July 16, 2012 / Opportunity

Carrying the Torch: Female Representation at the 2012 Olympics


It’s that time again! The Summer Olympics in London will begin later this month. For the first time in history, more women will represent the United States in the Olympic Games than men. The US team was announced on July 10th, and the 530 member team includes 269 women and 261 men:

“It speaks to Title IX,” Teresa Edwards, the U.S. Olympic team chef de mission and five-time medalist in basketball, told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s evident where we’ve come from especially with women in sports. I’m very proud of that — not so proud that I want to make the men jealous because a lot of men play a role in where we are now — but I’m proud to know that we’ve come this far.”

USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said the greater number of female athletes is “a true testament to the impact of Title IX, which in its 40-year history has increased sport opportunities for millions of females across the United States.”

It is fitting that the same year that Title IX celebrates its fortieth anniversary, many of the women who received the opportunity to participate in athletics because of the legislation will now get to represent their country, and female representation will more than equal that of male athletes.

Four years ago, there were 24 more men than women that competed for America in the Summer Games.  There are some notable differences and changes that have occurred that have contributed to this flip. On the men’s side, while they participated in 2008, the men’s soccer team did not qualify the Olympics this year which contributed to the comparative difference in male and female athletes. However, on the women’s side, this year marks the first time that women will compete in boxing as a medal sport.  Olympic women’s boxing has drawn attention already, even before the first punch has been thrown.  Late last Fall into the Winter, it was heavily debated whether or not the female boxers would be required to wear skirts during the Olympics. It was decided in mid February that women would be allowed to wear skirts or shorts when they competed, although individual countries may have their own requirements.  Additionally, Queen Underwood, considered America’s best hope for a gold in women’s boxing, has been highlighted for her courage in aiming to turn her hurtful past of being raped by her father as a child into Olympic victories.

This year’s games also marks the first time that every country represented at the games will have women competing. On July 12th, Saudi Arabia agreed to allow two women to compete. One woman, Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, will compete in judo and Sarah Attar will compete in the 800m run. However, these athletes will be required to compete in Sharia compliant clothing and be accompanied by a male guardian at all times. The nations of Qatar and Brunei Darussalem will also be sending women to the Games for the first time.  Qatar’s Bahiya Al-Hamad, who is competing in shooting, will be carrying the flag for her nation at the Opening Ceremonies.

Great victories in representation have already been won in this year’s games, and hundreds of female athletes will bring home medals to their respective countries after the fortnight of competition. There are some women though who may not have that opportunity to do so. This will the first Olympics since 1992 when women’s softball will not be part of the games. Despite growing interest in Asia and long time interest in the United States and Australia, the Olympic Committee voted in 2005 that women’s softball will not be a part of the 2012 or 2016 Olympic Games.  Men’s baseball will not be a part of the Olympics as well, and some, including former star softball player Jennie Finch, have suggested that Major League Baseball follow the lead of professional men’s and women’s basketball and men’s hockey—all of whom take a short break during seasons in which there are Olympics-to enable both men’s baseball and women’s softball to be part of the Games again.  The International Olympic Committee guidelines aim to have men’s and women’s events for every sport, and the similarities between softball and baseball makes softball’s Olympic fate dependent upon men’s baseball.  Thankfully, there is potential for both men’s baseball and women’s softball to re-emerge in the 2020 Olympics.

Beyond having one’s sport present at the Games, athletes must have the tools and funding  they need to get to there. An unfortunate issue that has plagued women’s athletics is the issue of marketability. While male athletes are often judged primarily on their athletic ability, a female athlete’s marketability (i.e. looks and overall appeal) tends to play a greater role in whether or not a female athlete or sport receives visibility or sponsorship. Weightlifter Sarah Robles is the highest ranked American weightlifter, male or female, but is struggling to make ends meet and fund her time intensive training without the lucrative sponsorship that higher profile, more “marketable” athletes often receive.  Robles stated earlier this month, “ [y]ou can get that sponsorship if you’re a super-built guy or a girl who looks good in a bikini, but not if you’re a girl who is built like a guy”. Robles comments summarize the unfortunate nature of gender differences in athletics. For men, ability triumphs often regardless of physical appeal.  For women, marketability triumphs, and athletic talent proves to take the silver medal of female athletic promotion.

Marketability and sustainability in female sports extends beyond the Olympics though.  Women’s soccer, whose American popularity exploded last summer following a second place finish in the World Cup, saw its professional league collapse this year.  Star soccer player Abby Wambach noted in a recent interview with Robin Roberts that she doesn’t “want people investing in women’s sports because it’s the right thing to do. I want people investing in women’s sports because it’s the smart thing to do”.  This is where marketability and athletic ability must merge to provide the right environment for people to invest in women’s sports.  As more female athletes are recognized for their athletic ability in addition to their marketability, investing in women’s sports will become more and more “smart”.

