New Olympic program still falls short of equal gender representation

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Sarah Elizabeth Robles of the United States reacts during the Weightlifting - Women's +75kg Group A on Day 9 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Riocentro - Pavilion 2 on August 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
U.S. Olympic weightlifter Sarah Elizabeth Robles celebrates after her performance in the 2016 Olympics. Robles finished with a bronze medal in the women’s +75kg category at the Games. (Getty Images)

Ursula Garza Papandrea remembers the groans and the grumbles. She remembers a time when men would whine, complain and give her and her teammates undesirable times when they wanted to participate in Olympic weightlifting in the same gym. She recalled a time when a man meanly referred to her teammate as a “stupid woman” after the woman flipped a bar accidentally in the weight room. And the discrimination continued as Papandrea transitioned into her Olympic weightlifting coaching career.

Many questioned her ability to develop athletes into champions, and she said she had to work twice as hard to prove herself to her colleagues.

But nothing stopped Papandrea.

Instead, the five-time weightlifting World team member and national champion coach committed herself to giving back to her sport, furthering the ability of athletes like herself and helping weightlifting adapt the modern-day sporting expectations.

This former weightlifter turned coach turned administrator has become know as the “Queen of Olympic Weightlifting,” a tribute to her trailblazing effort in the sport, but she’s also happy to talk about athletics in general and where she thinks the Olympic movement and gender equality is heading.

“I think as a society, we are progressive enough,” said Papandrea. “Obviously weightlifting took a little more time because the reputation. The image of the sport is that it’s masculine.”

The trend toward gender equity in weightlifting is also being seen across the entire Olympic movement, and the newly approved 2020 Olympic program, one created by the IOC through a series of partnerships, represents such a change. Women’s participation in the Games will increase from 45.6 percent participation in 2016 to 48.8 percent in 2020, the highest percentage of female athletes in Olympic history.

“Every opportunity for a women’s event leads to more funding at a national level, it leads to more visibility and that gives us great funding and participation,” IOC Sports Director Kit McConnell told Yahoo Sports. “It’s so important to us. Inclusion of women athlete in the Olympics has a direct relationship to women around the world.”

Women’s weightlifting in just one example of where women are benefiting from such change. The inclusion of weightlifting in the Olympic Games for the first time in 2000 opened up new opportunities for female athletes in the sport, Papandrea said, proving McConnell’s point.

“We are getting more women at the grassroots level which is the first step,” Papandrea said, referring the large number of women participating at Youth Nationals and even more women coaching at these events. “We’re seeing a big boom.”

At 48.8 percent representation, the number of women remains 1.2 percent short of the IOC’s goal of 50 percent, a benchmark that McConnell said the committee has already started discussing for 2024.

The number, however, baffled Olympics expert and journalist C.A. Tuggle, a professor at the University of North Carolina who specializes in broadcast studies and media representation of the Olympics.

“Who knows where that number would have come from?” Tuggle said. “I have no idea as to why that would have been the decision. There has to be some kind of formula, the number of events and number of athletes who qualify for that.”

McConnell, on the other hand, explained that the 48.8 percent still represents growth, and he enthusiastically talked about how the IOC has created an increase in opportunities for women in the Olympics with the new 2020 Olympic program. Yet, McConnell acknowledged that women have still not reached equal representation at the world’s largest sporting event. He said that women’s participation and the percentage of female athletes in the Olympics centers on opportunity and quality rather than just “a number.”

Youthful and Urban vs. Tradition

The change in the 2020 Olympic program will not only bring women’s participation up to 48.8 percent but will bring in a slew of new events as well. The new program pushes to create a more “youthful, urban, equitable” Olympics, and this effort has resulted in the addition of five new sports, including three-on-three basketball, skateboarding, sport climbing, baseball/softball and karate, to the 2020 program. Of the new sports, all will include equal numbers of male and female participants, with the exception of the softball and baseball additions. Baseball will include 144 male athletes, while softball will have 90 spots for women.

McConnell hopes that the new events and the push for equality in all sports will help the Olympic movement appeal to a broader base and engage new viewers.

“Now with 33 sports on the program, we are reaching out to a greater range of audience with the different types of events and different demographics,” McConnell said. “It’s hugely exciting for us, I think it’s going to be an enormously successful Games.”

Mixed relays have also been added to the Games in track, triathlon and swimming, along with the new mixed events in archery, judo and table tennis in an effort to increase youth interest as well as gender equality, McConnell said. A sport like weightlifting, however, that doesn’t offer mixed events, is trying to figure out how it fits into this new model.

Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori (L), IOC Vice President John Coates (2-L), and IOC member Alex Gilady (3-L) attend the IOC Executive Meeting and the venue tour at the Enoshima Yacht Harbour on May 27, 2016 in Fujisawa, Japan. (Photo by Christopher Jue/Getty Images)
Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori (L), IOC Vice President John Coates (2-L), and IOC member Alex Gilady (3-L) attend the IOC Executive Meeting and the venue tour at the Enoshima Yacht Harbour on May 27, 2016 in Fujisawa, Japan. (Photo by Christopher Jue/Getty Images)

Papandrea said she knows her responsibility is to help USA Weightlifting and the International Weightlifting Federation adapt her sport into a more fan-friendly experience to promote its athletes and align with the new IOC mission.

“We are looking at changing our program, at how we present weightlifting. We are having to consider what is more spectator-friendly, and those are the conversations that are finally starting to happen because, as a traditional sport, it’s not media friendly,” Papandrea said. “We know that, but we’ve always hung our hat on ‘it’s a traditional sport,’ but when we see that there is no emphasis on that anymore, the reverence for tradition, with the traditional Olympics, that has in many ways disappeared.”

