Gender equity, audits and the Olympic Games

All three parts have been produced as a result of  systematic auditing of the Olympic Games.

The research team for the Gender Audits of the London (2012) and Sochi (2014) Olympic Games was:

Professor Peter Donnelly, University of Toronto, CANADA

Professor Michele Donnelly, Kent State University, USA

Dr Mark Norman, University of Toronto, CANADA

Professor Bruce Kidd, University of Toronto, CANADA

The information provided was correct as at December 2015.


Professor Peter Donnelly will be talking about the Gender Audits of the Olympic Games at the University of Edinburgh Academy of Sport Policy Seminar on 14th December at 12.30 – St Leonard’s Land, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh. 

Professor Bruce Kidd and Professor Peter Donnelly are both Global Fellows of the Academy of Sport.

In 2014 the Universities of Edinburgh and Toronto signed an agreement to work more closely together. See the joint Edinburgh-Toronto Public seminar series on sport and physical activity []

  • Contact Professor Grant Jarvie for further details of the event.

Gender equity, audits and the Olympic Games is presented in three parts:

Part 1: Introduction to Gender audits of the Olympic Games

Part 2: Gender Equality and Opportunities to Participate: Not the End of History

Part 3: Differences in the Ways that Women and Men Participate

All three parts have been produced as a result of a systematic auditing of the Olympic Games

Part 1: Introduction to Gender audits of the Olympic Games

Sport is one of the remaining areas of human activity that is still primarily segregated by gender. In this era of equality and human rights, sport remains segregated based on the understanding and the assumption – both implicit and explicit – that it is ‘separate but equal’.1

In fact, that is the only possible justification for segregation. However, reams of research evidence comparing women’s and men’s sports in terms of funding and sponsorship, publicity and media representation, sex testing, and leadership (coaching and administrative) show that sport is separate, but it is far from being equal.

The Centre for Sport Policy Studies (CSPS) at the University of Toronto has been carrying out a series of gender audits of Major Games’ events.2 This project grew out of the triumphalist announcements of gender equality during the London 2012 Olympics.

London 2012 Olympic Games

There was much to applaud with regard to gender equality achievements at the London Games – a higher proportion of women athletes than at any previous Olympics; women competitors in every sport; and no country deliberately excluded women competitors from its Olympic team. Jacques Rogge, then President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), called the Games “a major boost for gender equality;” and a number of media outlets began to refer to the London Olympics as “the Women’s Olympics.”

Our skeptical selves suspected that this was not ‘the end of history’ for women at the Olympics. And since the claims by Rogge and the characterisation by some media were based on the structure and rules of the Olympics as they affect women and men athletes, we decided to focus our audits on that aspect of equality.

The research questions

We asked one basic question – what remains to be done in order to achieve gender equality at the Olympic Games?

We operationalised that question in two parts, the first with respect to opportunities to participate and win medals (structure) and the second with regard to the ways in which athletes are able to participate (rules):

  • How equal are the Olympics in terms of: the total numbers of women and men?; the number of opportunities men and women had to win medals (i.e., how many medal events were there for women and for men)?; and the proportional distribution of women and men among those events?


  • What differences are there between men’s and women’s sports in terms of the rules of competition? In other words, what does their relative participation look like?, how is it experienced?, and we offer some speculations about how the different rules for women’s and men’s competitions are justified?

Part 2: Gender Equality and Opportunities to Participate: Not the End of History

This series of gender audits begins at a point where there has been a long history of increasing women’s participation at the Olympics, and an associated increase in the number of Olympic events for women. For example, some 40 years ago only approximately 1 in 5 Olympic athletes were women.

The 1976 Olympic Summer Games were held in Montréal, where 20.7% of the athletes participating were women (1,260 athletes); and Olympic Winter Games were held in Innsbruck where 20.6% of the athletes participating were women (231 athletes). The number of women Olympic athletes at each Games has now increased to just over 2 in 5. In the Summer Olympics, the proportion increased at every Olympics since 1976, and reached 44.3% (4,835 athletes) of the participants in London 2012.

