Sussing out the Olympic Movement: Where are the Women? An essay by Olga Stein


Sussing out the Olympic Movement: Where are the Women:?

As I tell the students in my sociology of sports course, the Olympics, and the organization at its centre, the International Olympic Committee, is worth studying. So much of what goes on in the world of sports—the good, the bad, and the ugly, pardon the cliché—converges on the Olympics. This includes unabashed nationalism and national rivalries, naked ambition or self-aggrandizement on the part of senior members of national sport organizations (NSOs), delegates, coaches, and participating athletes. Crass commercialism invariably rears its ugly head at the Games, and company logos are so ubiquitous that visitors to sports venues might experience a profound disconnect; they might feel as if they are somewhere other than in the city and country hosting the Games (critics of neoliberalism would argue that it’s the perfect instance of capitalism’s colonizing of the sphere of physical culture, as well as local culture more generally). Of course the branding of just about everything—which is also the selling of everything along with our collective soul—is a global phenomenon. It’s just that this merging of business, sport, and an ideology that depends on zero-sum thinking and objectives, is nowhere as fully on display as it is at the Olympics. Darwinism acquires new layers of meaning at these international sport mega-events.

The Olympics are truly a festival of universals. Everything noble or magnificent about the human spirit and body is to be witnessed there. Disappointment and heartbreak, which usually have to do with the limits of physical (as well as psychological) endurance, speed, and strength, are universal. The desire to overcome these limitations by any means also appears to be universal, as we’ve witnessed with findings of performance enhancing drugs that ended athletes’ careers, and the more egregious revelations of state-run doping programs: East Germany’s initially, and more recently, Russia’s. No doubt we’ll soon be reading about transgressions committed by American athletes and coaches, despite USADA’s trumpeting very loudly its commitment to clean athletics.

State-supported use of banned substances to boost performance are just the more obvious instances of ideological competition between nation-states with very different political and economic systems. Yet the athletes themselves, their striving to bring home the gold, individually or as part of a team, have also been drawn into national rivalries—even before the Cold War period. Importantly, sport, and international contests especially, have always been about more than sport, as the language or parlance of competitive sport—invariably associated with violence—demonstrates. Some of the less offensive expressions refer to athletes being “secret weapons,” records being “smashed,” and opponents as there to be “annihilated.” This is innocuous of course when compared to what actually goes on when coaches are rallying their teams or when players go head to head on a field, in an arena, or swimming pool (water polo too can be the bloodiest of contests).

All this is to say that there is a connection between sports, the Olympic Games, and real-world hostilities—political and military. Pierre de Coubertin, the French aristocrat, educator and historian, who was most responsible for the revival of the modern Games at the end of the 19th Century, ostensibly to promote internationalism, was entirely aware of this aspect of sports competition. Having read about Thomas Arnold’s ideas on the role of athletics in education, he toured Rugby School and other private academies in England in 1883 and 1886. Coubertin was impressed by what he witnessed first hand. He reasoned that it was a cornerstone of Britain’s success as an empire. He then went on to advocate for organized sport in French schools.

Sports, Dr. Arnold believed, turned the young men in his charge (mostly boys from privileged segments of society) into leaders capable of wielding power. Rigorous physical activity and competition inculcated “moral principle, [and] gentlemanly conduct.” Moreover, as Coubertin grasped, sport prepared young men for war mentally and physically.

Coubertin was born before the Franco-Prussian War. France had been badly defeated in 1871, and Coubertin grew to adulthood witnessing the political fallout. There was anxiety in France over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Bismarck. In general, a unified and powerful German state further destabilized Europe’s already dysfunctional balance of power. The possibility of another war with Germany was therefore not remote. Yet France, as Coubertin could see from the vantage point of an insider, was underprepared. The upper classes were pampered and soft, while the young men of the middle classes—those eager to emulate the creature comforts and cultural pursuits of elite society—were largely the same. A revived Olympics, Coubertin hoped, would serve not merely as a type of cultural exchange between participating nations; they would also help toughen France’s gentlemen, and France itself. Jeffrey Segrave, a scholar of the Olympics, captured Coubertin’s more subterranean motives for transforming France’s elite: “This new elite [would be] a sort of revamped French gentry federated by sports, which would allow France to once again assume leadership status among European nations and, indeed, the world at large in the commercial, military, and colonial realms.”

