Gender Barriers in the Olympics: What we broke and what stayed the same

Published On August 13, 2012 | By Zoë Hayden

Last week I wrote about the public perception of athletic beauty at the Olympics via the less-followed sport of female weightlifting.  The closing ceremonies were Sunday, on the heels of the events that seem to cause Olympic chatter to die down perceptibly.  After so many track events, swimming events, and artistic gymnastics events, after most of the medals have been awarded, the typical American loses interest–much like I lose interest in the Winter Olympics after the gold medal game in ice hockey.

Two later and less-followed events are the only women’s-only events at the Olympics: synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics.  Both of them were added to the Olympic calendar fairly recently, in 1984, and can seem to casual viewers as both afterthoughts and 1980’s relics. While women make strides into traditionally male sporting events — such as boxing, which debuted for women in London, and freestyle wrestling, which has been a women’s event since 2004 — the street doesn’t seem to go both ways.

The sports are indeed highly subjective.  Synchronized swimming is judged with equal consideration to both technical skill and artistic merit of choreography on a scale of 100.  Rhythmic gymnastics currently scores on three areas and a scale of 30: technical, artistic, and execution.  Since the choreography involved in the routines for both events blurs the line between sport and art, its competitive atmosphere is a bit different. Deductions and failures occur, of course, as in any other Olympic sport, but without the hard and fast numbers and clear winners/losers of other Olympic events, it’s harder for the uninitiated to follow along. Their athleticism and skill is impossible to deny, but the events’ suspense element is somewhat lacking for the average viewer.

Rhythmic gymnastics appeals to only a niche audience in the Western world, and very few athletes compete from outside Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Those that do often fail to pass qualification to medal events.  Synchronized swimming’s popularity is slightly more widespread–but only very slightly. Russia received the gold medal in each event for each of these sports, in fact: women’s duets and women’s team events in synchronized swimming, as well as individual all-around and group all-around in rhythmic gymnastics. The smaller pool of international athletes also takes away from the sports’ popularity–Russian athletes are almost always the favorites, and rarely do they see any tough or even surprise competition in either event.  Could opening up the sports to men change the cultures surrounding them, adding another element to competition and increasing general interest?

It’s a question that puts inclusiveness in perspective from both a gender and cultural standpoint. Baseball and softball were voted out of the Olympic program for 2012 and beyond during an IOC meeting in 2005.  The obvious reason was because Major League Baseball never reached an agreement with its teams that would allow top athletes to compete. While softball is a completely separate event, it seemed to be thrown out by default along with baseball due to the sports’ similarities. However, speculation also suggested that the IOC’s European majority was biased against a sport popular almost exclusively in the Americas and parts of Asia. The European majority of competitors in rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming may be what saves it from a similar fate.

The gender issue is also complex. Julie Zetlin, the only US competitor in individual all-around for rhythmic gymnastics this year, stated recently in an interview with The New York Times that she thinks “rhythmic gymnastics should just stay a girl-power sport.”

One wonders what would be said if a competitor in Greco-Roman wrestling, an event that still only includes men, said he wanted it to remain a “guy sport.” It also relates back to the issue of international appeal: men’s rhythmic gymnastics is primarily popular in Japan, where heavy competition starts at a high school level. Getting other nations and cultures on board with men’s rhythmic is no small task.

Men’s synchronized swimming faces similar problems. Men often compete on teams with women due to the difficulty of comprising a competitive team exclusively with male athletes, and are barred from competition with their teammates should they meet Olympic qualification. The whole of the United Kingdom only has one men’s synchronized swimming team, who petitioned the IOC to allow it entry into the Games without any success, though they compete in the EuroGames and the Gay Games, LGBT-friendly international competitions which open the sport to men. The American synchro league, U.S. Synchro, allows men’s teams to compete alongside women’s teams. The sport’s popularity seems to be growing in the US and Europe, but it has yet to fully enter into the mainstream.

Logically, the biggest question about allowing men’s competitions in these sports should come down to the quality of the competition and ability to get enough athletes to participate. And the biggest question about whether the events should continue at all at an Olympic stage should be the same one. The more people allowed to vie for a competition spot, however, the more likely a deep field of competition will be, as the chance of an Olympic berth is usually enough to get young athlete in any country excited about a sport.

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About The Author

Zoë Hayden is a 22-year-old writer from Hopwood, Pennsylvania currently living in Boston. She is a graduate of Emerson College and enjoys covering hockey, international sports tournaments, technology, history, science, and gender issues. You can find her on Twitter: @zoeclaire_