As the GB women bag team gold at the Modern Pentathlon European Championships, Standard Issue sports correspondent Jen Offord ponders parity in Olympic sports.
As a modern pentathlon mega-fan, I was delighted to hear about our GB ladies team taking the gold medal at the European Championships last Sunday. For those of you not in this weird and wonderful sport’s fan club, allow me to enlighten you – I promise you’ll never look back.
The modern pentathlon was based on the five skills needed by the 19th-century cavalry soldier, as imagined by the founder of the modern Olympic Games – Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The skills:
Running (away from danger/towards an enemy with aggression)
Shooting (at enemies)
Fencing (at enemies if his gun wasn’t working)
Showjumping (for dramatic flair while shooting or fencing) and
Swimming (for no obvious reason).
If that wasn’t enough action for you, the shooting happens during intervals between running, when the competitors are all jittery and fraught with adrenaline. Better still, the competitor is allocated a mystery horse (as in, it doesn’t belong to them, they haven’t trained it, and it might be LOCO, because some horses are) FIFTEEN MINUTES before the jumping takes place.
As sporting events go, it’s got everything. It is the classic epic of the Olympic Games, a Ben Hur or Spartacus of sports – and I love it. So it’s doubly excellent that Team GB’s women are actually pretty good at this discipline, having medalled in every Games since the event’s introduction.
It did take a while to get there in the first place, though.
“Though we did finally see the inclusion of women’s boxing at the 2012 Olympics, Greco-Roman wrestling still excludes women. As a sort of trade off, men don’t compete in synchronised swimming or rhythmic gymnastics, so there is at least opportunity for everyone to look daft.”
The Olympic Games has, traditionally, been a man’s domain. Despite the men’s modern pentathlon event running concurrently in every Olympic Games since 1912 and a women’s event having been added to the World Championships in 1981, a women’s equivalent event wasn’t added to the Olympic programme until the 2000 Sydney Games, 19 years later. After all, it was based on a job which, 15 years later, a woman still isn’t allowed to do. Kate Allenby, competitor and bronze medallist in those games, says even as late as 2000, “the Olympic kit was the Olympic kit, and it was man-shaped” – but she still wore it with pride.
Despite Allenby’s description of a massive drive for parity between male and female athletes by the International Olympic Committee over the last 20 years, equality still does not exist in the programming of Olympic events. Though we did finally see the inclusion of women’s boxing at the 2012 Olympics, Greco-Roman wrestling still excludes women. As a sort of trade off, men don’t compete in synchronised swimming or rhythmic gymnastics, so there is at least opportunity for everyone to look daft.
The reason for this isn’t clear. Except it is. Speaking with representatives of the national governing bodies, I came across views such as, “Well, it is a bit girly” (synchronised swimming) and, “It’s probably the most violent of the sports – women might not be able to do the lifts” (Greco-Roman wrestling), but ultimately, they don’t make the rules.
The Olympic charter states that one of the IOC’s roles is to: “encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women.” In fact, it is thought to be this duty that caused the discrepancy: the initial intention being to hold a couple of events as women’s only to encourage participation.
“As sporting events go, modern pentathlon’s got everything. It is the classic epic of the Olympic Games, a Ben Hur or Spartacus of sports – and I love it.”
I’m sure when these events were added to the programme in the 1984 Games (the same year the women’s marathon event was added to the programme), the sentiment was honourable. I’m also sure the executive board of the time comprised far fewer women than the very respectable (compared to representation of women on FTSE 100 company boards) 26.6 per cent of today.
By introducing sports where competitors don’t wear much other than a healthy lashing of bronzer, are often referred to in terms that undermine the skill and athleticism of their competitors, and are about prancing around and looking pretty, as events to redress the balance of women’s representation, the IOC were really sticking it to the man, right? Cool.
Now I know what you’re thinking: who gives a toss – those are all the joke sports, anyway. And yes, maybe you have a point (give them a go before you jest, though – the egg beater is no laughing matter, as I can testify). But here are some better points: first, why are we perpetuating this inequality when other inclusive sports, like my beloved modern pentathlon, are at risk of being dropped every four years to make way for a new one (which incidentally, has to be a sport that demonstrates gender equality in participants)? Second, how can we change public perception of women’s sports when the people right at the top aren’t prepared to treat men and women equally?2922 Views
Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen