Fifth IOC Women and Sport Conference: Breaking Through the Gender Barrier

6 years ago

It’s a wrap. The curtain came down on the Fifth International Olympic Committee World Conference on Women and Sport in downtown Los Angeles after three days of ceremonies, keynotes and panel discussions. The conference, whose theme was “Together Stronger: the Future of Sport,” welcomed more than 750 delegates from 140 countries with the objective of analyzing the progress made within the Olympic Movement and identifying ways to increase the profile of women in the world of sport.

Presentations were packed with charts, graphs and tables showing women’s participation in the Olympic Games over the years. There were a slew of speakers spouting statistics,  underscoring progress or lack thereof, and many important issues discussed – from Saudi Arabia’s participation in the Games, to policy regarding sexual abuse by coaches, to whether women boxers should be required to wear skirts.  

This is a long post in which I try to cover all the conference highlights so feel free to skip to the sections and links most applicable.

The role of female athletes on and off the field of play


The International Olympic Committee (IOC), created in 1894, is a non-governmental organization based in Switzerland. In addition to coordinating the staging of the Olympic Games, the IOC and 205 National Olympic Committees collaborate with a range of public and private entities to place sport at the service of society.

For those interested in numbers, only 23 percent of Olympians at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles were women, a figure that jumps to 43 percent for Beijing 2008 and 45 percent for London 2012. While the field-of-play problem may be almost solved, inequality in the  leadership ranks is still an issue.The IOC has 20 women among its 106 members and four women among its 33 honorary members. Its 15-member executive board has just two women.

The quadrennial Women and Sport Conference, held in the U.S. for the first time, set the stage for the approval of “The Los Angeles Declaration”, a series of recommendations aimed at promoting gender equality in sport and using sport as a tool to improve the lives of women around the world.

Day One: Opening Ceremony & IOC Women and Sport Awards

Opening ceremonies were held at LA Live’s Club Nokia (a bit awkward since Samsung was sponsoring the evening) and included welcoming remarks from President Jacques Rogge and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.  

“We’re pleased to be returning to a city with such great Olympic history,” said the IOC President. “As we join the leaders of the Olympic Movement in working toward the common goal of advancing women in sport, our memories will be taken back to those magical two weeks in 1984 when the world turned its eyes on Los Angeles.”

Anita DeFrantz, the senior U.S. member on the IOC as well as chair of its Women and Sport Commission, noted that London 2012 will feature both sexes competing in every sport on the Olympic program for the first time with the addition of women's boxing. She also called out FIFA for being the only international sports federation that has never had a woman on its governing board.

Courtesy of the IOC/Bob Long

The 2012 Women and Sport Awards were presented with India’s Manisha Malhotra winning the World Trophy for her commitment to helping disadvantaged girls progress through sport. The five continental winners were Peninnah Aligawesa Kabenge (Africa), the Bradesco Sports and Education Progamme and Centre (Americas), Zaiton Othman (Asia), Aikaterini Nafplioti-Panagopoulos (Europe), and Roseline Blake (Oceania).

After the presentation of awards, co-chair Michelle Kwan was joined by tennis legend Billie Jean King, former USWNT soccer captain Julie Foudy and world trophy winner Manisha Malhotra for a short panel discussion. Afterwards, a grand piano was rolled out on stage and I was half hoping for Billie Jean King’s BFF Elton John to perform but instead we were treated to a song by Russian-American songstress Elizaveta. Later, a rousing acapella performance by students from the nearby Archer School for Girls delighted dinner guests.

Day Two: Government, Legislation and Attitudes

This year's conference coincided with the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark U.S. legislation that opened high school and college athletics to women.  The timing was fitting since much of the focus over the three days was on how to how create gender equity for women as both athletes and leaders around the world. 

On Day Two of the conference, I attended a session entitled “Government, Legislation and Attitudes” chaired by IOC member Lassana Palenfo from Cote d’Ivoire. Simultaneous translations allowed speakers to speak in their native tongue and participants to listen and ask questions during the interactive portion.

The focal point of the session was how to get women more involved in sports governance globally.  Although this is one of the on-going goals of the Women and Sport Commission, there was no consensus on how to achieve parity. In fact, each panelist suggested a completely different strategy.

• Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Olympic swimmer turned law professor and advocate for Title IX enforcement believes “it doesn’t happen without a mandate” as in Title IX.

• IOC Member Marit Myrmael of Norway suggests quotas – much like they have done in Norway by requiring public corporations to have a minimum of 40% of their boards of directors comprised of women. "Power is never redistributed willingly," she said.

• Danish NOC president Niels Nygaard, the lone male on the panel, disagreed with quotas, but suggested “women in executive positions must reflect the number of female athletes” according to their membership or other participatory measurement in sports in each country.

• Paralympian Ann Cody, who spoke specifically to the issues faced by physically challenged athletes, also felt there should be required mandates for women, as well as the disabled, in Olympic governing bodies.

Day Three: Women, Sport and the Media

Despite a speaker lineup loaded with dignitaries, IOC members and federation leaders,  Academy-award winner Geena Davis and endurance swimmer Diana Nyad may have been the weekend’s most popular presenters.

Davis opened the third day of sessions with a personal testimony about the power of sport. Not until she took the role of Dottie in 1992's “A League of Their Own” did she discover her untapped athletic ability. "I was coordinated," she said. "It just wasn't until I was 36 until I found that out."  Eventually she became a competitive archer and wound up as a semifinalist for Team USA in 2000.

“Playing sports dramatically improved my self-image and quieted that relentless voice in my brain that told me ‘you’re not good enough.’” Davis revealed.

