Too few athletes in the Olympics to ensure gender equality

Photo: Thomas Søndergaard/Play the Game

Hande Öztürk speaking at Play the Game 2015. Photo: Thomas Søndergaard/Play the Game


By Steve Menary
More athletes in the Olympics, more women in sport bodies and more media attention were among the different approaches on how to create more gender equality and less corruption in sport discussed in a Play the Game 2015 session.

The number of athletes in the Olympic Games must be increased to produce real gender equality according to a gender audit by Professor Peter Donnelly from the University of Toronto in Canada.

The research was unveiled in a Play the Game 2015 session that tackled a range of sport politics and governance issues and showed there has been improvement in gender equality since 1994, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) first began to tackle the issue after a congress in Paris. However, this change was already under way.

In 1976, one in five participants (20%) were women and now that ratio is up to two in five, or 40%, but Donnelly said: “This is still not a credible situation. There are still 30 more events [for men] and chances to win a medal in the summer games and 7.5 more events in the Winter Games.”

Rhythmic gymnastics and synchronised swimming are the only female only Olympic sports, while in sports like football and ice hockey more male teams take part. In male football, there are 16 men’s teams and only 12 in the female equivalent while in hockey a dozen male teams compete but only eight in the women’s event.

“This is set by the international federations and approved by the IOC and they are both complicit in this,” added Donnelly, whose data showed a rise in media personnel but a cap on athletes of 10,500 competitors.

Some improvement has been achieved by cutting male events but Donnelly said: “This is completely the wrong way to go. Athletes should not be made to suffer.”

Corruption generally gets little media attention
Gigi Alford, a special advisor from the United States’ Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, documented the furore over the use of artificial turf at this year’s FIFA women’s World Cup in Canada and the action by female players against this. As a result, said Alford, the 2019 World Cup in France will be played on grass.

Although the players’ protests received widespread coverage, Urszula Starakiewicz, a lecturer from the University of Warsaw, said that issues of mismanagement and corruption get little media attention in her country of Poland.

Starakiewicz carried out qualitative research by speaking to Polish journalists and found that these issues were widely seen as too dull, too much trouble to report and often seem as risky even though they are not.

“There was corruption in Polish volleyball and that attracted some coverage but at the Polish volleyball federation’s congress there was just one journalist and he told me that it was like an election in Belarus, but no media were there so no-one cares,” said Starakiewicz.

“Polish society believe that it is very difficult to control Polish sports federations. The journalists are critical but they don’t believe it’s their role.”

Starakiewicz suggested that a new body that she christened the Polish Sports Observatory be set up to produce research for journalists on these issues.

More women in sport could reduce match-fixing
Hande Öztürk, an attorney from Turkish lawyers Caga & Caga, joined Alford and Donnelly in arguing for greater equality for women and said match-fixing in women’s sport could be combated by a higher profile and more opportunities for women in sports bodies.

“There is no downside. There might be an upside but we don’t know until we try,” said Öztürk, who added that: “Female athletes are a better target [for match-fixers] as they are less paid than men.”

To combat issues such as match-fixing Catherine Ordway, professor of sports management at La Trobe University in Australia, urged for sport to be included in the United Nations Convention against Corruption as well as the UN Convention against Transnational Crime. 

“These are not applied to sport but need to be,” urged  Ordway. “Sport has been treated as an exception and it’s time to think a bit differently.”

However, Jonas Burgheim, the founder and director of German policy consultancy Sport Cares, warned that sport was becoming too politicised and pointed to the IOC’s place as a permanent observer in the UN General Assembly.

"From a legal point of view, you don’t need specific rules for sport,” said Burgheim in a session that provided a wide-ranging and global outlook on the issues facing sports governance.


* required field

What is three plus seven?

Guidelines for posting
Play the Game promotes an open debate on sport and sports politics and we strongly encourage everyone to participate in the discussions on But please follow these simple guidelines when you write a post:

  1. Please be respectful - even if you disagree strongly with certain viewpoints. Slanderous or profane remarks will not be posted.
  2. Please keep to the subject. Spam or solicitations of any kind will not be posted.

Use of cookies

The website uses cookies to provide a user-friendly and relevant website. Cookies provide information about how the website is being used or support special functions such as Twitter feeds. 

By continuing to use this site, you consent to the use of cookies. You can find out more about our use of cookies and personal data in our privacy policy.