More countries and sports are this year embracing female Olympians than ever before, but the Australian basketball flight debacle is a clear example that we’re a long way from having fixed gender discrimination, writes Emma Sherry.
For the first time in the history of the modern Olympic Games, each nation represented at London 2012 will send a female competitor and women will not be barred from participating in any sport, with boxing now open to both sexes for the first time.
This trend will continue into the 2014 Winter Olympics with women permitted for the first time to compete in ski jumping. Since their inclusion in the modern Olympics in Paris in 1900, female participation at the Olympic Games has been increasing, both in the number of athletes competing, but also the number of women’s events. Australian women have been competing at the Olympic Games since 1912, and in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics the Australian team featured 50-50 representation.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei, three Muslim nations that have previously only sent men, are sending female athletes for the first time in London 2012. The significance of this event cannot be underestimated. As recently as the 1996 Atlanta Olympics 26 nations failed to include any female athletes in their delegations.
Saudi Arabia is sending two female athletes (judo and athletics), after some significant international lobbying from various women’s sport and human rights organisations. Brunei has one female entered in athletics, and Qatar has four females representing their nation in swimming, athletics, table tennis and shooting. Qatar’s female shooter has also been selected for the honour of carrying her country’s flag in the Opening Ceremony.
The International Olympic Committee has worked for many years to promote women in sport, both on and off the field of play. The goal of gender equality is enshrined in the Olympic Charter, the guiding document for all Olympic organisations, while defining strategies to dismantle gender barriers is the primary goal of the IOC’s Women and Sport Commission.
Although this is a promising development for female sport participation, there remains very little support and often-active discouragement of female participation in sport in these nations. It is hoped that with this very public representation of these ground-breaking female athletes, that further steps will be taken to develop and encourage sport and physical recreation for all women.
It is particularly disappointing, in light of these reasons to celebrate equality in the Olympic movement, that we are greeted with reports this week that once again female athletes come second place.
Imagine a nation winning the football World Cup, a team of champions all but guaranteed a medal in London. Eagerly packing their bags, years of preparation and training behind them, they board the plane and take their seats in economy. We may be surprised at the lack of star treatment, but perhaps we assume that all athletes travel together? Well, no, not for the Japanese female football team. As they take their seats on their journey to London, their male teammates take their place at the pointy end of the plane - the same plane – in business class. No lesser athletes, it can be argued, but most definitely less of a medal chance, and certainly not reigning world champions!
Could it be cultural, we may ask ourselves, a more traditional nation with more traditional values? Unfortunately, this story is replicated for the Australian basketball team. In a report by Samantha Lane in The Age newspaper, the Opals, three time silver medallists, made their way to London in premium economy while the Boomers travelled across in business class. Arguments regarding “average” height of the teams aside (as each team has members over 200cm tall), this cannot be mistaken for anything other than gender discrimination.
Both social and mainstream media lit up with this report, with incredulity the most common response. Debates sprang up rapidly over the following 24 hours, was it a decision based on the physical size of the athletes (well, not for Liz Cambage at 203cm – she is 20cm taller than Patrick Mills)?
Maybe the male team members, many of who are high-profile NBA athletes, are more accustomed to travelling in style? Or, as noted in a comment on SEN radio by Andrew Gaze (and the reason ultimately given by Basketball Australia) each team chose how to spend their budget? These statements may appeal to our common sense, but they cannot hide the fact that underlying these ‘decisions’ and ‘choices’ is the implicit message that the female athletes are less valuable or less important than their male counterparts.
Athletes competing at the Olympics have a number of things in common: natural talent, years of hard work and training, and the blessing of good genes. Whether male or female, all of our athletes deserve the same respect and opportunities, if there isn’t enough funding, or empty business class seats available, then let them travel together as a team (or at least ranked tallest to shortest!).
Post-Script: Less than 24 hours after this news report was published, Basketball Australia has released a statement noting that a review of the Olympic travel policy will be undertaken “with the goal of ensuring there is equity between travel arrangements for the men’s and women’s teams attending future Olympics”.