s milestone in gender parity is just one way the global sports community is celebrating its universal love of the game.

“They’re the same gestures, the same medals, the same emotions; It’s the same desire to win, the same pride, the same power to inspire all those watching,” Estanguet, the president of Paris 2024, said in the IOC’s Portrayal Guidelines report. “It’s not women’s sport; it’s sport.”

Header images: (C) Paris 2024, IOC/Tullio M. Puglia, and IOC/Greg Martin

Article Details

March 12, 2024 11:19 AM
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