By Laura Pappano
In 1963, a Sports Illustrated story headlined, “Why Can’t We Beat This Girl?” got at one tender aspect of the Cold War conflict: U.S. Olympic medal counts suffered in comparison to the Soviets because American women, we learned, “will not even try.”
No need to worry about that now. This is being called “the Title IX Olympics,” the year in which female athletes on Team U.S.A. outnumber men, 269 to 271.
Much is made of this, but it’s not the whole story. Women have made strides on and off the field. They outnumber men on college campuses and are ascending to key roles in business and government, triggering a new iteration of the mommy wars.
The upside and downside of women’s quest for equality is a debate between the generations on the meaning and role of working and mothering. Like the rings revealed in a cut tree, we can track our growth in a way men collectively cannot, aware of droughts and years of plentiful rain.
The political importance of sports – particularly the Olympics – makes this a thick-ring year. Not only are numbers impressive, but many competitors are also mothers, trumping old beliefs that childbearing came after an athletic career.
Even so, gender disparities remain. There may be more female competitors, but there are fewer events in which they are allowed to compete (read: fewer medal opportunities). And within sports with male and female versions, rule differences continue to mark women’s events as “lesser.”
In shooting, for example, there are nine events for men and six for women. And within events, men often shoot from further distances and more rounds – even though the sport is completely co-ed at the collegiate level and that until 1996 women once competed alongside men at the Olympics. (In 1992 female competitor Zhang Shan of China won gold in the skeet shooting event).
Even in popular events like swimming, there are differences. There is no 1,500m freestyle for women (they do 800m instead). In water polo, 12 men’s teams compete; only eight women’s teams do. In kayak events, women have shorter distances, half as many events, and in canoe, do not race at all. In sailing there are six events for men; four for women. There are fewer women’s events in wrestling and rowing; fewer women’s teams in soccer. This list is not exhaustive.
The point: We are not there yet.
The Olympics are political, not just among countries seeking medals, but among female athletes seeking equal opportunity for glory. It’s well and good that the Queen can parachute, but the pomp, pageantry, and excitement of the games should not trump the ideal of fair play.