Four years after the first male-only Olympic games, women were allowed to compete in the 1900 Olympics. Out of 997 athletes, the 22 female participants were permitted to compete only in five sports—tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian, and golf—in contrast to the men, who could compete in 19. Still, it was a remarkable achievement for those 22 pioneering women given the prevailing cultural attitudes toward women in sports around the world at that time.
More than a century later, we celebrate significant progress—almost half of the athletes at the 2018 Olympics are women. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that this progress has not been uniform across all sports, cultures, or countries.
Until two decades ago, women had been shut out of male-dominated Olympic sports like ice hockey, curling, bobsledding, wrestling, boxing, and rugby. Witness this year’s historic female Nigerian bobsled team coming to Pyeongchang—the first-ever bobsled team from Africa, male or female. Their inspiration, no doubt, comes from the popular underdog Jamaican male bobsled team which competed in the 1988 Winter Games.
The other barrier facing female athletes stems from cultural attitudes that discourage women’s involvement in what is traditionally seen as the masculine activity of playing sports. Not all female Olympic athletes come from cultures where their participation in sports is encouraged or valued. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei had long banned female athletes, only officially permitting them to participate in 2012. Countries where the cultural rights of women rank lower than men tend to have fewer numbers of female athletes represented at all global competitions, including the Olympics.
Many girls are raised in cultures, particularly those from South Asia and the Middle East, that discourage their participation in sports. Statistics from Sport England shed some light on this disparity. In the UK, among other ethnic groups, sports participation varies very little for men. Among women, however, those from white or mixed backgrounds are more active in contrast to the more than a third of women of South Asian origin who are inactive, meaning they achieve less than 30 minutes moderate intensity physical activity per week. One glance at the demographics of Olympic teams makes you realize that this is a widespread problem requiring our focus.
Medical research finds that many adolescents aren’t getting enough physical activity, particularly girls and members of ethnic populations. This contributes to obesity, low self-esteem, and overall poor health usually continuing into adulthood.
The ethnic disparity in sports participation is directly related to the cultural attitudes that are reinforced by families and local communities. When families move from South Asia or the Middle East to the UK, Europe, or North America—girls may find more opportunities to participate in school and community sports, but they’re not necessarily encouraged to do so. For some families, there are sexist concerns about the dress code, female safety, aggression, and interactions with male athletes or coaches—all of which can serve to discourage families from permitting their daughters to participate in sports. For others, sports aren’t valued as highly as academics, even though it’s proven that physical activity from a young age enhances overall mental and physical well-being.
The classic movie Bend It Like Beckham highlights the cultural challenges these girls can face when trying to pursue non-traditional passions such as sports. In the movie, the main character is a South Asian girl infatuated with football but forbidden by her parents to play because she is a girl. She struggles to convince her family to accept her passion for football, and only when her talent results in success do they finally concede. But what about all the girls who may not become star athletes, but would nonetheless benefit from participating in sports? The objective isn’t to lower the standards for athletic participation, but rather to make it culturally more acceptable for girls to participate in organized sports.
Let’s recognize that even if young girls from more traditional cultures have access to sports at school, they need encouragement and support at home. Parents need to be encouraged to enroll their young daughters in sports and allow them to continue participating well into their teenage years. For any athlete, talent and skill must be developed over years of hard work and persistence before there are signs of achievement. Family support is critical to enabling this development.
As we celebrate our Olympians, let’s remember that progress is relative. While some women are celebrating the newly earned right to just participate, other women are working to expand the opportunities and respect for female athletes in male-dominated sports. Every athlete starts out as a child playing sports. For us to truly see women equally represented in global competitions, we need to make sure that all girls are able to overcome cultural barriers and participate in sports.