London 2012 – a chance to nurture strong female role models
— Tessa Jowell is Britain’s Minister for the Olympics and London and has held a variety of senior government posts. She has direct responsibility for delivery of the government’s Olympic programme. Jowell has been a member of parliament for the Labour Party since 1992. The views expressed are her own. —
In 1896 a Greek woman called Stamata Revithi decided to run the inaugural modern day Olympic Marathon in Greece. Arriving in the Village of Marathon she was told by officials that she was not allowed to compete in the race the next day as the entry deadline had expired.
Today historians agree that the real reason for her exclusion was her gender – women were not allowed to compete in any of the events in the inaugural Olympic Games. This did not deter Revithi, who ran the marathon by herself the day after the main race, running her final lap around the outside of the main stadium as she wasn’t allowed inside to officially mark the culmination of her five and a half hour run, in fact it would take nearly 100 years before women could compete in an Olympic Marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
This kind of discrimination seems unthinkable now but more than 120 years after Revithi ran through the streets of Greece women are still barred from over 40 Olympic events. In Paralympic sport the figures are worse with women unable to compete in nearly 50 per cent of events.
Although the International Olympic Committee has made some progress in this area – in 1980 women represented only 18 percent of athletes at the Moscow Games, a figure that had risen to 45 percent in Beijing last year – there is still a long way to go. I know that in some sports there may be historical reasons why women do not participate. But its time Olympic sport moved with the times.
With a global audience of billions the Olympics are perhaps the greatest show on earth. The men and women who compete in the Games inspire awe, wonder and respect for their talent and dedication. In short they become role models or sporting ‘heroes’ that people, particularly children, look up to. And how often do women get the chance to see other women playing sport? There is more than 50 times as much coverage in the media for men’s sport than women’s, with just 2 percent of articles and 1 percent of images devoted to elite female athletes and women’s sport.
Women watch the Olympics more than any other sporting event; this makes it even more important to me to pursue equal representation in the Olympic Games. Women, like men, need to have strong sporting role models to look up to like Paula Radcliffe, Rebecca Addlington or Christine Ohuruogu, just as they need to have strong role models to look up to in other areas of life whether that’s Hillary Clinton or Kylie Minogue.
This is why Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe and I are calling for change. But equality shouldn’t just be on the sporting track it needs to be across the board. The world has changed a lot since the suffragette movement at the beginning of the 20th century but the treatment of women still varies from country to country. Globally there is a gender pay gap where women do two thirds of the world’s work but receive only 10 percent of the world’s income and unbelievably there are still a minority of countries where women can’t vote.
Across the world millions of women suffer from rape, domestic abuse and mutilation without their attackers being brought to justice. And in an age when many of us living in the western world take access to education and healthcare for granted, there are many women and girls with out access to basic midwifery care or schools. Clearly we still have a long way to go before women not only have the same rights as men but access to the same opportunities.
So, as I use International Women’s Day to think about the role of women in the Olympics I think the challenge is to make the Games as much a place for women as men. London 2012 is a unique opportunity to try and change the status quo and smash a few stereotypes so that in the future there are strong female role models for girls growing up – whether on the sporting field, in the boardroom or the construction site; and girls, like boys, are encouraged to aim high and be the very best.