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Where Are the Male Rhythmic Gymnasts?

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We have this week witnessed sporting history with Nicola Adams becoming the first ever woman boxer to win an Olympic title. For the first time ever there are now women competing in every sport where men are competing at the Olympics. While this is a great step towards sporting equality, let's face it, we're still far from it. Less funding, less publicity and fewer roles for women in coaching and governance still plague women's sport. Moreover, there are still significant gender-based differences in how some sports are practised, and there are still at least two summer Olympic sports with participation from only one gender: rhythmic gymnastics and synchronised swimming are firmly established as women-only sports.

Women have always strived to be able to compete in sports traditionally reserved for men. Road and track cycling, part of the Olympic programme for men since the first modern games in 1896, didn't allow women competitors until 1984. As recently as the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, track cycling featured seven events for men and only three for women. Women's weightlifting was not included until the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Women's boxing itself has had a more than 100-year-long campaign for inclusion in the games, starting with a demonstration bout in 1904.

So where are the campaigns to include men in traditionally "female" sports? Why do we not see men's rhythmic gymnastics in the demonstration sports? Partly, gymnastics appears to suffer from a governing body that is painfully conservative. We can see this, for instance, in the differences between men's and women's artistic gymnastics. Where men compete on a variety of apparatus testing both upper and lower body strength and agility, women's apparatus is heavily biased towards tumbling and leg-based skills with uneven bars being the only exception. Innovation and the introduction of new moves by gymnasts tends to be penalised, particularly for women. While men will routinely perform a one-armed swing on the high bar, attempts by women to introduce this into uneven bar routines have been discouraged with extremely low difficulty scores being awarded. The aesthetics of gymnastics are also highly regulated. While men generally perform in fairly plain attire, female competitors wear full make-up and sparkly leotards, which only get sparklier as you move to rhythmic gymnastics. Women are expected to perform floor routines to music and include dance moves, but men are not.

When I tweeted about the conspicuous absence of men's rhythmic gymnastics in the Olympics, I was asked if there would even be any competitors. Japan has a strong tradition of men's rhythmic gymnastics, and there are some male competitors in Europe too, but they are not allowed to take part in any of the major events. Moreover, in terms of skillset, there is absolutely no reason why male aerobic gymnasts couldn't make a successful transition to rhythmic gymnastics. Still, it is true that there aren't that many men currently in rhythmic gymnastics, whereas there are, for instance, plenty of women boxers.

We are therefore left with the old problem: things that men do are cool and to be aspired to; things that women do are marginal and niche. Women being allowed to do "men's things" is - rightfully - celebrated as a great accomplishment for equality, but hardly any questions are being asked about men's absence from certain fields. This state of affairs is hardly unique to sport - just look at the gender balance in nursing. The effect is the same, regardless of which gender we are barring from an activity. We are preventing individuals from fulfilling their potential. This is not just a shame for the individuals involved but for society as a whole. We're missing out on male top talent in nursing and gymnastics just as we're missing out on female top talent in science and technology.

One encouraging development is that newer sports being introduced to the Olympics for the first time generally tend to treat men and women equally. Mountain biking (first introduced in 1996) and BMX (2008) both do this. So does Taekwondo (2000), unlike boxing which despite now allowing women's participation has different rules for men and women. Yet if we want true equality, we need to challenge the dinosaurs of sport such as the International Gymnastics Federation, to treat both genders equally across different variations in the sport and to encourage participation from all.