At the Winter Olympics, increases in the proportion of women athletes have not been so linear, with women constituting 40.4% (1,158 athletes) of the participants in Sochi 2014, down slightly from 40.7% — the highest ever proportion of women Winter Olympic athletes in Vancouver 2010.

There has been a similar increase in the number of events in which women are able to participate – 49 of 198 events in Montréal (24.7%) to 136 of 302 event in London 2012 (45%); 15 of 37 events at the Innsbruck Olympics (40.5%) to 45 of 98 events in Sochi 2014 (46%). These data also indicate the significant increases in the overall size of the Games and, as noted subsequently, that as women’s participation opportunities have increased, so have men’s.

Equality is far from being achieved

While acknowledging these increases it is also clear that, despite the three milestones achieved at London 2012, equality is far from being achieved. In fact, there are some indications (outlined below) that progress toward gender equality has slowed, and perhaps even reached a plateau. This slow progress contradicts the fact that, following years of lobbying by women athletes and women’s organisations, the IOC made a commitment to increasing gender equality that it has been working toward since the 1994 Olympic Congress held in Paris.

The rate of increase in women participants and women’s events in the 20 years following the 1994 Congress is not really any greater than the increases that occurred in the previous 18 years (since the 1976 data, above). By 1994, women’s participation had increased to approximately 30% at both the Summer and Winter Olympics. In the 20 years since 1994, and following the explicit IOC commitment to equality, women’s participation has only increased to approximately 40% of Winter Games athletes and approximately 44% of Summer Games athletes (see Table 1).

For both the Summer and Winter Olympics there was a significant increase in the proportion of women athletes in the Olympics that immediately followed the Paris Congress (participation increased 5.2% and 6.2% respectively). However, the rate of increase has slowed significantly, especially at the Winter Games.

With regard to the number of events for women (i.e., the number of opportunities to win a medal) there has been an increase, parallel to the overall increase in women’s participation opportunities, in the proportion of women’s events at the Summer Olympics (from approximately 32% in 1992 to 45% in 2012). However, the proportion of women’s events at the Winter Olympics, while starting higher (44.3%), has increased less than 2% over the same 20 years.3

Table 1. Event and participation increases since 1994, Summer and Winter

Summer Olympics       %events       %women       % increase/decrease in

                                                                athletes         athletes (from previous Games)         

 Barcelona 1992              31.9                28.8                 +2.7

Atlanta 1996                    34.3                34.0                  +5.2

Sydney 2000                   38.7                38.2                  +2.5

Athens 2004                    40.2                40.7                  +2.5

Beijing 2008                    40.7                42.4                  +1.7

London 2012                  45.0                44.3                  +1.9

Winter Olympics       %events       %women        % increase/decrease in

                                                             athletes          athletes (from previous Games)

Lillehammer 1994          44.3             30.0                         +2.9                       

Nagano 1998                  45.6            36.2                         +6.2

Salt Lake City 2002        46.2             36.9                         +0.7

Turin 2006                      46.4             38.2                         +1.3

Vancouver 2010             46.5             40.7                         +2.5

Sochi 2014                     46.2             40.4                          -0.3

Accounting for the failure to achieve equality:

The IOC commitment to gender equality since 1994 is outlined in the Olympic Charter as follows:

            The role of the IOC is: […]

  • (6) to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement;                                              
  • (7) to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all                                                     levels of and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of                                       equality of men and women.

There are at least three interconnected reasons for the failure to achieve gender equality, despite this mandated commitment:

First, new sports and events have been added since 1994 primarily on the basis that both men’s and women’s events must be added equally (e.g., mountain biking, beach volleyball, curling, snowboarding, etc.). So, although some women’s events or sports have been added to match the already existing men’s events (e.g., women’s ice hockey, women’s pole vault), and even though there are two women-only sports at the Summer Olympics (rhythmic gymnastics, synchronized swimming), there are still more men-only events at both the Summer and Winter Olympics. Thus the new men’s events, introduced on the premise of equality for men and women, have served to reduce, or at least slow, the possibility of achieving equality in either the proportion of events or the proportion of participants.

