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Gymnastics Is Lagging Behind Other Sports as Olympics Move Toward Gender Parity

Jessica Taylor PriceFeatured Columnist IAugust 8, 2021

Katie Ledecky shows her gold medal from the women's 1,500-meter freestyle in Tokyo, the first time the event has been part of the Olympics.
Katie Ledecky shows her gold medal from the women's 1,500-meter freestyle in Tokyo, the first time the event has been part of the Olympics.BSR Agency / Getty Images

Gone are the days when women were an afterthought at the Olympics. 

In Tokyo, they're actually doing better than men. According to The Representation Project's "Respect Her Game" report (h/t Lindsay Gibbs), women got nearly 60 percent of prime-time NBC Olympics coverage in Tokyo, an astronomical figure in comparison to the oft-quoted four percent of media coverage devoted to women's sports during the rest of the quadrennium. And for Team USA, women are beating their male counterparts in the medal count.

These victories are no doubt a result of an increase in investment in gender parity at the Olympics. The Tokyo Olympics were likely the most balanced ever in terms of opportunities for women. The IOC patted itself on the back in a recent press release touting the "innovation and greater gender diversity" that the 18 mixed events were bringing to the Games. And they have a point—mixed events like the 4x400-meter relay in track were well received in Tokyo and bring attention to women athletes. 

Mixed events, though, do nothing to fix the disparity in medal opportunities that still exists in 2021. Women still compete for 27 fewer Olympic medals than men, or nine fewer events, according to USA Today. The gap is more egregious when one considers that for Olympic athletes, medals often mean money. And the worst offender, gymnastics, could learn a lot from track and swimming, the other two sports that take up much of the spotlight during the Olympics.

Runners hand off batons during the mixed 4x400-meter relay in Tokyo.
Runners hand off batons during the mixed 4x400-meter relay in Tokyo.ANTONIN THUILLIER / Getty Images

"Women were the weaker sex and because men were stronger people, they could last the distance." That was the thinking back when Olympic swimmer Debbie Meyer competed in the 1960s, she told The New York Times. As of this year, swimming is no longer part of the medal disparity problem—in Tokyo, men and women finally had the same opportunities with the addition of the 1500-meter freestyle, after initially achieving equity in the number of events in 1996. 

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But it was a long time coming, and track and field still has yet to get there. Women still don't have the same number of events in track, as they don't compete in the 50-kilometer walk. But track and field has made a lot of progress over the past few decades, finally adding the women's marathon in 1984, triple jump in 1996 and pole vault in 2000. It last added a women's event in 2008 with the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

Equity will likely be achieved at the next Olympics, where the IOC opted to not hold the men's 50-kilometer walk in order to create gender parity. Needless to say, creating equal opportunities by eliminating men's events is an odd choice, though the IOC also stated that a mixed event will be added.

Women's gymnastics, however, is the least equitable of the three. There, men have two more event finals than women, or six more medals, and it's been that way since 1960. At those Olympics, it seems, the format was set in stone, and it's unclear why, or why women stopped competing on the still rings at all. Speculation abounds that it was because of archaic notions of what a woman's body was meant to do compared to a man's. 

Sunisa Lee competes on the uneven bars, an event that's evolved during gymnastics' long Olympic history.
Sunisa Lee competes on the uneven bars, an event that's evolved during gymnastics' long Olympic history.Maja Hitij / Getty Images

While women do compete in men's events at the local level, the format stuck for elite competitions, and at this point, it would be very difficult to change it. Each event requires a specific skill level—a balance beam specialist can't learn still rings in the same way, for example, that a 400-meter runner can train for the 200-meter dash. 

Still, dramatic changes have been made to the sport in the past. The uneven bars started moving further apart in the 1970s to make space for more complex skills. Compulsory rounds were eliminated after 1996. And in 2006, the scoring system was completely overhauled in an effort to reward difficulty. Plus, gymnasts who are adept on one apparatus are already compelled to improve on others in order to become more competitive at the elite level—that's nothing new.

But in terms of the level of opportunity for all gymnasts, the sport has actually moved backwards. For this quadrennium, the International Gymnastics Federation kept the same number of events but removed three medals per gender by reducing the team size to four. The five-person team will thankfully return in 2024, but it was one step backwards, one step forwards. 

The four gymnasts who won silver for the United States in the women's team final.
The four gymnasts who won silver for the United States in the women's team final.Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images

Where should the extra medals come from? Rather than eliminate men's events, as the IOC did with track and field, equity could be achieved by adding two more medal opportunities for women, as happened with swimming in Tokyo. Events like rings, parallel bars or pommel horse could be added as individual events and allowed to gradually increase in popularity before they're added to the team final.

Another possibility, though one that wouldn't solve the parity problem, is adding a mixed event. Track and swimming have both shown that mixed events can be successful, and it would be a good addition to gymnastics, rewarding countries that have more balanced programs. Mixed events already exist in gymnastics, but they're contested at smaller, lesser-known meets than World Championships or World Cups, and an event like this would likely need to be added to the World Championships in order to be considered for the Olympics.

For a sport that's been set in its ways for more than half a century, it's wishful thinking. But for all the ground women have gained in the past 60 years, it's odd that medal parity still isn't there. Swimming and track have achieved it, and for gymnastics, maybe it's time to switch things up a bit.

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