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Sport and gender: What is the situation in the run-up to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games?

Research Article published on 08 July 2024 , Updated on 10 July 2024

This article was originally published in L'Édition n°24.

10,500 is the number of athletes expected at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games (OG), with just as many women as men. This is one of the commitments of the next Olympiad, namely to become the first equal gender games in history. This has never happened before in 32 editions, and for a reason, as until today, sport has been far from a model student when it comes to parity and inclusion. 

The Olympic Games (OG) are undoubtedly one of the world's greatest sporting events in terms of the number of nations represented, the number of sports played, the number of spectators and the number of athletes involved. However, women have not always been welcome. Not a single woman was among the 241 athletes invited to the first Olympic Games of the modern era, held in Athens in 1896 at the instigation of Pierre de Coubertin. It was not until the following Olympiad, in Paris in 1900, that sportswomen made their debut. A total of 22 women - compared with 975 men - competed in six disciplines, including tennis and golf.

An initial victory? Not really, according to Florys Castan-Vicente, a lecturer at the Complexity, Innovation, Motor and Sport Activities Laboratory (CIAMS - Univ. Paris-Saclay/Univ. Orléans). "Their presence was not officially recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which considered their events to be demonstrations. They did not win medals, they won diplomas," explains the social historian. It was not until the 1908 London Olympics that the IOC made women's participation official. That year, 37 women competed, representing just 2% of all athletes. This was a very low rate that continued for several Games.

An "impractical, uninteresting, unsightly" Olympiad

The slow arrival of sportswomen onto Olympic fields is no coincidence. It illustrates the obstacles women face at an early age in accessing physical activities. "Sport is a stronghold of virility that has been built on the exclusion of women since the early 19th century. The first sports clubs were founded by men, and it was openly written in their statutes that women were excluded," confirms Anaïs Bohuon, lecturer and Head of the Bodies, Sport, Gender and Power Relations team at CIAMS.

In the 19th century, the number of disciplines open to women could be counted on the fingers of one hand. However, there were many arguments in favour of limiting or even banning women's activities. Some cited questions of modesty or lack of elegance. "There was also this idea that seeing a woman do sport is ugly. This argument is regularly found in the literature and archives," adds Florys Castan-Vicente, who wrote her thesis on the links between physical activities and feminisms in France.

In addition to these moral and aesthetic considerations, there were biological arguments widely conveyed by medical discourse, claiming that women were too weak to take part in sport. "It's the myth of the eternally wounded," adds the researcher. "Women's bodies are said to be wounded, permanently ill. They must therefore be confined to inactivity to protect their bodies and preserve their procreative capacity." All these arguments led to a very active rejection of sportswomen at the time, including by Pierre de Coubertin, who felt that "an Olympiad with females would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and improper." But some voices spoke out against this exclusion, including that of a little-known figure in the history of sport, Alice Milliat.

A French passionate athlete who was widowed at the age of 24, Alice Milliat "played a key role in the institutionalisation of women's sport," says Florys Castan-Vicente. In 1919, she became head of the Fédération des sociétés féminines sportives de France (French Federation of Women's Sports Societies, FSFSF), with which she organised competitions in a range of disciplines. That’s how the first French women's football team was founded. In 1921, she took another step forward with the creation of the Fédération sportive féminine internationale (International Women's Sports Federation, FSFI). On two occasions, Alice Milliat asked the IOC to open athletics events to women. To no avail. She decided to take matters into her own hands.

In August 1922, with the FSFI, she organised the first Women's World Games in Paris. The event brought together 77 athletes from five countries who competed in different disciplines, including athletics. "These first Women's World Games were a success, attracting over 15,000 spectators," says the social historian. It was a first endorsement for Alice Milliat and her federation, which repeated the event in 1926 in Gothenburg, Sweden.

The women's 800 metres in 1928

After intense debate, the IOC finally decided to open five athletics events to women, including the 800 metres, at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. The event was won by Germany's Lina Radke in 2 min 16 s 9, beating the world record. However, it was not this feat that made the headlines, but the "unfortunate spectacle of the finish." Newspapers described runners collapsing "half-dead" on the track, suffering from "vomiting" and "first-class nervous breakdowns." Except that the videos of the event showed a very different scene.

The nine competitors are shown crossing the finish line. Only one collapses briefly, while the others simply appear exhausted by the race or disappointed by their defeat. According to Florys Castan-Vicente, this 800 m was the subject of a genuine disinformation campaign, “today, we would call it fake news. This rumour spread internationally like wildfire, with exactly the same descriptions in French, British, Australian and New York newspapers.” And the disinformation campaign bore fruit. “It was used as evidence of women’s inability to run long distances.” As a result, the IOC and the International Athletic Federation banned women from all races over 200 m. It was not until 1960, in Rome, that the women’s 800 m event made its return to the Olympics.

