12 Aug 2012

London 2012: was this the women’s Olympics?

After boxing and taekwondo were contested by women for the first time and women’s football pulled in record crowds, Channel 4 News asks if London 2012 was a turning point for women’s sport.

London 2012: was this the women's Olympics? (Getty)

The IOC has hailed the London 2012 Games as “an historic step towards gender equality”.

This was the first Olympics where women competed in all events. For the first time, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei sent female sportswomen to the Games.

Saudi Arabia put forward two women to compete: 16-year-old Wojdan Shaherkani in the judo and 19-year-old Sarah Attar in the women’s 800 metres. One third of Qatar’s 12-strong team were women, competing in shooting, athletics, swimming and table tennis.

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei’s only female competitor (in a team of three) finished outside the official qualifying time for the women’s 400m, but received special dispensation to compete.

Campaigners from NoWomenNoPlay, which lobbies for the inclusion of women in sport, say the Saudi team’s women were “tokenistic”.

Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, which campaigns for greater female involvement in sport, argues that on the contrary the first ever appearance of Saudi women at the Games has been one of the “great female moments” of this year’s Olympics – alongside Nicola Adams becoming the first female Olympic boxing champion and Team GB’s women beating Brazil.

Dr Helen Pankhurst, the great grandaughter of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and ambassador for Care International, told Channel 4 News that the inclusion of the Saudi women had created “a fantastic situation” which “must be sending a message” and empowering women. She describes the large number of gold medals won by female competitors as “symbolically important”.

‘The girl’s games’

While male athletes like Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, GB’s Mo Farah and the USA’s Michael Phelps have dominated the headlines, women athletes also fought their way onto the back, and front, pages.

Great Britain’s female team members have become stars over the last two weeks: from poster athlete Jessica Ennis winning the heptathlon with a series of personal bests, to boxing champion Adams making sporting history.

Tibballs said: “With more female competitors and more medal opportunities than ever before we think this has been the best Olympics ever for women – and the amazing performances from Team GB women have been the icing on the cake!”

“2012 will be remembered as the girl’s games”, she added.

UK Sport, responsible for investing public funds in high performance sport, agrees. A spokesperson said: “This games is the women’s games if nothing else for the inspirational medal winning moments provided by our female elite athletes – most of which were gold.”

With 48.2 per cent of athletes that made Team GB for London 2012 being female and, for the first time, more women than men on the US team, UK Sport says we are “getting there” in terms of gender equality.

Nicola Adams (G)

Breaking tradition

Female involvement and the fight for equality in sport was signalled at the opening ceremony of the Games when, after the industrial revolution sequence, a troop of women dressed as suffragettes filed into the stadium.

Things have come a long way since the first Olympics in 1896, when all competitors were men. In 1900 women were allowed to compete for the first time, but were not awarded medals until the following Games. It has taken just over 100 years for women to be allowed to compete in all sports.

Sports like boxing are finally opening to women. It is the last sport to achieve Olympic gender equality.

Martial arts like taekwondo and BMX riding are also changing perceptions about the kinds of sports women can take part in.


Despite the optimism for women, Tibballs warned: “It is essential that we do not let the legacy of 2012 fade away. Ordinarily women’s sport attracts just 5 per cent of all media coverage and receives 0.5 per cent of all commercial sponsorship.”

Pankhurst praised the political comments made by women athletes about the need to level the playing field: “In any sphere, if you strive for gender equality it rubs off in other spheres.”

At the beginning of the Games, silver medallist Lizzie Armitstead voiced frustration at “overwhelming sexism” in sport. She argued that the low profile given to female sportswomen leads to less interest and less investment.

In response to Armitstead’s comments, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt told Channel 4 News: “The Olympics is actually much much better than sports like football and rugby in terms of giving a high profile to women.”

Yet although progress is clear, there is still some distance to go before real parity is achived. Last month there was outrage when female athletes on Japan’s football team and Australia’s basketball team were flown economy to the Olympics while their male counterparts travelled business class. The IOC provides teams with economy airfares, but it is up to the team if they wish to upgrade the tickets.

Shadow Olympics minister Tessa Jowell has said that the next Games in Rio should be the first “gender equally games”, adding that there was “still a lot further to go”.