POSTED: June 14th 2017

JOHN GOODBODY: Mixed events and more women a step forward by the IOC

IAAF Hall of Fame photo of Fanny Blankers-Koen © IAAF
IAAF Hall of Fame photo of Fanny Blankers-Koen © IAAF

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications

(SFC) Women have competed in the Summer Olympics since 1900. But it has taken more than a century for them to have even approached the same number of competitors as the men. This is scarcely surprising because for years many sporting pursuits were deemed unladylike or even damaging to women's health.

In 1900, a total of 22 females took part in five events: tennis, golf, sailing, croquet and equestrianism, although this was only 2.2 percent of all the competitors in Paris. There were women in the aquatic programme for the first time 12 years later in Stockholm and they were admitted to athletics and gymnastics in 1928, albeit in a restricted range of disciplines.

Perhaps the most significant breakthrough came when the Netherlands' Fanny Blankers-Koen won four athletics gold medals in 1948 and became the unquestioned star of those London Games. She put women into the centre of the Olympic arena.

In Rio, the percentage of women in the Games was 45.2 percent and by 2020 this will rise to 48.8 percent following the recent meeting of the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In finalising the programme for Tokyo, the IOC has added more events, while still seeking to restrict the overall number of competitors to 10,500, something it failed to achieve in 2016.

There have been enterprising additions, many of them appealing to the young, a necessary target audience for the IOC, always concerned at the age profile of those people interested in the Games, such as BMX freestyle and 3 x 3 basketball. In some sports, the international federations have been told to drop men's categories to include more women. Boxing and weightlifting are two of them. While in others, there has been an increase of women's prominence in the Games through the addition of mixed relays.

This seems most welcome. Triathlon is one such an event, while in athletics, there will be a mixed 4 x 400 metres and a similar make-up in swimming with a 4 x 100 metres medley. Working out which sex should take part on which leg will provide a stimulus to the preparation for the Games and a fascination for spectators when the events take place.

I am less happy at some of the other additions to the programme. In swimming, to have two more freestyle events, a men's 800 metres and a women's 1500 metres, risks having individual swimmers being able to collect several medals in disciplines, which do not make sufficiently diverse physical demands on them to justify their inclusion.

In athletics, it would be impossible for anyone nowadays to win three medals in the same Games at say, the 800 metres, the 1500 metres and also the 5,000 metres. But in swimming, because of the nature of the sport, one is able to compete at one's peak or very close to it in two or more events, separated by only a few minutes rest. It has happened already in the aquatic programme, with swimmers taking part in other strokes or in relays as well as freestyle, and no doubt will happen again. By all means, for women, have a 1,500 metres freestyle but then drop the 800 metres so making the programme the same as it has been for men.

The aquatic disciplines now total 49, compared to athletics 48, and given the primacy of track and field in the history of the Games, that also seems unfortunate. If a new event had to be added to the programme, I would have thought high diving, a thrilling spectacle in reality and on television and one demanding huge courage would have been especially appealing.

The IOC wants innovation and gender equality. It has taken a welcome step along this path. It now needs for 2024 to ensure that 50 percent of participants are women. It is a small but still symbolic step from 48.8 percent. And I am sure it will come sooner, rather than later. Preferably sooner.

** JOHN GOODBODY will cover the 2016 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 13th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.  

****The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sports Features Communications. 

Keywords · John Goodbody · Olympics

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