Gender Gap Shrinking Worldwide in Aquatic Sports at Olympic Games

PHOENIX, Arizona, May 8. THE number of women participating in organized sports is continuing to grow around the world, as evidenced by the shrinking gap between the numbers of female athletes and male athletes at the recent Olympics, according to a new report by the Women's Sports Foundation.

The WSF report, published in partnership with the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls, counted the number of male and female athletes at the London Olympics and Paralympics in each medal sport. Fencing was the only sport in which females outnumbered males ona global scale, with 107 women participating, compared to 105 men. Ten other sports in which males and females competed boasted equal numbers of male and female athletes.

Diving was one of those sports, with 68 women and 68 men participating. It's the only aquatic sport in which the male-to-female ratio was 1-1, though swimming got close with 47.5 percent of the roster consisting of women (447 women, 495 men). Water polo wasn't far behind with 40 percent (104 women, 156 men).

The percentage of female participants in swimming at the 2012 Paralympics was slightly lower, as 43 percent of the total number consisted of women.

Globally, the gender gap at the Olympics shrank in 2012, when 44.3 percent of the total number of athletes were women, according to the report. It's the highest percentage in the modern Olympics, according to the WSF report. In Beijing in 2008, that percentage was about 42.4 percent.

When looking specifically at the United States' numbers, the news is brighter. For the first time, the number of female American Olympians outnumbered males. According to the report, 270 women and 262 men participated in London. Compare that to 2008, when 48 percent of the USA Olympic team were women.

The United States Olympic swim team in 2012 had more female participants than males for the second time in this decade, with 25 women participating compared to 24 men. That 51.1 percent, higher than the overall percentage of total swimmers at the meet. In 2004, 22 American women raced in Athens, with just 21 men racing in the Olympics. Michael Phelps qualifying in a large slate of events in 2004 and 2012, as well as Ryan Lochte's heavy workload in 2012, could have been a factor in the lower number of male swimmers.

American female participation in diving also boasted one more female competitor than their male counterparts in 2012(6 to 5), while gender equality existed on the USA water polo teams (13 athletes each). The report stresses that part of the reason the number of women outnumbered the men in some sports could be attributed to a lower number of male athletes qualifying in their respective events.

While the Women's Sports Foundation praises the increasing female participation in sports worldwide, the organization still strives for its ultimate goal: true gender equality in sports.

“Women make up 50 percent of the (world) population, so I can't see any logical reason for women not being 50 percent of the competitors,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the senior director of advocacy at the Women's Sports Foundation and a 1984 swimming Olympic champion.

Having been a swimmer for many years, Hogshead-Makar said she saw firsthand how other sports can emulate swimming, with nearly the same number of males and females training together in the pool at the same time. She also noted that the United States' above-average number of females can be attributed to sports being an integral part of the education system, which few countries do. The foundation's work with enforcing Title IX in high school and college athletics has also played a part in promoting athletic participation among women, Hogshead-Makar said.

“It gives us a vision of what sports could be and makes us want that globally,” she said.

But while female athlete participation is growing at the Olympic level, the number of women in executive positions at the national sport governing bodies in the United States is low. Only six of the 58 leaders of national governing bodies are female, according to the report.

“Different decisions are made when women are seated at the table,” Hogshead-Makar said.

The purpose of the report, she said, is to “give leaders the facts” as they continue to work toward gender equity in sports, particularly in countries where women are only now allowed to participate in organized sports.

“Change doesn't happen typically unless you know the facts,” Hogshead-Makar said. “There's a lot of work to be done to empower women to change sports.”

Click Here to view full Olympic report from the SHARP Center (as PDF file)