Second, a significant number of sports and events stipulate a lower quota of women athletes than men athletes. For example, in team sports the Olympics football (soccer) tournaments were played with 16 men’s teams and 12 women’s teams; and the water polo and ice hockey tournaments were played with 12 men’s teams and eight women’s teams – but while the number of players on the men’s and women’s teams was equal in the two Summer sports, Olympic ice hockey was played with teams of 25 men, while women were limited to 21 players per team.

In the more individual sports, boxing had an overall quota of 250 men and 36 women; rowing had an overall quota of 353 men and 197 women; and luge had an overall quota of 78 men and 28 women. Some sports had an equal quota for men and women, and in some of the individual sports quota differences were a consequence of the fact that the sport has more events for men than for women. The stipulations for gender quotas originate with the International Federations (IFs) that govern each of the sports, but they are approved in a formal process prior to each Olympic Games by the IOC.

Taken in combination, the way that new sports and events are added to the Olympic Games and the gender quotas that exist in many Olympic sports, help to account for the fact that in 2015 (some 20 years since the gender equality reforms began in earnest), almost 60% of the athletes at Winter Olympics are men, and over 55% of the athletes at Summer Olympics are men.

 The third reason involves IOC concern about gigantism – about the growing size and cost of the Olympic Games. As a consequence, the IOC has remained cautious about adding new events and additional athletes, which has had a consequence for gender equality.

As noted, no new sports may be added unless it is open to both women and men, making it more difficult to achieve greater equality without adding additional women’s events that are equivalent to current men-only events, and without increasing the quota of women in many of the sports and events where there was a lower quota for women athletes.

 Before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, concerns about gigantism at the Summer Olympics led the IOC to attempt to cap the number of athletes at approximately 10,000. This has been achieved in the ways noted above, with the number of athletes remaining steady at approximately 10,500 since Barcelona 1992.

Thus, athletes do not account for ‘gigantism’, and the IOC should look to other areas of the Games to control the size of an Olympics. For example, over 20,000 media personnel have been present at recent Summer Olympics (24,272 in London); and the total growth in the number of accredited persons at Summer Olympics has increased from 196,000 in Sydney 2000, to 223,000 in Athens 2004, to 349,000 in Beijing 2008 to, reportedly, 510,000 in London 2012.

This reluctance to increase the number of athletes at an Olympics, while at the same time permitting exponential growth in terms of other accredited persons, creates a situation in which attempts to increase gender equality pit men and women against each other. That is, in order to increase the number of women’s sports and women athletes, men’s sports and the number of athletes will have to be cut.

This has already occurred. For example, the boxing federation (AIBA) dropped one men’s weight category in order to add three women’s weight categories in London 2012. But women’s positions have also been cut in an attempt to meet the cap in the total number of athletes. For example, the cycling federation (UCI) reduced women’s positions from three per country to two per country in mountain biking at London 2012, while men still were still permitted three riders per country.

We do not advocate achieving gender equality by reducing men’s opportunities in order to increase those for women. We need to recognize that men and women athletes are not the ones responsible for gigantism or for gender inequality at the Olympics, and should not be the ones to suffer (by having events or positions cut) through resolving one problem by creating another.

If achieving gender equality means adding women’s events so that there are an equivalent number of women’s and men’s events, and if it means increasing the quota of women athletes in sports where there is a lower quota for women, then this achievement is worth increasing the size of the Olympic Programme.

 Olympic Agenda 20+20:

The current IOC reform agenda (Olympic Agenda 20+20), released in 2014, offers recommendations concerning gender equality and gigantism – but it does so in a way that may not resolve the problems noted here. For example, Recommendation 11 states that the IOC will “Foster gender equality” by (1) working “with the International Federations to achieve 50 per cent female participation in the Olympic Games and to stimulate women’s participation and involvement in sport by creating more participation opportunities at the Olympic Games;” and (2) encouraging “the inclusion of mixed-gender team events.”

However, Recommendation 9 imposes quite strict limits on the total number of athletes and events at future Olympic Games, with a small increase for Winter Olympics, but more or less the status quo for Summer Olympics: “The IOC to limit the number of athletes, officials and events for the Olympic [Winter / Summer] Games to approximately: 2,900 / 10,500 athletes; 2,000 / 5,000 accredited coaches and athlete support personnel; [and] 100 / 310 events.”

