Canadian paddler Laurence Vincent-Lapointe watched on television, thousands of miles away, when IOC president Jacques Rogge announced at the opening ceremonies that every country at the Olympic Games was, for the first time, sending a woman to compete.
“This is a major boost for gender equity,” he said, to great applause.
But not for Vincent-Lapointe, a three-time world champion paddler. The IOC allowed women’s kayak onto its schedule this year, but no races for canoe. The world/canoe championships did not offer races for female canoeists until 2010.
“The definition of equality being used is extremely superficial,” said Kathleen Lahey, a law professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. who spearheads an ongoing review project of gender equity among interested law students.
The major problem that women face in sport is not the hijabs, beach volleyball bikinis, and suggestion of skirts for women’s boxing and badminton, although all of them are disturbing issues, she said.
“I would look beyond the clothing issue,” Lahey said, who believes that if sport organizations fixed the financial support issue to women, that women’s sport would advance more quickly.
Women still have difficulty getting access to Olympic sport and even to sport at the grassroots level, she said. Although Canada’s Olympic team is 55.96 per cent female - the highest percentage in Olympic history - and the United States is fielding more women than men for the first time, financial support doesn’t trickle down to female athletes from their sporting associations as readily as it does for the men, even down to the local levels, Lahey said.
This year, she said, in a review of Sport Canada financing to sport, 60 per cent of national sports organizations provided more funding to men, and only two provided equal funding. Because the paper is coming before a peer review and is soon to be published, she did not specify detailed figures that track spending.
“It’s a combination of discriminatory attitudes within states themselves, within international sport federations, within the IOC executive board and within the executive office, at the very top,” she added.
The 135-member International Olympic Committee has only 15 female members. And only one woman in 15 sits on the executive board.
In Canada, Lahey’s research shows that 43 per cent of the financing envelope goes to women, Lahey said. In whitewater canoe, female athletes received only 10.7 per cent of the financing, only 19.7 per cent in sailing, and 39.3 per cent in tennis. Her research statistics are based on Athlete Assistance Program figures on the Heritage Canada website.
However, large portions of Sport Canada and Own the Podium financing goes to sports and to athletes with medal and top-performance potentials. In the case of the Canadian Yachting Association, it is sending nine males and two females to the Olympic Games in London, out of 16 possible boats. But the classes in which Canadians failed to qualify were all female ones.
Paddy Boyd, executive director of the association, said funding is meted out in proportion to the male-female split on the Olympic team, hence Lahey’s figure of 19.3 per cent.
At the Olympic Games, there are eight sailing categories each for men and women.
Historically, sailing was a sport that allowed women and men to compete in the same class, in the same boat. For example, Canada fielded women as part of the three-crew Soling boat during the 1990s. However, by 2000, the IOC, in an attempt to equalize the gender balance in sport, ordained that men and women compete in different classes, Boyd said. One of the remaining sports not required to do so is equestrian sport.
“A lot of us have grown up sailing in a non-gender specific sport,” Boyd said. “And the gender split doesn’t necessarily suit us….Every sport struggles with how to keep young women involved in the sport.”
While the IOC is making an effort to include women in sport, it operates “in slow motion,” said Karin Lofstrom, executive director of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport. “If they really wanted to, they could move things faster. “
The IOC set a target in 1996 for females to hold 20 per cent of the positions in ruling bodies, but currently only about 10 per cent of these positions are held by women.
And although women’s boxing makes its debut at the London Games, women will compete in only three weight classes, compared to 10 for men. There are only 36 female boxers among the 286 boxers that will compete at the Games.
While the numbers of female boxers has soared since the IOC announced an Olympic boxing event for women in August of 2009, female boxers make up only 10 per cent of the world’s amateur boxers at this point. While the most recent men’s world championships featured 685 competitors from 127 countries, the women’s counterpart event offered up 305 boxers from 70 countries, with most of them coming from Asia and Europe and very few from Africa and Oceania.
Robert Crete, executive director of Boxing Canada, said sport associations requested five weight categories for women but were awarded three by the IOC, because of its desire to cap the number of competitors at the Summer Games to about 10,000 athletes. If one event is added, another has to be sacrificed. The IOC pared down the numbers of male competitors to add the female events.
Crete says Boxing Canada doesn’t receive much financing for non-Olympic weight divisions although internationally, women compete in all 10 classes. “It’s still a fairly new sport,” he said. “It’s a catch-22 situation there.”
Cuba, a powerhouse in amateur boxing, is fielding no female boxers at all to the London Games.
“It’s complete discrimination to not allow women to participate in some sports,” said Lahey. Although women compete exclusively in synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics, females still take part in 30 fewer events than men. In London, 132 gold medals are available for women, compared to 162 for males.
Currently, women make up about 45 per cent of the 10,500 athletes at the Games, up from 25 per cent at the Barcelona Games in 1992.
“You can pick the level you want to focus on and you’ll see different things,” Lahey said. For instance, British cyclist Lizzie Armitstead dismounted her bicycle after winning a silver medal in the road race, and immediately spoke about the “overwhelming and frustrating” sexism that persists in salary, media coverage and just “general things you have to cope with in your career.”
The background structural factors are keeping “this very slowly changing process almost immobile,” Lahey said. “And until women get access to a particular sport, they cannot get access to the funding that national governments divert into sport at the local, regional and national level.”
“Without that money for facilities, equipment, training time, coaching, women are at an incredible disadvantage and will always remain so.”
Witness the seating arrangements for Japanese soccer teams heading to London: men flew first class, while its women’s team – the World Cup champions – travelled in economy. The rationale was that the men’s team was made up of professional players.
And it wasn’t a solitary incident. The Australian men’s basketball team – which has never won an Olympic medal - flew first class to London, while the women’s team – silver medalists in the past three Olympics – flew in the cheap seats.
As for Vincent-Lapointe, she says she would have liked to have competed in London, but “I will wait for my turn and support the athletes [who are there].”
“I am proud of the progress that women have accomplished in [canoe],” she said. “We were thought of as almost beginners in certain cases because we were girls, but now the paddling world sees us from a different angle and we even get to participate in international races.”
Just not at the Olympics, yet.