Gender equality in sports has always been a highly heated and widely debated topic; and with British gold medal winning athlete, Denise Williams, stating passionately last night on the BBC that there should be a female equivalent for the Sports Personality of the Year, the issue is very much still a part of modern sports.
The Olympic Games have also had their fair share of the debate; right from the time of the Ancient Greeks where the Games began, women were not included and had their own games of Hera; however even these games only consisted of the marathon. In fact, not only were women forbidden from competing but even viewing of the Ancient Olympics resulted in the penalty of them being thrown from the cliffs of Mount Typaion. This reflected attitudes of Greek society at the time; the Spartans were the only breed that encouraged women to be strong, as they wanted warrior off-springs to continue the legacy of their race.
The first time women athletes competed in the modern-era Olympics was 1900 at the Parisian Games; they were only given the permission to compete in tennis and golf. Some historians argue that gaining permission was not a problem; it was in fact the lack of female competitors in other sports. Women competed in swimming events for the first time in 1912; ironically none of them were from America who have been dominating the sport at the London Games, for they did not allow its female athletes to compete in events which involved wearing “revealing outfits”. The Games of 1928 brought a major breakthrough in which women competed in track and field events for the first time; however, media reports following the event claimed that many of the women collapsed at the end of the 800-meter race; this was disputed by the athletes who took part but it still lead to the event being banned until 1960 under the premises that women’s health should not be put at risk. Once again, this reflected the views of society at the time; women were simply not built for long distance running. The views of society really changed following the Second World War, and this belief was done away with for good when Joan Benoit successfully completed the marathon and won gold at the 1984 Games in LA. We have come a long way since then; or have we? Female tennis players at Wimbledon play best of three sets whereas their male counter-parts best of five.
So fast forward to now, London 2012, the first time in history that all competing nations have sent female athletes to the Game where they have already made an impact this year, with two female rowers winning the much awaited first gold medals for the hosts, and a brilliant 16 year old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen who set the world’s fastest time in the 200m and 400m individual medley swims, beating American golden boy Ryan Lochte’s time in the last 50m. Just 16 years ago at the Atlanta Games a majority of 26 countries did not send any female athletes at all. A great boost for the Games, and something which was highlighted at the brilliant opening ceremony at London was that many countries have included women in their teams for the first time at these Games including Brunei, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Women from most Middle-Eastern countries face immense pressure from their society; it is not religious values, as contrary to the popular belief, that is a barrier in sports for Muslim women, in fact it is the social values and ancient traditions that are upheld in these conservative nations even today that prevents women taking up sports readily. Brunei is unlikely to ever be an athletic power; they usually send no more than two athletes and often fail to compete all together, so the fact that there are women athletes in their team, would not just gain popularity amongst female natives but would also hopefully encourage a young generation of female athletes. Qatar is another nation has also recently been improving the facilities for women athletes and is now encouraging more and more female athletes than ever before. Finally we have Saudi Arabia, where King Abdullah has made considerable efforts to reform the country in many ways, but he faces an uphill battle against the nation’s conservative leadership. Though his efforts have been visible as female Saudi athletes are competing for the first time, there are still many hurdles yet to be overcome.
But it’s not just religion; women have been discouraged from taking part in traditional ‘masculine’ activities such as contact sports and team sports.Naturally, such conservative views cannot be expected to change overnight, let’s remember that it took a World War to change the views and position of women in Western society. This is not a fast process but it would take not only time to over-haul traditions, but also effort and commitment on part of believers. However, the London 2012 games have been an encouraging start to this process and we hope that the 45% ratio of women athletes would increase even more at the Rio Olympics in 2016 (oh yes! its in Brazil).