Using the argument of their alleged biological inferiority, “there was a kind of ‘desportivisation’ in women’s access to sports," says Anaïs Bohuon. "They were made to run shorter distances, the number of hurdles was reduced and the weights were made lighter. They were also banned from all sports deemed too violent," for which less violent versions were introduced, deemed more suitable for women. "'Barrette' is a good example." This sport is similar to rugby, with the notable difference that tackling is forbidden.

Despite the many advances of the early part of the century, the 1930s saw a sharp decline, due to the international economic crisis. "There was also a rise in fascist ideologies, which took a very dim view of sportswomen, their activities and their independent organisations," stresses Florys Castan-Vicente. The FSFI did not survive. The last Women's Games were held in London in 1934. The federation went out of business two years later. Alice Milliat retired from the sporting scene. The Second World War saw the return of restrictions for women, who were banned from football, rugby, boxing and cycling.


"Gender verification" for sportswomen

After a long period of inactivity, the '60s saw a revival in women's sporting activities. But they also provided a new example of the unequal treatment of the sexes in the world of sport. In 1966, the European Athletics Championships in Budapest saw the introduction of a new measure, called "gender verification". Reserved for sportswomen, the procedure was designed to "confirm the gender identity of female competitors," with the stated aim of "avoiding fraud by preventing any men from competing with women," explains Anaïs Bohuon in her book on this "gender verification", later known as "femininity tests".

The creation of this test reflected the criticisms and suspicions that emerged very early on about female performance. "Sport is a discipline that disrupts and transforms morphologies," stresses the researcher. For women, however, these transformations have a particular resonance. In the '20s, athletes were subjected to a real "virilisation process", where their bodies were deemed too powerful, too muscular, too hairy... For some women, the remarks went so far as to cast doubt on their membership of the female sex and accuse them of not being "real women".

"Gender verification" aimed to put an end to this controversy. In 1966, it involved a gynaecological examination and strength tests to assess muscle power and respiratory capacity. "It was very revealing," notes Anaïs Bohuon. "Sportswomen were expected to have skill levels below those of men. So, they tried to define what a real woman should be by her physical inferiority to men." But it was first and foremost the "very humiliating" way in which the verification was carried out that was criticised, as the athletes lined up naked while waiting to show their genitals to three doctors, according to the testimonies collected by the lecturer.

In 1968, this test was replaced by the Barr body test, which aimed to reveal the presence of a second X sex chromosome. As XX individuals are considered genetically female and XY male, the test was supposed to confirm the sexual identity of sportswomen. In 1992, the Barr body test, deemed too unreliable and prone to misinterpretation, was replaced by the PCR/SRY test, this time seeking to establish the absence of a Y chromosome.

However, this new test, like the previous one, came up against a major difficulty in the face of intersex, as some people turn out to be X0, XXY or XY with (partial or total) insensitivity to androgens. All these features can lead to a "mismatch" between genetic sex and physical appearance. With these tests, "the sporting authorities realised how difficult it is not only to determine a person's sex, but also to define what constitutes a 'real woman' authorised to compete," comments Anaïs Bohuon.

By shaking up sex and gender norms, "intersex totally calls into question sexual bi-categorisation - the strict separation of the sexes - on which the sporting world has been built." What can be done with these cases of gender-based differentiation? Do these characteristics confer a physical advantage over other sportswomen? These are all questions that the debates struggled to answer. In the 2000s, the IOC abolished systematic and compulsory testing, but authorised tests to be carried out if there was any question regarding a sportswoman's gender identity. It was in this context that the Caster Semenya case emerged.

This young South African athlete excelled at the 2009 World Athletics Championships in Berlin, where she won the women's 800 m in 1 min 55 sec 45. The comments soon began to fly: her shoulders were considered too broad, her voice too deep, her musculature too large... Examinations revealed that Caster Semenya suffered from hyperandrogenism, in other words an production of testosterone deemed excessive. From then on, "for the Athletics Federation, the IOC and then other federations, it was hormonal sex, i.e. the level of testosterone, that defined what a real woman authorised to compete should be," recounts Anaïs Bohuon. Except that "testosterone is not the miracle hormone for sports performance. And all the studies have great difficulty showing that testosterone alone enables athletes to excel."

Despite this, regulations have only become stricter since 2011. Initially set at 10 nanomoles of testosterone per litre of blood (nmol/L), the limit has been lowered to 2.5 nmol/L for certain federations, including athletics. And sportswomen with hyperandrogenism have to undergo treatments to lower their hormone levels. Caster Semenya denounced their side effects and took the case to court. "Today, there are many sportswomen who will not be taking part in the Olympics this summer because they don't accept the regulations that impose hormone treatments on healthy bodies," explains Anaïs Bohuon. These athletes will not be the only ones to miss out on the Olympics. The same will be true for transgender sportsmen and women.