There is still room form improvement to ensure all female athletes receive both the necessary funding to train and the appropriate platforms for their sports to be recognized. However, this year’s Games have delivered two victories before the torch has even been lit. In America, where women’s sports has already accomplished so much, there is equal representation in athletes.  In countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei Darrasalem,  where women are subjugated, female athletes are finally given a chance to display their abilities on a worldwide stage.  Let the Games begin!

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  • anna

    This is also the first Olympics to have women competing in all the same sports as men (scroll down): http://www.northnet.org/stlawrenceaauw/time23.htm

  • anna

    For Qatar, Nada Arkaji will compete in swimming, Noor al-Malki in athletics, Aya Magdy in table tennis and Bahiya al-Hamad in shooting.

    For Brunei, runner Maziah Mahusin will compete in athletics.

    See more info here: http://www.voanews.com/content.....03891.html

  • Bes

    Seattle Sounder women’s soccer has been drawing large crowds so there is still a professional women’s soccer league.

    Now if women athletes could just be given the option of wearing modest uniforms instead of the T&A designed schlock they are forced into (track and bikini volleyball). I used to love the Olympics, now I can hardly watch the summer Olympics for cringing at the prospect of the next NBC T&A moment. It seems they are ready to drive away most female TV viewers if there is the prospect of drawing a few more male viewers with the T&A spectacle. Or alternatively they think fashion/beautyizing the women athletes is the way to approach women viewers. I hate the whole “Women who play sports can be hot and wear fashion too” NBC Olympics narrative.

  • Thank you for your comments!

    Anna–Yes, this is the first time too that women will be competing in all sports with addition of boxing. Thanks for pointing that out.:) One of the newer guidelines of the Olympic committee is to have men’s and women’s competitions for each sport. Unfortunately, this has ties into the reason why there isn’t any softball this year.

    Bes–I wasn’t as familiar with that particular women’s professional league. I was more familiar with the now collapsed WPS, but I appreciate you mentioning this other league. I did a quick peak at their website and was pleased to see some of their players were current Team USA players-Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe etc.

    I’m not a big fan of some of the athletic clothing that the female athletes wear either. I don’t know if those are by choice of the athletes. For sprinters, certain types of clothing can make them more aerodynamic in races that are often decided by hundredths or thousandths of a second. I don’t know of any advantage for beach volleyball players to wear bikinis, but it would be interesting to know if what they personally prefer and/or if they are required or encouraged to wear certain “uniforms”.

  • Bes

    “For sprinters, certain types of clothing can make them more aerodynamic in races that are often decided by hundredths or thousandths of a second. I don’t know of any advantage for beach volleyball players to wear bikinis”

    Of course if there were a competitive advantage to the skimpy outfits required of the women Olympic athletes there would also be the same competitive advantage for the male athletes wearing them. If male competitors aren’t wearing them it is clear there is no competitive advantage. In the case of volleyball protection from burning sand for diving athletes would seem like a good idea. But maybe the men who run the sport figure the women just don’t play that hard.

  • JeanLouise

    Bes, I agree completely. I’ve been enchanted by the Olympics for fifty years but the bikini-clad volleyball babes. left a bad taste in my mouth.

  • marille

    two women won gold today for US. just reading on Dana Vollmer who won gold in 100 butterfly. she did not qualify for beijing. has a serious heart condition carrying a defibrillator with her. gave up running for that and is quoted that she’d rather die swimming than give up swimming. she has an egg and gluten allergy, had heart surgery in 2003 and qualified in 2004 for Athen’s olympic games. and now finally her first gold. if this is not a story. but they haves big write ups on the male archers and relay swimmers who made silver. nothing on the two women.
    so just being present and winning is not good enough. guys report on guys. if they report on women than about the non story with hope solo who answered to a female reporter judging them harshly on her twitter. sounds like trying to produce a cat fight. but no coverage on Dana Vollmer or the shooter who set a world record today.

  • marille

    the shooter is Kimberly Rhode who competed in her 5th olympic game winning gold in 1996, 2004 and 2012, bronze in 2000 and silver in Beyjing. also set a world record today with 99 / 100 up from 93/100. qualifications were in the rain. her dog ate her ticket and the husband lost his passport. still made otto London to win gold and feet a record. also the first person to win medals in five consecutive olympic events.
    why is this a no story?

  • marille

    googled Dana Vollmer and there is an article in yahoo sports.
    with a poll, on a 6 point scale, what is more impressive gold for Dana Vollmer 100 m butterfly compared to Ryan Lochte’s gold 400 IM. 67% voted Dana, 13% Ryan.
    so Bes is correct. consumer opinion does not matter to the people who decide on what is news worthy.