Sport the catalyst for gender equality, says IOC president

British eventer Nicola Wilson and Annie Clover. © Mike Bain
British eventer Nicola Wilson and Annie Clover. © Mike Bain

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach has spoken of the leading role sport can play in advancing gender equality, with his words coming just after a Spanish report revealing that women appear in only 5 percent of sports newsprint coverage.

Bach, who spoke at the opening ceremony of the 6th International Working Group (IWG) World Conference on Women and Sport in Helsinki, Finland, told the audience about the progress that the IOC had made in terms of women’s participation in sport.

And his words have special meaning for those involved with equestrian sports, as the Helsinki Olympic Games of 1952 were the first to allow women to compete on equal terms with men, in the dressage competition. Denmark’s Lis Hartel won individual silver on Jubilee that year.

The Helsinki conference, taking place from June 12 to 15, is officially supported by the IOC and has the motto “Lead the Change, Be the Change”. 

“Women have competed at the Games since 1900, but by London 2012 that figure was approaching parity with nearly 45 per cent of competitors being women athletes. Indeed, some of the biggest teams, Team Finland for example, had more women members than men”, Bach said.

“The London Games also saw another significant landmark with women competing in every sport,” he added.

“Sport has been, and continues to be, a vital tool to show that another world is possible, and that role continues to this day,” Bach told the audience.

“Our central belief written into our charter is that sport should be available to all regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or any other form of discrimination, including sexual orientation. As a sports organisation we cannot force countries to change their legislation but what we can do is give a shining example to the world of how a society based on these core beliefs should operate.”

Bach praised the progress accomplished over the years in increasing girls’ and women’s participation on the field of play, but urged to increase the efforts of getting more women into decision-making positions: “We must do more to bring women into sports leadership. We have seen what women can do on the field of play. We need their intellect, energy and creativity in the administration and management of sport as well.”

But that message may not be getting through in countries such as Spain, with a study by the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) finding that women wre much less visible than men in sports newsprint coverage. The study found that specifically, women appeared  only 5 percent of the time, while men appear in more than 92 percent of coverage.

The study was presented recently by UC3M professor Clara Sainz de Baranda at the II International Conference on Gender and Communication.

Women are the subject of news in sports papers in only 5.11% of the cases, sometimes alone (2.18%) and others accompanied by men (2.93%). On the other hand, men are the focus of this kind of information in 92.2% of the cases.

Zara Phillips and Toytown
Zara Phillips and Toytown during the Olympic flame’s journey to London before the 2012 Games. © Getty Images

“The remaining 5% is neutral information, which is why, in these kinds of topics, like soccer balls, fields, field houses and goals, men appear more often than women,” notes the professor from the university’s Department of  Journalism and Audiovisual Communication.

This situation has not improved significantly over the years. The results of the analysis of the four main Spanish sports papers performed by this researcher vary by province. In newspapers from Madrid, one can observe a reversal in the news focused on women in recent decades. In Marca, it went from 5.6% in 1979 to 4.22% in 2010. In Catalan papers, however, it increases. In Sport, it went from 2.63% in 1979 to 3.3% in 2010, and in Mundo Deportivo, it increased from 2.5% in 1979 to 5.05% in 2010.

These differences are even greater if one considers that not all of the women who appear in articles in Marca, Sport, and Mundo Deportivo. In fact, a recent study published in Cuadernos de psicología del deporte differentiates between two profiles of women: those who pertain to the world of sports (athletes, coaches) and others it calls “guests,” who in general are partners, relatives, celebrities or fans. “In terms of quantity, the first group has a larger presence (86.8%), but on a qualitative level, the guests have a much greater presence because of the size of the article, photographs, types of pages that they occupy, etc.,” the researcher explains. Moreover, in this type of image, the most promoted stereotype is the one related to feminine attributes, so it normally presents women as a decorative archetype or an object of desire.

This inequality is evident in other journalistic elements, as well. Female names appear in only 2% of headlines and in only 0.81% of references are quotes from women included. “In almost 50% of the cases, the achievements of female athletes are relegated to a short news item, the most humble genre of journalism, which entails a reductionism in the treatment of this news,” observes Sainz de Baranda, who published her doctoral thesis on this subject.

With the exception of soccer, achievements in most sports are not constantly covered in the pages of these papers; they are mentioned, but only for specific things. “And as women triumph in sports with less coverage and their presence is smaller, their invisibility increases,” she emphasizes.

Noteworthy among the obstacles that women must overcome to earn a living as professional athletes are the persistence of certain stereotypes, the scarcity of public aid destined to fostering women’s sports and the lack of economic incentives for companies to invest in these competitions because of the “supposed” inferior spectacle that they represent.

At the Finland conference, President Bach also said that while sport can help pushing for and showcasing gender rights in the world, it could not initiate the change on its own. Combatting discrimination and injustice, he said, was always a team effort.

“Sport has proven its value as an effective tool for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. To make real progress in our quest for gender equality and open access to physical activity for girls and women worldwide, we need close collaboration with governments, educational institutions, the private sector and civil society at all levels.”

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