Anita L. DeFrantz

(WOMENSENEWS)–I believe we humans love sport because it involves a very high level of thought. In sport, the mind directs the body through the dimensions of time and space. When spectacular results are experienced, we speak of being in the “zone.” This zone of excellence is available to all humans.

Unfortunately, through myths, stereotypes and bigotry, women have long been excluded fromfully participatingin this birthright.

There were no women in the first modern Olympic Games, in 1896, at Athens. The founder of the modern Olympic Movement, Pierre de Coubertin, was an outspoken opponent of women’s participation in the games.

During the first three quarters of the 20th century, women’s opportunities were frustrated by the bigotry of some sport administrators as well as by the misguided notion that women were too fragile to play sports and that athleticism was antithetical of “true womanhood.” Women made up only a small percentage of the total number of Olympic athletes and women’s Olympic events were just a small portion of the total sports program.

The discrimination on the playing field was repeated at the leadership level. Through the first 85 years of its history, the International Olympic Committee failed to elect a single female member.

It was not until 1981 that the IOC elected its first two female members, Pirjo Haggman of Finland and Flor Isava-Fonseca of Venezuela. By the time Haggman and Fonseca were elected, the IOC already had begun what would prove to be a slow but steady expansion of opportunities for women at the Olympic Games. The changes to the Olympic program between the Munich Games in 1972 and the program for the 2004 Athens Games are dramatic.

Doubling of Female Events

The number of events open to women more than doubled between 1972 and 2004. The percentage of women’s events grew also. At Munich, women competed in only 21 percent of the events. At Sydney, 44 percent of the events were open to women. At the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, 47 percent of the events were open to women. In Athens, 46 percent of the events are open to women. Women will represent 40 percent of the 10,500 athletes who will be competing.

The present Olympic program would have horrified those opponents of women in sport from 50 years ago who claimed to worry that women were too fragile. In Athens women will compete in weightlifting, wrestling, tae kwon do, judo, the marathon, the pole vault and the hammer throw, and the games will be the richer for it.

The advances on the field of play have been impressive. Yet there remain a number of challenges in the world of sport. First, we must continue to insist that the media treat women’s sport with the respect that it deserves. We should not be satisfied with a situation in which the media consistently underreport the accomplishments of female athletes or frame stories in ways that denigrate women.

Sports Coverage Focused on Men

Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles media studies have found that in major U.S. newspapers, for example, stories about men’s sport outnumber stories about women’s by more than 20 to 1. On the leading national television sports news show in the United States, more than 95 percent of all stories are about men only.

Qualitatively, there also are important differences. In brief, women’s sport is portrayed as less serious, less important and less adult. On television, announcers frequently referred to women as “girls,” while male athletes of the same age never were called “boys.”

Announcers tend to use words suggesting psychological strength and control when describing men’s performances, but are much more likely to use words suggesting weakness when discussing female athletes.

Second, it is important to ensure that sport opportunities are available to women everywhere, even in communities where the day-to-day reality of economic life makes sport a challenge. We know that in the poorest countries of the world there are opportunities for men to take part in sport. Economic, religious and cultural barriers must be removed so that women everywhere have the opportunity to take part in sport.

More Female Coaches and Officials

And, finally, people concerned about fairness must continue to push for expanded opportunities for women not only on the field of play, but in the coaching ranks, as officials and as members of the policy making bodies.

The IOC is committed to the principle of strict equality of men and women. And we recognize the importance of having more people involved in sport at every level. The great-untapped human resource of the world is made up of women.

Through their demonstration of athletic prowess and competitive spirit female athletes have contributed to a new understanding of the capabilities of women and their role in society.

If there is anything we have learned in the past quarter century it is that female athletes contribute mightily to the world of sport. Some of the most riveting moments in recent Olympic history, in fact, have involved women.

Consider, for example, Cathy Freeman, the Australian 400-meter runner. Freeman not only lit the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony of the last summer games, she also stood at the starting line several days later with the weight of a nation’s expectations on her shoulders.

More than 110,000 spectators filled the stadium. Some 8.7 million Australians, of a population of 19 million, watched the race on home television. Thousands more watched on huge outdoor television screens in downtown Sydney and at other public venues, as Freeman successfully completed her quest for the gold medal.

“It was,” wrote one journalist, “Australia’s longest minute. There has never been another minute quite like it when so many people . . . focused their will and good wishes on a single young woman

Anita L. DeFrantz, an attorney, was captain of the 1976 U.S. Olympic rowing team that won a bronze medal and is chairwoman of the Women and Sport Working Group of the International Olympic Committee. She is also president of the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles.

For more information:

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