We are pleased that Recommendation 11 of Olympic Agenda 20+20 directly supports one of the main recommendations of our gender audits – “Establish near equivalence in the number of men and women who are permitted to compete at the Olympic Games, and in specific Olympic sports/events.”

However, the only way to achieve the goal of Recommendation 11, under the limitations imposed by Recommendation 9, will be to cut men’s sport and events, and to reduce the quota of men athletes. As noted, this is a less than ideal way to achieve gender equality.

The IOC has already begun to implement the second part of Recommendation 11 – the inclusion of more mixed-gender events – but it is difficult to see how this will help to achieve “50% female participation” since mixed events involve both men and women, and those in the mixed events in London and Sochi were athletes already involved in the individual events in their sports.

 For example, three new mixed gender events were included on the Sochi 2014 programme (in addition to figure skating pairs and ice dance): biathlon mixed relay (2 men, 2 women per country); luge mixed relay (3 men, 1 woman per country); and figure skating team competition (3 men, 3 women per country). Our Sochi audit determined the actual number of opportunities created for women and men athletes as a consequence of the addition of these events.

A total of four athletes (2 men, 2 women) across the three events (168 athletes in total) did not compete in already existing, single gender events at Sochi. Thus, mixed gender events did not contribute to increasing gender equality at Sochi, and there does not seem to be any logical way that they could, unless we consider the way that the IOC reports the proportion of women’s events at Olympic Games (see Table 2- below).

Women's participation in the Olympic Winter Games

Year Sports Women's eventsTotal events% of Women's eventsWomen's Participants% of Women's participants
An audit of women's participation and medals in the Winter Olympic Games
* including mixd events


In the most recent report of women’s participation provided by the IOC (, the column listing the number of women’s events at each Olympic Games is marked with an asterisk indicating that the number includes mixed events. In other words, events in which both men and women participate are included as women’s events, but are not also included as men’s events.

Thus, the luge relay, an event with three men and one woman on each team is only counted as a women’s event in this IOC version of statistics. So, while our gender audit calculated that there were 7.5 more events for men than for women and 7.5 more opportunities for men to win a medal than women, the IOC reports that 50% of the events in Sochi were for women (our data indicate that 46% of the events were for women).4

It is not misleading for the IOC to report that women participated in 49 of the 98 events; however, it is misleading to claim that that represents 50% of the events by not showing that the mixed events were also men’s events.

 Part 2: Conclusion

 This audit of the gendered structure of the Olympic Games is grounded in a liberal feminist perspective. It fails to take account of the intersectional differences that are perhaps an even stronger indicator of which women participate in Olympic Games – namely, that the participants and medal winners are primarily white women from high income countries.

However, we argue that if an organisation claims (liberal) gender equality as one of its principles and goals, and continually fails to achieve or provide means to achieve that goal, then it is unlikely to give any serious attention to more fundamental forms of inequality.

It is time for the IOC to honour its own Charter and reform recommendations, and the principles of human rights and gender equality, by making a serious commitment toward achieving gender equality at the Olympic Games – even if that means increasing the overall number of athletes and events. It is not necessary to add or establish the same (equal/identical) events for women and men; however, it is necessary to add equitable (similar) events and to achieve the same number of events (opportunities for medals) for women and men at the Olympics.

The following analysis of differences in the ways that men and women compete at the Olympics provides further insight into the politics of gender.

Part 3: Differences in the Ways that Women and Men Participate

 At the outset it should be noted that the rules for many men’s and women’s competitions at Olympic events are identical – for example, most of the running and swimming events, short track speed skating, volleyball, curling, and many others take place under identical rules. However, the second part of our gender audits examines the rules of competition, focusing on those sports/events that are essentially equivalent (e.g., men’s and women’s speed skating events; women’s and men’s tennis, etc.), and identifying the remaining differences that exist between the rules that govern women’s participation and men’s participation.

Our findings indicate that many of these differences are grounded, often in inconsistent and sometimes contradictory ways, in stereotypical assumptions about bodily size and/or shape and about the respective physical capacity of women and men. These differences in the rules of competition were categorized as follows:

  • races in which women compete over a shorter distance than men;
  • events that involved different weight categories or weight restrictions for women and men;
  • events where there were differences between men’s and women’s competition in terms of the height, weight, size and spacing of equipment, or the size of venue; and
  • an ‘other’ category to capture any other differences in rules or form of competition between the men’s and women’s events.

