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Olympics2012Olympics opening up to female athletes

Posted: Thursday, July 12, 2012 | 01:50 PM

Categories: Olympics2012

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Cyclist Clara Hughes is one of 155 women who will compete for Canada at the London Olympics. (Jens Norgaard Larsen/AFP/Getty Images) Cyclist Clara Hughes is one of 155 women who will compete for Canada at the London Olympics. (Jens Norgaard Larsen/AFP/Getty Images)

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In the shadow of Parliament Hill on Thursday, as Canada formally introduced the team that will complete in London this summer, there was plenty of evidence that females have evolved into an essential part of the heart and soul of the delegation.

A male will be the flag-bearer and lead the team into the Olympic Stadium, but on the squad of 277 athletes, nearly 56 per cent are women. Simon Whitfield will indeed be "Captain Canada." But, for the first time, women make up the bulk of the team.
While it's true that Saudi Arabia has reluctantly ended the last holdout to gender equity at the Olympic Games, there's no denying the whole movement is getting closer.

It's high time.

In the shadow of Parliament Hill on Thursday, as Canada formally introduced the team that will compete in London this summer, there was plenty of evidence that females have evolved into an essential part of the heart and soul of the delegation.

A male will be the flag-bearer and lead the team into the Olympic Stadium, but on the squad of 277 athletes, nearly 56 per cent are women. Simon Whitfield will indeed be "Captain Canada." But, for the first time, women make up the bulk of the team.

"We're a nice reflection on the rest of the world," said assistant chef de mission Sylvie Bernier, a diving gold medallist at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

"Even in my day, to see so many women running and swimming and training this hard was much more of a novelty. It's good to know gender equality exists in Canada."

The reason for the predominance of women on the Canadian roster is simple. They have qualified in team events while the men have failed to do so. The most glaring examples are in soccer and basketball, but there is also a full Canadian women's team in artistic gymnastics and a large group of synchronized swimmers, an event in which males do not compete.

The Games themselves have become more accessible to females in recent years, but this has been a slow and painful process.

At the first edition of the modern Olympics in 1896, not one woman competed in the 43 events contested by 14 nations. It was felt by most of the men who ran the Games, including one of the founders, Pierre de Coubertin, that excessive athletic exertion would prove harmful to a woman's health. Some actually believed that if a female ran too far a distance, her uterus might fall out.

Those beliefs were based on male chauvinism, which dominated the late 19th and early 20th century. The trouble for the Olympic movement is that the ignorance had staying power.

By the time the Games came to Montreal and Abigail Hoffman assumed her role as the first female Canadian flag-bearer, only 20 per cent of all international competitors were women. This in spite of the fact that women's rowing, European handball, and basketball all made their debut at the Canadian Games.

It was not until 1984 that Joan Benoit of the United States could score an historic gold medal victory in the marathon. Until then, women were not allowed to run the granddaddy of all distance races on the Olympic stage.

By the last summer Games in 2008, 43 per cent of the nearly 11,000 athletes who marched into the Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium were females. This reality constituted a high water mark for the gender, and it occurred in a country where females have long struggled for an equality of rights.  

But are these victories real or merely symbolic?  

While the Olympic movement will inch close to gender equity in London with the addition of women's boxing to the competitive program and the expectation that around the world more females than ever will be Games spectators, the work is far from done.

"We hope it now translates from the athletes up," said Mark Tewksbury, an Olympic gold medal swimmer and Canada's chef de mission for London 2012.  

It's true, the vast majority of International Olympic Committee members are men, and never has a woman been the head of the IOC. While females have made tremendous strides in terms of inclusion to the athletic program and coaching circles, they remain removed from the decision-making process.

"Canada is a role model for the rest of the world," stressed Tewksbury. "Now it's important that women assume leadership roles at the IOC and in all sports organizations. Then we'll really be getting somewhere."

Whitfield will be the first in for Team Canada in London. But hot on his heels will be 155 women sporting the Maple Leaf, and they'll be a sign of the times.

While the Olympics have matured and allowed more women to celebrate the sports they play, it remains to be seen if females will soon have the chance to better determine the rules of the Games themselves.

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