Ending sexism in sport means including men's synchronised swimming in the Olympic Games

Last night I went to watch Japan beat France in the women’s football Olympic semi final at Wembley. Like quite a few people, including, I imagine, some of the other spectators, I have never watched a women’s football match in my life, which is a travesty because it was at least as exciting and far less aggressive than the overpaid and overindulged men’s version.

This is what is great about the Olympics.  While I’d hesitate to describe women’s football as a minority sport, the games do showcase sports we rarely get to see and, unlike the rest of the time, the men’s and women’s versions mostly get equal billing.  It’s been a long time coming:  London 2012 is, in fact, the first time women will compete in all 26 sports, although there are still 30 fewer events for women than men.

If women are at last finding themselves on something approaching equal footing with men during the games, they are still facing unfair treatment.  There was an outcry when Japan’s world-beating women’s football team flew to London in premium economy while the lower-ranked men’s team were treated to business class.  And Australian basketball bosses ordered a review of travel arrangements after it was revealed their men’s team enjoyed a luxurious business class flight while the women had to slum it in cattle class.

It is tempting to suggest that many of our female athletes have achieved in London despite ongoing sexism in sport, not because it is no longer there.  Olympic cyclist Lizzie Armitstead, who won Britain’s first 2012 medal in the women’s road race, bravely spoke out about how the sexism she encountered could get ‘quite overwhelming and very frustrating’.

Last year, Baroness Grey-Thompson published a report that highlighted the ‘chronic lack of investment’ in women’s sport in the UK from sponsors and broadcasters.  Despite an increasing public appetite for it, women’s elite sport attracts just 0.5% of all commercial sponsorship with 61.1% going to men’s sport and the remainder to mixed sports.  This is not surprising when women’s sport only attracts a 2% share of mainstream media coverage.

The lack of media coverage and sponsorhip go hand in hand and have a serious impact on women’s sport.  Another British cyclist, Emma Pooley, said in the Guardian ‘Women’s cycling really does have a problem…it’s just the races aren’t televised for the most part so for sponsors it’s like night and day compared with men’s cycling…[In] a lot of women’s teams you’re lucky if they buy you a sandwich at the race…sponsors keep pulling out of races so they get cancelled…the calendar has been more than decimated’.

Depressingly, last year the organisers of Wimbledon admitted that ‘good looks are a factor’ in deciding who gets to play on which court and Boris Johnson recently rhapsodised in the Daily Telegraph about ‘semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade…glistening like wet otters’.

Yes, I could easily find examples of women drooling over the guns of male athletes, particularly those competing in the aquatic centre, but, on the whole, if men do have to deal with this sort of objectification they don’t have to deal with the chronic funding, lack of profile and snide comments about their sport being lacking in quality, athleticism or excitement.

Amazingly, London 2012 is the first time in the history of the Games there will be a female entrant from every competing nation.  Saudi Arabia finally lifted a ban on women competing at the Games and sent two female athletes and women from Qatar and Brunei are also attending for the first time.

While many regard this as a step forward for gender equality in global sport, many others believe the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should take a stronger line against countries that systematically discriminate against women and ethnic, religious and sexual minorities.  If some countries ban women from competing at all, in others gay athletes have to hide their sexuality otherwise they risk not being selected for the Olympic squad or worse face harassment or even imprisonment.

It does seem contradictory that South Africa was banned from the games for nearly 30 years for refusing to denounce apartheid and yet Saudi Arabia has not faced a similar sanction, even though physical education is banned for girls because, apparently, it will lead to corrupt morals and lesbianism and is damaging for female health and psyche.

Arguably, a ban would not have had the same impact on Saudi Arabia as it did on sports-mad South Africa (although the end of apartheid didn’t exactly happen soon after).  The Olympics don't usually get much attention from most Saudis and the only sport they are passionate about is football, so it might be more effective to persuade the world football governing body to ban them (if you know anything about FIFA you will know this is my attempt at a joke).

None of this is intended to take away from the utter utter gloriousness of the games in London.  But if the IOC want to make Rio in 2016 even more glorious they should accede to at least one request.  There is a growing lobby calling for an end to discrimination against men in the Olympics, which bans them from competing in synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics.

This may not be the greatest gender equality issue of our time, but if you don’t think sport should get involved in politics and believe banning oppressive regimes from the games achieves little and could even be counter-productive, surely here is a cause you can get behind.  Bring men dancing in the water or prancing about in leotards to the Olympics!  I, for one, would be glued to the screen.  Maybe then the IOC will be a step closer to living up to the high ideals it sets itself.

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