In full disclosure, I used to work for Davis as a development assistant and although I always thought she was a talented actress, her intelligence is what really set her apart.  In a quest for material to produce she was always progressive, looking for stories about strong women who could be role models.

It’s no surprise then, that years later as the founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Davis funded the largest-ever content analysis on children’s TV programs and also served as a trustee of the Women’s Sports Foundation for 10 years.  In her IOC presentation, Davis showed how female characters depicted in the media are one-dimensional, hyper-sexualized or, more often than not, invisible.  

Nyad, best known for her numerous Cuba-to-Florida long distance swim attempts, also testified to feeling empowered through sport. She revealed that qualities such as confidence, long-term belief, discipline, and grace in defeat were constructed as a personal foundation through her participation in sports.

Never one to mince words, Nyad called out the IOC for the pace at which the Olympic program achieved gender balance.

“How long did it take to persuade the body of Olympic organizers that the marathon doesn’t damage female genitals?” she asked, reminding audience members that the marathon was one of the original modern Olympic events in 1896 but women didn't compete until 1984 in Los Angeles.

Nyad also pointed to the recent addition of women’s ski jumping to the Olympic programme despite the fact that “For 100 years, women have powerfully and gracefully been flying off mountaintops with the exact same power and grace as the men”.

Reflecting on the progress, Nyad noted on her own blog:

When we hear from the women of many African and Middle-Eastern countries, where playing sports is a luxury far beyond simple rights such as voting and basic education, the conference turns to programs and ideas that include a vision of one day allowing all women to garner the wealth of joy and character that come with pursuing our athlete selves….a pursuit that our brothers seem to earn as a birth right.

Women and Media Panel Discussion

USC Professor and member of the IOC Press Commission Alan Abrahamson moderated an afternoon panel on the media coverage of women’s events. He was joined by long-time friend and USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, NBC Olympics Producer Molly Solomon, Olympian and Women's Sports Foundation Chair Benita Fitzgerald-Mosley and Canal+ Sports Journalist Zeghidi Mourad.

Brennan, who has long been critical of the IOC’s treatment of women, repeated her disappointment about Softball being dropped from the Games.  Earlier Olympic gold medalist Jennie Finch made a heartfelt plea on behalf of the sport while accepting an award. The decision to eliminate Softball from the Games is still mystifying.

Brennan also called out Rogge and the IOC for opening the conference with a video montage that highlighted mostly male athletes. I felt the same way about the Olympics magazine given out during the event- an issue that featured very few women.

During the media panel, it was pointed out that the spotlight is on female athletes during the two weeks of the Olympic Games but not for the 206 weeks between Games.

In pointing out that women are not marginalized during the Olympics, producer Solomon noted that 52 percent of NBC's viewership is female   She revealed that storytelling is her network’s secret ingredient and key to the way women consume sports. She also believes that the Olympics offer one of the last great family TV viewing experiences. For the London Games, NBC will stream 3600 hours of Olympic coverage and broadcast 1700 television hours. That’s a lot of quality family time.

Boxing Skirts or Shorts?

The choice to make skirts mandatory for women boxers has been a hotly debated subject for months. IOC member Ching-Kuo Wu, who is also president of the Amateur International Boxing Association, brought a significant message about the issue of mandatory boxing skirts for women. 

"I want to clarify what's been said over the past six months. We never asked women to wear skirts. We heard recommendations about this from national federations and boxers, and made the option,"  Wu said during the media panel.

“I can say through this discussion [at an executive meeting in Bangkok] last month I think we tend to go to the decision is optional,” he revealed to a round of applause. However “men cannot choose optional,” he added.

Sexual Abuse

Keynote speaker Diana Nyad has publically accused her high school swim coach of abuse. Many other athletes, including gymnasts, claim abuse by their coaches as well. It's an underreported problem that the IOC fell short of addressing adequately.

One attendee in Nyad's session suggested a national registry for sports coaches convicted of harrassment or pedophilia, to which Nyad responded, "Why wait for a conviction? If you're fired [for one of these issues] you're out [of coaching]."

Despite comments and concerns voiced throughout the conference from women delegates, the IOC failed to include any sort of implementation mechanisms in its consensus statement.

Growing Up in a Gender-Balanced Sporting Society

One of the conference highlights for me was on the final day, when IOC member and former WNT hockey player Angela Ruggiero moderated a panel of young athletes, reporters and ambassadors reflecting on their Youth Olympic Games experiences. Each  spoke eloquently about the role of women and sport in their respective countries and provided a window into what the future looks like.

Closing Ceremony

There was a lot of great dialogue and exchange of ideas over the three days, but at times I felt like I was watching the congressional hearings on reproductive rights. While a majority of attendees were women, many of the presenters and decision makers were men. On stage for the closing ceremony, DeFrantz was joined by four male colleagues. Not quite as bad as what recently happened in Washington but reminiscent of the gross imbalance nonetheless. Most international federations will choose new leaders in the next  couple years however, and DeFrantz is committed to helping more women move into leadership positions.

The closing recommendations of the conference are now available on the IOC’s website. Click here to read the so-called “Los Angeles Declaration” in its entirety.

Saudi Arabia’s Participation in the Olympics

During the closing press conference, IOC president Jacques Rogge said he was hopeful that Saudi Arabia will send athletes of both sexes to London 2012.

“We are working together with the National Olympic Committee of Saudi Arabia to ensure participation of female athletes,” Rogge said, “and I am cautiously optimistic that we will succeed.”

A semi-positive note to end the conference on.


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