It’s unlikely that anyone would be surprised to read that the relationship between physical contests and war (indeed, imperialism) has a very long history. Nevertheless, some readers may not be aware of the extent to which this relationship shaped Coubertin’s vision. Coubertin insisted (and waxed lyrical at great length) that the Games would enable friendly competition and promote mutual understanding between participating countries. The resulting tenet of Olympism, the philosophy and the movement it inspired, endures to this day. For those who are familiar with the history of the modern Olympics the irony is too obvious—particularly in view of the ways the Olympics were co-opted by the Nazis for the 1936 Games in Berlin, and by the West and Eastern-block countries during the Cold War.

Regarding Coubertin’s plans for the Olympics and the International Olympic Committee (which was founded in 1894), a larger point needs to be made. This relates to the role of women in the Olympics, as athletes and as members of the IOC and its affiliates serving as decision-makers. What can’t be emphasized enough is that from the get-go, the Games were a masculinist project. More striking perhaps is that in essence the Olympics and their entire organizational structure and leadership remained this way until almost the end of the 20th Century. Primarily there lies the rub.

It’s certainly the case that even among the leisure classes, sports were considered the exclusive domain of men until the early part of the 20th Century. Sports competitions were intended to appeal to men, and only secondarily to women, who were expected to attend sports events only to admire the manful exertions on display. Coubertin famously rejected the notion of women competing at the Games in an article he penned for the Revue Olympique in July of 1912. Over the course of his 40-year association with the IOC, his views on females at the Olympics changed not one whit. By 1935, women were voting in national elections in the US and Britain (and in many other Western and Eastern European countries). Yet Coubertin still insisted, in “The Philosophic Foundation of Modern Olympism,” that women “should be [at the Olympic Games] above all to crown the victors.” His understanding of women and the world in general precluded the notion that women could be heroes and vice-versa.

Jennifer Hargreaves notes in Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women’s Sport: “From the start, the modern Olympics was a context for institutionalized sexism, severely hindering women’s participation. They were a powerful conservatizing force.” I’d go even further and suggest that where women were concerned, the leadership of the IOC was like a jar that remained neatly sealed for 90 years. Its chauvinism  had stayed perfectly preserved on the inside, and free of any noteworthy efforts to spoil it from without. While the rest of the world had lumbered toward improving women’s rights and gender parity, the IOC had not a single woman contributing in any capacity until the start of the 1980s. Finnish Pirjo Häggman and Venezuelan Flor Isava-Fonseca became the IOC’s first female members in 1981. In 1990, a full nine years later, Isava-Fonseca became the first woman elected to the IOC Executive Board. Perhaps the IOC’s reluctance to make room for women even as backbenchers shouldn’t surprise us. Since its founding, the IOC had been headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland, which had a certain kind of climate: Switzerland didn’t grant suffrage to women until 1971.

I would argue, nevertheless, that it is the aforementioned context of rivalry between nations, and the meanings accorded to demonstrations of strength at the Games, that have been the greatest barrier to women’s participation in the Olympic movement. The Games’ internationalism meant that the goal of friendly competition was subsumed by other aims: that of showcasing national/regime competency, and by implication, nations’ capacity for warfare. Such a formal and august context—one, as Coubertin foresaw, would establish a pecking order among member countries—was deemed too vital for the involvement of women either as athletes or decision-makers.

*   *   *

This past year, like all other university and college instructors, I have been teaching online, and rediscovering the power of images when judiciously assembled into PowerPoint presentations. Several of the snapshots I used this past term neatly capture the state of current affairs as they relate to the Olympics and the preparations under way for the Tokyo Games. One image is of Seiko Hashimoto, a seven-time Olympian and the new President of Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The second image is of Momoko Nojo, the 22-year-old student activist who brought down the previous Tokyo Olympics chief, Yoshiro Mori, with her “DontBeSilent campaign.” In other words, Seiko Hashimoto, the first female to head a Japanese Olympic committee didn’t get to be president just because she was eminently qualified. Her appointment to this prestigious post was to a large extent the outcome of Nojo’s social media blitz, which quickly gathered wide support for a petition that would remove Mr. Mori for his disparaging remarks about women. Motoko Rich’s article, published on February 11, 2021, in the New York Times, offers a brief explanation: “Mr. Mori, who is 83 and a former prime minister of Japan, had made the offensive remarks after an executive meeting on Feb. 3 of the Japanese Olympic Committee. During the session, which was streamed online, he addressed efforts to increase female representation on the panel by expressing worries that meetings would drag on as women vied against each other to speak the longest.” Mr. Mori asserted that women talk too much in meetings.