[The following differences are developed more comprehensively in the London and Sochi Reports cited in Note 2.]

Distance raced:

In many Olympic events that take the form of a race, especially athletics and swimming, women and men race the same distance. For example, in athletics every race is the same distance for men and women, except the hurdles sprint in which men run 110m and women run 100m; however, there is one additional race for men, for which there is no equivalent for women – the 50km race walk.

The contradiction in this case emerges when we consider that both men and women run over 40km in the marathon, but only men are permitted to race walk 50km. Similarly in swimming, the competition is identical for women and men except for an 800m freestyle race for women only and a 1500m freestyle race for men only.

At the other extreme, in all 12 events (six men’s and six women’s) in the biathlon, and 10 of 12 events (five women’s and five men’s) in cross country skiing, the men’s races are longer than the women’s races. This is also the case with the course length in all but one of the downhill ski events. The implicit rule in this case is that, if there is a difference between equivalent men’s and women’s races in the distance raced, the men’s race is always longer.

The single exception to this rule was in the Sochi Super Giant Slalom] event – the women’s course was 4m longer than the men’s course – although the men’s vertical drop, from start to finish, was 7m more than the women’s. In fact, the vertical drop was more for the men’s races than the women’s races in all of the downhill ski events, and all of the sliding events. Similarly, the elevation gain stipulated in all of the cross country and biathlon ski races was always more for men than for women.

Kayak, speed skating and cycling events all had longer events for men than for women, although the most extreme cases were in cycling. For example, in the road racing events, the men’s road race was 250k while the women’s was 140k; and the men’s time trial was 44k while the women’s was 29k.

There are two potential and related reasons for these remaining differences.

The first may involve some ongoing concerns (among some men) about men’s and women’s competitions and achievements being directly comparable, with the inevitable possibility that, at some point, the performance of the ‘fastest’ woman may exceed that of the ‘fastest’ man. However, if this is the case, then the large number of directly comparable races that now exist suggest that the remaining differences represent some form of residual culture.

The second is that the differences that still exist represent the remaining vestiges of men’s assumptions about women’s frailty that, earlier in the 20th century, prevented women from running races longer than 800m, and even into the second half of the 20th century excluded women from running 10,000m races or marathons.

 Weight categories/restrictions:

Weight categories exist mainly in the Summer Olympics, in combat/martial arts events, and in weightlifting and rowing. The categories are presumably intended to provide fairness in competition by having same-sex competitors who are not mis-matched in terms of their body mass. In the Winter Olympics sliding sports, greater weight gives more momentum to the sled so there are weight restrictions associated with the combined weight of the athlete(s) and the sled (bob, luge and skeleton).

In all cases, there is an assumption – perhaps based on an anthropometric ‘average’ – that men are heavier than women; there has been no evident or recent attempt to determine if the weight categories established over time are still relevant – for men and women; that is, if they represent the current range of human athletic physique?

Both within sport and between sport comparisons indicate that there is often no rational or consistent reason for the categories or the range of categories. For example, the maximum weight of the sled and athletes in the sliding sports is always heavier for men – but in luge athletes are allowed to carry additional weight on their sleds to bring them up to a maximum of 75kg for women and 90kg for men.

But if extra weights are permitted, why not permit (or at least consider) the possibility of both women and men having the same combined weight for sled and athlete; and why not carry that consideration over to the other sliding sports?

In the weight category events, tae kwon do has four weight categories for men (with a range of +21kg) and four categories for women (with a range of 18kg). This 3kg difference in the range of weights for women and men is the smallest of all the weight category sports; in boxing the difference in range is 18kg; in judo it is 10kg; in freestyle wrestling it is 41kg; and in the non-combat sport of weight-lifting it is 22kg. This results in participation opportunities for men from a wider range of weights, and much more limited opportunities for women in the same events.

