Come August 5, when the Rio Olympics begin, India will, for once, be represented by a lot of women. A lot! This is definitely something to cheer about, but the road to this point has been long, tough, and isn’t smooth even now.
You just have to switch your TV to any sports channel to know that in terms of tournaments, government support, awareness, sports centres, sponsorships and so on, sportswomen are far behind men. Even the Olympics were never as welcoming and progressive towards women athletes as they are today.
In 1900, the president of the IOC was stridently against the participation of women in the Games
In 1900, only 22 women participated in the Olympic games. The president of the International Olympics Committee (IOC) at that time, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was stridently against women competing in the mega sports event.
As it happened, the women’s movement for political rights had begun at the time, and the IOC was the scene of many debates about the participation of women in sports. But the battle continued all the way to the 1920s when sportswomen collaborated with each other and a few sympathisers, and held an alternate sports event in the name of equality.
Alice Milliat, a French athlete and activist, started Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale (FSFI) on 31 October, 1921. In its first meeting, the federation decided to hold an Olympics for women.
The first Women’s Olympics kicked off in Paris, and was a major success. About 20,000 people attended the first day of competition that featured 11 sporting events and athletes from Britain, Czechoslovakia, France, Switzerland, and the United States.
Renamed the Women’s World Games, the tournament was then held in Sweden, Prague and London, and saw increasing participation till 1934, when athletes from 19 countries entered competitions. By 1936, athletes from 30 countries were interested in the Women’s World Games which was supported by the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF). But the tournament could not be held because of lack of support from the “male sport establishment”. However, since the IAAF took over the Women’s World Games and combined it with the Olympic schedule, women were finally welcomed into the fold.
A Russian tennis official once referred to Serena and Venus Williams as ‘the Williams brothers’
Even though Milliat, now almost forgotten, achieved so much for sportswomen, she wouldn’t be pleased with the sexism that women still face in sport today.
During the 2012 London Olympics, for instance, then mayor Boris Johnson told Londoners that among the several “jolly good reasons” to watch the Olympics, was the women’s beach volleyball teams. They are “semi-naked women”, he said, who “glisten like wet otters”.
Then there’s the matter of coverage. A 2003 study of 52 hours of NBC prime-time coverage of the 2002 Winter Olympics showed that men’s events got nearly twice as much coverage as women’s events.
Sports sexism isn’t seen only in the Olympic Games. Tennis ace Serena Williams has often been gratuitously mocked for her body – and not only by commentators. A Women’s Tennis Association official from Russia once referred on TV to Serena and her sister Venus as “the Williams brothers” and said, “It’s frightening to look at them”. The WTA was quick to act: it fined him $25,000 and suspended him from the association for a year.
Instances of sexism in sports abound, making every woman athlete a freedom fighter of sorts, working in her own way, like Milliat, to make the world a more equal place.
When the curtain rises on the Rio Olympics this week, give it up for them.