To be sure, Mr. Mori is of a certain vintage, age-wise, but culturally too. In his private life, and with his wife and daughter, he may be a regular teddybear, but where the public sphere of Japan is concerned, he is, unfortunately, representative of prevailing attitudes toward women in positions of leadership. A Thomson Reuters article on the intrepid Momoko Nojo stated that “Japan is ranked 121st out of 153 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Index—the worst ranking among advanced countries—scoring poorly on women’s economic participation and political empowerment.” This particular instance of an Olympics-related flash point, which culminated in Mr. Mori’s ousting and his replacement with Seiko Hashimoto, underscores the clashing realities in a society that maintains older men in positions of power, yet is sensitive and vulnerable to the kinds of criticism unleashed by Ms. Nojo and other young people eager for change.

It is telling, in my view, that the IOC initially told Reuters that it considered the “issue closed” after Mr. Mori apologized (adding that he had been scolded at home by his womenfolk). The IOC seemed to change its position only when the backlash against Mr. Mori grew too voluble to be ignored. Grasping that the drama surrounding Mr. Mori had turned the incident into an opportunity, it came out denouncing his deprecating comments. The IOC’s president, Thomas Bach, then issued a statement welcoming Hashimoto’s appointment once it had been confirmed: “With the appointment of a woman as President, the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee is also sending a very important signal with regard to gender equality, which is one of the topics we addressed in Olympic Agenda 2020, the reform programme for the IOC and the Olympic Movement.”

How does one explain the IOC’s initial waffling on the matter of Mori and his disparagement of women in senior positions? Is there something valuable to be gleaned from this 2020 Olympics episode—such as the fact that the IOC may have the will to fight for gender equality, but lacks resolve or sufficient muscle? Last year’s IOC Factsheet, “Women in the Olympic Movement” (updated in June 2020), reminded us that “in 1996 the IOC took the historic step of amending the Olympic Charter to include an explicit reference to the IOC’s role in advancing women in sport for the first time.” Accordingly, the language in the Charter “strongly encourages, by appropriate means, the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures, particularly in the executive bodies of national and international sports organizations with a view to the strict application of the principle of equality of men and women” (Olympic Charter, 1996).

One month before the publication of the Factsheet, the IOC announced the composition of its commissions for 2020. With 47.7 percent of positions across the 30 commissions held by women, the IOC congratulated itself on having achieved an “all-time high and a concrete manifestation of one of the key focuses of the Olympic Agenda 2020 reforms—to encourage the whole Olympic Movement to advance gender equality both on and off the field.” Apparently, “[s]ince 2013, as a result of Olympic Agenda 2020, female participation in the IOC commissions has more than doubled (coming from 20 per cent in 2013).”

These are some of the metrics the IOC uses to boost its legitimacy. Even a well established NGO has to work to maintain approval ratings (nowadays, public approval or popularity also determines institutional prestige). Here a level-headed pause helps one realize that some numbers are less meaningful than others. To be clear, jobs with IOC commissions count for something, but they’re not the same as sought-after positions on IOC or NOC (National Olympic Committee) executive boards. Perhaps this is why the shakeup in Tokyo is a telling indicator of the kinds of spaces women do or don’t occupy in Olympic organizations.

A concluding passage in the aforementioned Factsheet provides a truer picture of women’s progress in landing senior posts in IOC affiliated agencies: “While the participation of women in physical activities and the Olympic Games has steadily increased over the years, the percentage of women in governing and administrative bodies of the Olympic Movement has remained low.” On the one hand, at the 2016 Olympics, female competitors comprised 45 percent of participating athletes; on the other, the target of 30 percent representation for women in executive-level positions had not been reached at the time of the Factsheet’s publication in 2020.