 Differences in equipment and playing area:

These differences are again grounded in assumptions about the smaller size and physical capacity of women compared to men. Differences include, in athletics, the height of hurdles and steeplechase barriers, and the weight and size of javelin, shot, hammer and discus (always smaller and/or lighter for women). Differences in other sports include a smaller permitted sail area for women than men in two of the sailing events, a smaller sized pool for women than men in water polo, and lighter guns for women in two of the shooting events

The contradictions begin to emerge when we consider the sports where there are no stipulated differences in equipment and playing area. For example, women compete with a smaller ball in handball and water polo, but not in basketball or the two forms of volleyball. And women compete with a lower net than men in volleyball but not in basketball. A similar, although perhaps even more complicated set of differences exist for the Winter Olympic sports with regard to equipment size and competition areas.

Other differences:

The other differences between men’s and women’s competitions range from the rules that govern the form of competition (for example, the number of rounds of competition in rowing, judo, boxing, diving; the number of sets played in tennis; the number and length of rounds in boxing; the duration of the free programme in figure skating), to rules that determine which techniques may or must be used (for example, in wrestling, ice hockey, and figure skating), to rules determining what may or must be worn (for example, in figure skating, and all skiing events). Again, these remaining rule differences are grounded in assumptions about the shape, size and stamina of women compared to men, and again they must be compared to those events (e.g., freestyle skiing) where rules and uniforms are basically identical.

 Final Comment

 It is entirely possible that some of these rule differences will be considered appropriate by competitors and officials in the sports involved. However, given the contradictions, and the fact that athletes are rarely involved in determining the rules by which they must compete.

We recommend that all of the remaining rule differences that apply to men’s and women’s competitions be revisited, and reconsidered in the light of:

  • the best available scientific and anthropometric evidence, and
  • the contradictions that exist between sports.


  1. For example, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Senior Director of Advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation, points out that, in the USA: “Athletics is the only formally sex-segregated department in education. As such, it sends important messages to the entire nation about how it will treat men and women” (2011).
  1. The following CSPS Gender Audits are available:

Donnelly, P. & M. Donnelly (2013). The London 2012 Olympics: A Gender Equality Audit. Centre for Sport Policy Studies Research Report. Toronto: Centre for Sport Policy Studies, Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, University of Toronto.

Available at:—olympic-gender-equality-report.pdf?sfvrsn=2

Kidd, B. & M. Norman (2014). Gender Equality at the Commonwealth Games, Part 1: Historical Perspectives. Centre for Sport Policy Studies Research Report. Toronto: Centre for Sport Policy Studies, Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, University of Toronto.

Available at:—commonwealth-games-gender-equality-report-part-1.pdf?sfvrsn=2

Kidd, B. & M. Norman (2014). Gender Equality at the Commonwealth Games, Part 2:

Glasgow 2014. Centre for Sport Policy Studies Research Report. Toronto: Centre for Sport Policy Studies, Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, University of Toronto.

Available at:—glasgow-2014-gender-equality-report.pdf?sfvrsn=2

Donnelly, M., M. Norman & P. Donnelly (2015). The Sochi 2014 Olympics: A Gender Equality Audit. Centre for Sport Policy Studies Research Report. Toronto: Centre for Sport Policy Studies, Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, University of Toronto.—a-gender-equality-audit.pdf?sfvrsn=2

In progress:

Audits of the PanAmerican and Para PanAmerican Games held in Toronto (2015).

  1. Our calculation of the proportions of women athletes and events for women differs from that of the IOC [ in_Olympic_Movement.pdf].

Although our calculations led us to report a slightly higher percentage of women participants at both London 2012 and Sochi 2014, our calculation of the proportion of women’s events differs markedly from the IOC. We have assigned 0.5 of a mixed medal event each to men and women where the number of men and women in the event is equal.

However, the luge mixed relay at Sochi involved three men and one woman on each team: therefore, we assigned 0.75 and 0.25 respectively to men and women. An alternative would have been to count mixed events as an event for both men and women, but this would have artificially increased the number of events. By dividing a mixed event between men and women, we maintained an accurate total number of medal events.

  1. At the London 2012 Summer Olympics, there were 30 more events for men than for women (136/302 for women; 166/302 for men); at Sochi 2014, there were 45.25/98 women’s events and 52.75/98 men’s events.