Sports engrained in the traditions of the Olympic movement, such as weightlifting, must now alter their presentation to fit the new model of the Games, one that pushes a “youth and urban” mission and drives TV ratings. The new sports, while creating new opportunities for men and women, have forced other federations to give up Olympic spots in order to keep the overall size of the Games consistent with traditional numbers. Seven sports have found themselves with a lower athlete quota for 2020 than they saw in 2016, the most notable being track and field, which will lose 105 spots in 2020.

The Complicated Road to Equality

The addition of the five new sports and the adjustment of the program to open slots up for women has resulted in cuts in several men’s sports, with weightlifting bearing the hardest loss. Weightlifting will lose 64 athletes, all from one male weight class that has yet to be decided. In the 2016 Olympics, weightlifting offered eight weight classes for men and seven for women, but the International Weightlifting Federation hoped to equal out these classes by adding a new women’s category. The IOC agreed to create more equality in the sport but did so by cutting a men’s class rather than adding another class for women.

When asked if she has felt pushback from men who think women’s equality hurts the Olympic movement, weight lifting specifically, Papandrea laughed.

“You mean like animosity? I don’t think anyone is going to tell me that,” Papandrea said. “Nobody has voiced that to me, but I don’t know if anybody would. I apparently scare people. No one has openly said to me the women are screwing it up for the men.”

For the next thirty minutes, Papandrea spoke with a sense of renewed energy and purpose, explaining how weightlifting is changing to keep up with the Olympic development. The changes to the program hurt weightlifting because of the decrease in total athletes able to compete in the sport, and Papandrea isn’t taking the 64 lost spots lightly. She is concerned, but not too concerned. Papandrea believes that with her commitment and the passion of those like her, the executive boards across the world can keep weightlifting alive.

“The change in the direction of the IOC … is going to force us to change our direction, and I think it’s really important for them to know that we acknowledge that and we are going to respond to that,” Papandrea said.

In addition to weightlifting, sports including rowing, sailing, shooting and wrestling have also all lost at least 24 male athletes to achieve equal gender representation in their federations. Boxing, canoeing, BMX cycling, mountain biking and judo will transfer athlete quotas from the men’s categories to the women’s categories, resulting in a reduction of men’s opportunity but an increase in female athletes. Swimming and track will lose total athletes, not from one gender specifically.

Shooting, one of the original ten sports featured in the 1896 Games, will lose 30 athletes in the 2020 Games, but the hardest part about the reduction for Kevin Neuendorf, the director of marketing communications for USA Shooting, is the elimination of traditional events including the Men’s Double Trap, Men’s 50m Rifle Prone and Men’s 50m Pistol events. Neuendorf said that the founder of the modern Olympic Games Pierre de Coubertin, was a participant in the shooting events and an advocate for their continued representation the Games. However, de Coubertin was also the same man quoted as saying that women in the Olympics would be “uninteresting, unaesthetic, incorrect,” creating a complicated history for the sport and the Games as a whole.

Shooting as an Olympic sport creates a unique platform on which to discuss gender equity because, according to Neuendorf, women and men perform equally well and compete at the same level. In fact, Neuendorf said, “if you pair women and men on the same firing line, women can outshoot the men.”

The 2020 Games will include three less men’s events in shooting but will feature three new mixed events, creating an equal distribution of men and women in the sport and across the events.

“We are all for gender equality; we have one if not the strongest women’s teams on the planet,” Neuendorf said. “We weren’t necessarily for the types of program changes but they’ve been decided upon, they were accepted upon. USA Shooting is saddened by the loss of three events, but we are ready to meet the challenges of 2020, and willing to work with the federations.”

“A desire to move slow”

Nine sports have unequal numbers of men and women, but the only sports to have more women than men are synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics. Men outnumber women in water polo, the 50k Race Walk, Road Cycling, Track Cycling, Soccer and Wrestling. The sport with the greatest difference in male and female athletes, Boxing, added two new weight classes for women in 2020 but cut two classes for men, leading to a mixed reaction from the boxing community.

Mike McAtee, the executive director of USA Boxing, said he’s excited about the growth of women in the sport but emphasized that there are not enough female athletes in boxing to generate as many elite athletes as the men. McAtee said more efforts need to be made at the local level to encourage female participation if the sport is going to have enough female athletes to lead to more Olympic slots and greater representation.

“It’s a must to have quality boxers at the elite levels,” McAtee said. “We are focusing on growing our grassroots level, not just for female wrestlers but male wrestlers, by growing the base of the pyramid, you grow the elites.”

When the International Olympic Committee released its new program for 2020, McConnell knew the agenda would not please everyone, but he believes that events meet the needs of the athletes and offer an exciting series of sports for the 2020 Games.

“The athletes response has been positive, the media response has been positive, generally, in terms of recognizing the innovations in the program,” McConnell said. “The IOC was looking for a flexible program, focusing on youth and gender equality, and worked closely with the Tokyo organizing team, partnering with them, and the federations.”

Through all of it’s changes, boxing serves as the greatest representation of gender disparity, but Papandrea, who has seen equality come slow in her sport as well, doesn’t think the goal of 50-50 representation should be rushed.

“The culture has to be prepared to accept the changes … otherwise you are like forcing it down people’s throats and it’s not really there,” said Papandrea. “I think that’s just a desire to move slow, governance in itself should be somewhat conservative to make sure that you don’t go too far.”