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Politics of gender through the Olympics: The changing nature of women’s involvement in the Olympics

In many countries contemporary sports have been considered a means towards women’s emancipation with the female athlete as the best exponent of female liberation, and the Olympic Games are seen as a ‘marker’ or signifier of this emancipatory process. The global significance of the Games has brought increasing attention to the female athlete as women throughout the world have sought parity in all aspects of cultural life. In this regard, the Olympics have stimulated debates over such issues as female athleticism, equality of opportunity in sport, the status of women in cultures throughout the world, human rights and the sex/gender distinction, and the unfairness of sex testing of female athletes. Levels of participation of women in the 112 years of the modern Games

have increased from zero in the 1896 Games to 4,746 female participants in 127 events in the 2008 Games in Beijing. This increase in the number of participants and events, however, masks the overall ongoing inequality of male/female participation in the Games. There is still a gap in the participation rates of males and females, with female athletes comprising only 42% of the total number of Olympians and participating in only 127 events (42.1%), while men competed in 165 events (54.6%) in Beijing (in addition to 10 mixed events). Countries continue to send teams to the Games without female representation. Such disparities can be seen as indicative of gender inequality throughout the Olympic Movement, a form of inequality which is even more visible at the organizational and administrative levels. The Olympic Movement and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) continue to be dominated by men, and women are vastly under-represented on the IOC, the international sports federations (IF), and National Olympic Committees (NOC). The participation of women in the Olympic Games and their struggle for

equality within the Olympic Movement have been widely studied. Their historic under-representation in the Games and the various obstacles women have faced have been well researched and documented. The history of the

battle for acceptance and recognition in sport in general, and in the Olympic Games in particular, has been marked by struggles over the control of international sport for women, male domination and female subordination in sport, and inequitable treatment of female athletes. The history of the Olympic Games and the Olympic Movement suggests that the early years of the creation of the IOC and the establishment of the Games actually extended the unfair treatment of female athletes and the discriminatory treatment of leaders of international sport in the early years of the 20th century resulting in battles over the control of women’s sport during the formative years of the Olympic Games as well as on-going struggles for admittance to the Games and equitable treatment of women in the Olympic Movement throughout most of the 20th century. An analysis of the early years of the IOC, the pattern of development of the participation of female athletes in the Games, the evolution of the Olympic sports programme, and the gradual admittance of women in the IOC, the NOCs and other international governing bodies in sport reveals the changing nature of women’s involvement in the Olympic Games.