With Candian women ruling the podium at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics –– bringing home three-quarters of the medals –– many in the sports world hope this will help to inspire and create change for girls and women in sport.
Not only did Canadian women work to make their country proud by dominating the podium, winning 18 medals out of the 24 total, they also broke records, including that of the most decorated Canadian Olympian of all time — an honour now awarded to swimmer Penny Olesiak.
Shanaaz Gokool, CEO of Fast and Female, an organization that helps young girls and self-identifying girls connect with mentors in sport and in order to teach and empower, believes the women’s performances at this year’s Olympics will help create more gender equality in sports.
Gokool says gender inequality in sport has negatively impacted girls and women for decades through ways such as funding, representation, and gender-biased rules.
“I think [the female athletes from the Tokyo Olympics] are going to inject desperately needed attention, resources and focus for girls in sports,” says Gokool.
Though these have been the most gender-balanced Olympics in history, with 49 per cent of competitors being women and having a competition schedule that ensures more equal visibility between male and female events, the same does not hold true when it comes to coaching. Since 2010, the percentage of female coaches at the Olympics has hovered around 10, a number that hasn’t changed much this year when only 13 per cent of coaches were women.
Catriona Le May Doan, President and CEO of Sport Calgary, two-time gold medal winning Winter Olympian and chef de mission for Team Canada at the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics, and Gokool both say the lack of female leadership in sport can hinder women staying committed to athletics because they can’t see someone like themselves in that position.
“We need to continue to push for the fact that we don’t have that equal situation yet. We need to continue to figure out what the barriers are that are keeping women and girls from being in certain positions and work on solving that,” says Le May Doan.
Gender inequality is also showcased through uneven rules, says Karla Karch, the director of cougar athletics and recreation at Mount Royal University and a two-time Summer Olympian.
Among those, the disparity when it comes to uniform requirements. At the European Beach Handball Championships from July 13 to July 18, the Norwegian women’s team chose to wear shorts instead of the requisite bikini bottoms, leaving them facing fines. The men’s team, however, was able to wear shorts as usual.
On the other end of the spectrum, Welsh Paralympian Olivia Breen was at the English Championships on July 18 when she was told her sprint bottoms were too short.
Karch says it shouldn’t matter what the athletes wear if it doesn’t affect how they compete — especially considering the effort they put into training their bodies.
“I believe the human body is a beautiful thing and you look at those Olympians and you look at those people and it’s actually beauty in what they have been able to do with their physique,” says Karch.
Karch wishes there didn’t have to be so much emphasis on how many medals women won for Team Canada in Tokyo because she believes highlighting the achievements of one gender over the other only shows how far we are from achieving equality.
Others, like Le May Doan, understand Karch’s point but say it is still important to put a spotlight on women’s achievements because we are still so far from achieving equality in sport.
“Finally we are starting to have equal sport representation at the Olympics,” says Le May Doan. “But the fact that we are in 2021 [and] that women in certain disciplines are just now representing Canada or representing the sport…. Yeah, we’re not there yet.”
Le May Doan and Gokool say, with these female Olympic athletes working to break down barriers and work toward gender equality it shows young girls and boys what is possible.
“It’s a huge deal, it’s a huge inspiration and we need to be talking about it and we need to be celebrating it,” says Le May Doan.
Gokool is hopeful this year’s Olympics will showcase why governments, organizations and the general public should put the same emphasis on girls and women in sport as they have been doing for boys and men for decades. She says representation is vital especially for Black, Indigenous and trans women and she is proud to see many athletes this year use their platforms to advocate for social justice and gender equality issues.
“It’s not just representation, it’s possibility,” says Gokool. “I think there are a lot of issues that still need to get sorted but it is women who really are speaking up and moving forward.”
With the support for this year’s history-making women, Gokool says the old saying of “behind every great man is a great woman” can be rewritten.
“Behind every woman athlete who is a winner or is represented in the Olympics, or on other professional teams … is a community that [relies] on those women.”