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The Tokyo Olympics Mark A Watershed Moment In Gender Equality
Olympics

The Tokyo Olympics Mark A Watershed Moment In Gender Equality


Grace Luczak had left competitive rowing to work in the private sector when a move toward gender equity at the Tokyo Olympics drew her back into a boat.

To make the Olympics more inclusive, a women's rowing event was added, resulting in four additional seats on the US team and a spot for Luczak.

“It’s really difficult to make the decision to come back, to plan financially for being out of work for a year,” Luczak said, adding that she didn’t think a veteran could compete in a second consecutive Games until the seats were added.

“There are four more seats available. Four. And it's the first gender-equal Olympics. How can you not try?”

The majority of public attention is focused on the big sportsgymnastics, swimming, track and field — but women from niche sports are being recognized and given an Olympic opportunity.

In an effort to achieve gender equity, the International Olympic Committee added 18 new events to the Tokyo Games, with an equal number of men and women competing in each sport, with the exception of baseball and softball, which have different roster sizes.

The IOC stated that women's participation in Tokyo will be 49%, up from 45% in Rio, a nearly equal split with men. The IOC also stated that when women made their Olympic debut at the Paris Games in 1900, there were only 22 females out of 997 total athletes, competing in five sports, including croquet and equestrian.

Tokyo 2020 is expected to be the most gender equal yet with female participation,” according to the IOC.

The new opportunities come in a variety of sports and sizes: for the first time, the United Kingdom is sending more women than men to the Olympics; and in water polo, two additional teams were added, for a total of ten. This is still two short of the men's tournament, but it is a victory for the women's movement.

Boxing will feature 100 women in five classes, up from 36 fighters in three classes in Rio, but two men's classes were dropped.

Women's canoeing was added, but the men's 200 and men's kayak double 200 were dropped — a decision that was met with unfavorable reaction from male athletes when it was announced in 2016.

Erik Vlcek, who won silver with Slovakia in Rio, argued that when women's canoeing was added, females should only kayak because female canoeing "doesn't look good." A Czech paddler joked that canoeing is bad for a woman's posture.

The sport lost men's prone rifle, men's free pistol, and men's double trap, which were all replaced by mixed team events in air rifle, air pistol, and trap.

The women's coxless four returns to competition for the first time since 1992, but it replaces the men's lightweight coxless four, which Luczak, now 32, recognizes benefited at the expense of male teammates.

“It’s not great when you have to take something away from the men’s side to add to the women’s; it’s never fun seeing people find out their opportunity is gone,” Luczak explained, “but creating an equal number of opportunities shows there is a pathway for female athletes.”

Luczak left her fiancé at home and moved in with a host family in Princeton, New Jersey, to train, trading a paycheck for a stipend because the four extra seats were too tempting to pass up.

Tightening the gender gap was a cause for many women, and the equality issues were heightened when disparities between men and women were exposed at this year's NCAA basketball tournament. Images shared on social media of the women's grossly underequipped weight room became a symbol for the injustices all female athletes have suffered in the shadow of men.

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Maggie Steffens, a former Stanford water polo player, said the gender inequality at the NCAA tournament "hurt my heart to see," but it was also eye-opening. Steffens is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, two-time Olympic MVP, and captain of the United States women's team, but she had always assumed that the more well-known women's sports were treated better than water polo.

“The women’s basketball teams are in the tournament, they have all these fans, they’re on TV, and you think, ‘Look how lucky they are,’” Steffens explained, “but the behind-the-scenes stuff comes out and you realize they have it just like you.

“For it all to come out and see it from the athletes’ perspective, for what people don’t see to now be visible, maybe it showed that women can get it done; we don’t need all the fancy stuff, we don’t care; we’ll do it anyway.”

Swimming added the 1,500-meter freestyle for the first time for women, while the men's 800 free was reintroduced for the first time since 1904. The mixed gender relay makes its Olympic debut.

This year, five new sports — baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sports climbing, and surfing — were added, and the IOC required an equal number of men and women in each.

Outside of the Olympics, there are still significant gaps to close, particularly in funding and prize money. This year, Steffens saw a long campaign for equal pay at one tournament come to fruition and posted a photo of the triumph labeled #equalpay. Pioneer women’s water polo player Maureen O’Toole commented on the social media post, “Wait what. You get paid!! That must be nice!!!”

“It made me think, who am I going to comment on in 20 years and say, ‘Look at what you're getting now?’” Steffens said, adding, “It's just amazing that this doorway is open and little girls with dreams like mine can stand on my shoulders and make it farther and better.”

 

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