Anyone who is curious to know how things really stand for women who’re after those positions should spend some time with a study authored by Professor Ian P. Henry and Dr. Leigh Robinson at the Centre for Olympic Studies & Research, at Loughborough University. This 120-page document was commissioned by the Department of International Cooperation and Development, and published in 2010. It’s a thorough report, and its findings are available to the public. One of the primary goals of the research was to “establish what the current situation was in relation to the recruitment of women to executive committees of the National Olympic Committees and International Federations.” The Executive Summary contains a significant caveat:

Culture — Organisational Cultures and National Political Cultures: The place of gender equity in decision making roles is in part a reflection of wider cultural processes. These processes might be evident at the local/organisational level; at the domain level (the sports domain); and the national level. Culture is constituted by the values, beliefs, assumptions attitudes and behaviours of a group of people, whether members of an organisation, a domain or a wider community/society. There may be a range of cultures within an organisation, particularly a large and complex body, and there will certainly be diversity in national cultures,….

The proviso leads to an anticipated type of disclaimer (to my mind, regrettable nonetheless) at the end of the study, in the section titled “Conclusions and Summary of Actions for Implementation”:

The development of measures to foster performance in gender equity in NOCs, Continental Associations of NOCs, and IFs is complicated by the fact that while the IOC can encourage and promote equity measures in these bodies, it cannot require them as such since it has no authority to do so. In essence the IOC has little room for manoeuvre in terms of sanctions it might apply….However rather than sanctions, positive reinforcement of good practice is likely to provide a more acceptable vehicle for promoting good practice. Consideration for example might be given to making an annual award to NOCs or IFs which promote gender equity in a consistent or imaginative fashion.

I must confess that the authors’ recommendation to incentivize practices that promote gender equality within the above-named affiliated agencies, rather than impose sanctions on those that fail to do so, caught me off-guard. The rationale for this approach appears in a footnote: “A severe sanction would of course be to deny access to the Games to those bodies which refused to conform. This would however seem a somewhat illogical course of action since in striving for universal representation on one dimension (gender) exclusion of NOCs would sacrifice a second dimension of universalism (inclusion of all nations/cultures).”

Such reasoning, offered on behalf of the IOC, an organization that banned the South African National Olympic Committee from the Olympics for 24 years (and made a crucial contribution in the fight to end Apartheid), comes across as inexplicably weak-kneed. But perhaps all the talk of universalism highlights an aspect of the Olympics already discussed: the universal tendency to put women and their needs on the back burner while the real and important work is carried out. The show must go on.



Coubertin, Pierre de (1912), The Women at the Olympic Games, in Olympism: selected writings. Lausanne: IOC, 2000, pp. 711–713.

Coubertin, Pierre de (1928), Educational Use of Athletic Activity, in Olympism: selected writings. Lausanne: IOC, 2000, pp. 184–194.

Coubertin, Pierre de (1935), The Philosophic Foundation of Modern Olympism, in Olympism: selected writings. Lausanne: IOC, 2000, pp. 80–583.

Ebner, D. (2012, August) Olympic Games inch closer toward gender equity. The Globe and Mail.

International Olympic Committee (2020, May). Female membership of IOC Commissions reaches an all-time high of 47.7 per cent – two new female chairs.

Henry, I. P. & Robinson, L. (2010). Gender Equality and Leadership in Olympic Bodies: Women, Leadership, and The Olympic Movement. The Centre for Olympic Studies & Research. Loughborough University, pp. 8, 14,101.

Hargreaves, Jennifer (1994), Sporting Females: critical issues in the history and sociology of women’s sport. London: Routledge, p. 209.

“How a 22-year-old woman helped bring down the Tokyo Olympics chief: Activist organized campaign after Yoshiro Mori’s disparaging remarks toward women.” Thomson Reuters, 18 Feb, 2021.

Rich, Motoko. “Tokyo Olympics Chief Resigns Over Sexist Comments.” New York Times, 11 Feb, 2021.

Segrave, J. O. (2013) “Coubertin, Olympus, and Chilvalry.” Olympika :The International Journal of Olympic Studies, XXII, 1-38.

“Factsheet: Women in the Olympic Movement.” Olympic Org. (Updated June 2020).

Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.

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Published by darcie friesen hossack

Darcie Friesen Hossack is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. Her short story collection, Mennonites Don’t Dance, was a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Adult Fiction. Citing irreverence, the book was banned by the LaCrete Public Library in Northern Alberta. Having mentored with Giller finalists Sandra Birdsell (The Russlander) and Gail Anderson Dargatz (Spawning Grounds, The Cure for Death by Lightening), Darcie's first novel, Stillwater, will be released in the spring of 2023. Darcie is also a four time judge of the Whistler Independent Book Awards, and a career food writer. She lives in Northern Alberta, Canada, with her husband, international award-winning chef, Dean Hossack.

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