The inclusion of transgender athletes in question

The term "transgender" (or trans) describes a person whose self-identified gender identity does not correspond to the gender assigned to them at birth. A trans woman, for example, is a person who defines themselves as female but was assigned the male gender at birth. Conversely, "cisgender"(or cis) people are those whose lived identity and assigned gender are the same. If they wish to do so, trans people have the option of making a transition to help their appearance match their gender identity. This may include medical procedures such as hormone therapy and/or sex reassignment surgery.

While intersex and trans-identity are two different things, they raise similar debates about the inclusion of the athletes concerned. These debates centre around the same question, namely physical advantage. Do trans women have an advantage over other sportswomen? "The entire scientific community disagrees," explains Lucie Pallesi, PhD candidate at CIAMS who has been working on a thesis on trans-identity in top-level sport for the past five years. "The problem is that some base their arguments on extrapolations from studies carried out on men and women. But a trans woman is not a cis man. There are studies on trans women and they say that the physical advantage is reduced or even disappears after transition."

As with intersex athletes, the rules have evolved over the years. After imposing hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery on trans women, and then setting a testosterone limit, the IOC reconsidered its position and finally abandoned the criteria. In 2021, it published a framework in which it acknowledged the lack of consensus on the impact of testosterone on performance. This was a first in the sporting world.

"We might have expected a wave of inclusion after this publication, but the opposite happened," laments Lucie Pallesi. Several federations, including rugby, athletics and cycling, updated their rules to ban trans women from competing. "These regulations exclude all trans women who have experienced male puberty. This means transitioning before the age of 12. But no country currently allows that at such a young age." And it is not out of the question that other federations will follow suit.

According to Lucie Pallesi, there are barely a hundred openly transgender athletes competing at high level. New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard is one of them. In Tokyo in 2021, she became the first trans athlete to compete in an Olympic event, despite a barrage of criticism. "Sport is one of the most disinvested spaces for trans people because it is one of the most violent to stay in after transitioning." points out the CIAMS PhD candidate.

Considering only the biological argument is "forgetting all the socioeconomic conditions that come into play. For a trans woman, a career in top-level sport is very precarious," continues Lucie Pallesi. This is also where arguments take a wrong turn according to Anaïs Bohuon. Whether intersex, transgender, female or male, biology is not everything when it comes to sporting performance. "Physical advantage is indefinable," she asserts. "To understand who excels in top-level sport, we need to consider a whole range of components, biological as well as historical, social, economic, political and geographical." Surfing, which will be included in the Paris 2024 Olympics, provides an example.

Female surfers deprived of waves

While women's surfing has been on the rise for several years now, it is not without its challenges. "Even today, many private surfing competitions do not invite female surfers," says Anne Schmitt, a researcher at CIAMS who focuses on gender inequalities in surfing and sailing. "And female surfers had to fight to get access to some of them." This was the case in Mavericks, California, one of the world's most iconic surf spots, where sportswomen were unable to enter the competition until 2018, 19 years after it was first held.

Another example is the location chosen for the upcoming Olympic surfing events, to be held in Teahupo'o, Tahiti. The area is known for its impressive but also dangerous waves. "There is very little bottom when the wave forms. So, anyone who falls has a high chance of hitting the coral and sustaining serious injuries," confirms the sociologist. Although the Tahitian waves have long been part of the men's professional surfing circuit, the event was withdrawn from the women's circuit in 2006 for safety reasons. It was not reinstated until 2019, following the choice of venue for the 2024 Olympics.

This detail is not insignificant for Anne Schmitt. "We too often forget that performances are rooted in a cultural and social context. When you restrict women's practice for so many years, you create a lag," she asserts. "This summer, if a woman underperforms at Teahupo'o, it will be seen as a sign of weakness and non-legitimacy, even though she has only been training there for two years, compared to the men, who have been riding this wave for over ten years."

For female surfers, the restrictions are compounded by another difficulty, namely the economic reality of a sporting career. "Surfing is expensive; you have to travel the world, transport your equipment and pay for your registrations. Training also requires time and the right conditions," explains the sociologist. "One of the most effective ways to get paid is to be sponsored." But here again, there are fewer opportunities for sportswomen who, for a long time, had to deal with the "sexy female surfer cliché" fostered on them by sponsors. Lastly, prize money is another illustration of inequality in surfing, as it is only since 2019 that female surfers have received prizes equivalent to those of their male counterparts when they win competitions.

Unequal pay, poor media coverage, compulsory dress, sexist comments, sexual violence, exclusion... Despite the progress made in these areas in recent years, many gender-related issues remain in the world of sport. And the 2024 Olympics will be no exception. "Olympic Games with as many men as women is a great step forward," says Florys Castan-Vicente. But "parity does not mean equality."

In fact, this summer, there will still be no women in Greco-Roman wrestling or the decathlon. For their part, men are still unable to compete individually in artistic swimming or rhythmic gymnastics. And there will be no parity in the Paralympic Games due to the lack of female para-athletes.