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Women are finally getting their fair share of the Olympics — almost

The IOC has evened out the number of participants so that just about half the athletes at the 2020 Games will be female. But there’s a lot more they still need to do.

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Canada's Taylor Ruck, left to right, Brittany MacLean, Katerine Savard and Penny Oleksiak take bronze in the women's 4 x 200m freestyle relay

Canadian women were the story at the 2016 Games in Rio, winning 16 of the country’s 22 medals. Photo, Sean Kilpatrick/ The Canadian Press.

It took more than a hundred years, but the Summer Olympic Games will finally achieve (near) gender parity in 2020. To be exact: Women athletes will make up 48.8 percent of participants at the Games in Tokyo — the last time the city hosted, back in 1964, only 13 percent of the athletes were women.

The International Olympics Committee has upped its efforts toward gender equality in the past 20 years. Since 1991, every new sport added to the program had to include women’s events and when women’s boxing was added at the 2012 Games in the London, those were the first Games to have women’s competitions in every single sport.

In Tokyo, male participation will be reduced and male events cut to add more female athletes and events. There will be 44 more female boxers in 2020 — and 44 fewer male — with the transfer of two weight classes from the men’s competition to women’s. The number of mixed events will also grow, doubling to 18 from nine at the 2016 Rio Games, including mixed doubles table tennis and a mixed team relay in triathlon. Some of the marquee events, like swimming and track relays, may even match women against men in their legs.

For women athletes and their fans, this is thrilling news. Consider the sport of swimming, which was a showcase for women’s excellence in Rio and made for some the Games’ greatest stories. American Katie Ledecky won five medals, sweeping the 200-, 400- and 800-metre freestyles, and breaking her own world record in the 800 by nearly two seconds. In mixed practices, Ledecky frequently exhausts — and outswims — male teammates.

Another American, Simone Manuel, became the first black woman to win a gold medal in Olympic swimming. Manuel shared first place in 100-metre with 16-year-old Canadian superstar, Penny Oleksiak, the pair setting an Olympic record at 52.70 seconds. In Tokyo, women swimmers will have two new events in which to shine: 1,500-metre freestyle and a 4×100 mixed medley, in which they’ll compete with and against — men. With the addition of the 1,500, Ledecky is certain to amp up her gold medal haul in 2020. She’s won that distance at the 2013 and 2015 World Championships.  

Swimming wasn’t the only arena where women dominated in Rio. From Simone Biles’s super-powered and super-graceful flips and twists in gymnastics to the gritty bronze-medal win by the Canadian women’s rugby sevens team, the 2016 Games should have, at last, busted the myth that women’s sports are less interesting, less exciting, less stirring and less competitive than men’s.

But this hasn’t come without a serious battles. Sexism is a longstanding Olympic tradition. Women weren’t allowed to compete at the first modern Games in 1896. Founder Pierre de Coubertin said the notion of women playing sports was “impractical, uninteresting, ungainly, and, I do not hesitate to add, improper.” Women have also been singled out for gender testing, with athletes like South Africa’s Caster Semenya and India’s Dutee Chand being forced to endure humiliating scrutiny about their breast size and hormone levels. (In Rio, female Olympics were not subjected to any form of sex testing for the first time in nearly a half-century.)

And it won’t be until the next Summer Games that women will have a full and fair slate of events to compete in. There were no women’s canoeing events until 2016, for example, even though the Olympics added the sport for men in 1936. In the Winter Games, athletes fought for years to add women’s ski jumping to the program. (A legal fight to include the women’s event made it all the way to the the Supreme Court of Canada, leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Games.) Ski jumping for women was finally added to the program in 2014.

The Olympics are crucial in helping to develop women’s and girl’s athletics. The Games provide audiences and sponsorship opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable, given the limited avenues available for women to play professional sports. And the IOC’s current push for inclusion and parity are a signal that it’s recognized the appetite for women’s sports.

But these new initiatives are just the start. If women’s sports are to thrive, there needs to be consistent and equal support for female athletes in their home countries all the time — not just leading up to the Olympics. For instance, despite the huge success of the U.S. women’s soccer and hockey teams, players have had to take their sports federations to court, or threaten to strike, in order to receive anything close to the salaries, training and development programs that their male counterparts enjoy. And Brazil, one of the greatest soccer nations in the world, has all but refused to support or invest in women’s and girl’s development.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has used the Olympics to soften its oppressive record on women’s rights. To much applause, the country sent four women to the Games in Rio — but back home, women and girls are banned from state-organized sports leagues and national tournaments. The majority of girls’ schools don’t have phys. ed. classes and women can’t exercise in gyms alongside men. 

And local leagues and school teams, after all, are where most future Olympians get their start. If girls’ development is overlooked and elite female athletes don’t get decent salaries or adequate facilities and coaching, it ultimately won’t matter how many events for women the IOC adds. You can’t make it onto the podium without years and years of support and world-class training.

So, if the IOC really wants to fulfill its mandate of gender parity, it must look beyond the Games themselves and demand that every participating nation create and support equal opportunities for girls and women at home — or else be excluded from the Games altogether.

In the meantime, we can look forward to more smashed records and spine-tingling feats in Tokyo. (And I’m sure the men will do just fine, too.) But until every girl and woman who dreams of competing for her country has a fair shot to do so, the IOC shouldn’t award itself a gold medal for gender equality just yet.

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