'Women's Games' strikes a right hook for equality

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 9:07pm


On hearing that women would be entering the ring for the first time in Olympic history, a Cuban coach was heard to exclaim: 'Women should be showing off their beautiful faces, not getting punched in them'. Tell that to Nicola Adams, hometown heroine, who brought the roof down at the ExCel Arena when she became the first woman to win a boxing final in the history of the Games. Or tell it to Katie Taylor, Ireland's first Olympic gold medallist since swimmer Michelle Smith won two titles in the 1996 Atlanta Games.

The last bastion of men in the Olympics was toppled in London with boxing featuring 36 women from countries as diverse as Azerbaijan and Venezuela. Since its introduction in 1904, boxing has been featured 24 times at the Olympics, having been part of every Games except Stockholm 1912 (boxing was illegal in Sweden at the time). But until now it has been the sole preserve of men.

Sports fans will know about the deeds of Cassius Clay at the 1960 Rome Olympics or that of Teofilo Stevenson, the great Cuban boxer who won three golds and never turned professional. But it has always been a man's game.

And it is apt that in London boxing finally caught up with every other sport, for it was in England that the suffragette movement was born which helped women win the right to vote. At the opening ceremony, Danny Boyle made sure the world was reminded of this when a descendant of Emily Pankhurst portrayed a suffragette.

This year's Games mark the first time in history that women have competed in every event. It's also the first time every country has sent women athletes, which has led some to dub London 'the Women's Games'. Countries such as Brunei and Saudi Arabia included women for the first time. Sarah Attar, an 800-metres runner, was among the first women - the other being a judoka - to compete for Saudi Arabia and she took part covered from head to toe, with only her smiling face peeping out from under a hood.

Even in the West, women are getting a bigger share of the pie. For the first time, Team USA have more women than men in their squad. Britain have 541 athletes of whom 262 are women. It was perhaps just right that the first gold medal for the hosts should be won by women - rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning.

Nearly 5,000 women, 44 per cent of the total athletes, are taking part or have competed in London. In 1900 in Paris, just 19 women took part. It seems the father of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, felt that a woman's place was at home. It was worse in ancient times when the Games were not just for male athletes only, but women weren't even allowed to be spectators.

Equality is the name of the game today. Sports hoping to become a medal event at the Olympics have to ensure that women are catered for. This is the main reason why rugby failed to win its first bid to enter and be part of London 2012.

In 2005, the International Rugby Board arrived in Singapore to present its case for inclusion cocksure that the battle had already been won. They feted and dined IOC members before the vote believing that rugby sevens was a shoo-in. That bubble burst at the presentation when a female IOC member of the executive board got up and asked the IRB what measures it had taken to promote women's rugby.

The IRB officials were caught with their pants down. The sport didn't have a women's world championship or anything of equal stature. The bid was shot down. That is why the IRB made haste to create a women's Rugby World Cup Sevens, held for the first time in Dubai in 2009, the same year the IOC met again in Copenhagen to decide the host city for 2016 and the two new sports to join the medals programme. Golf, which has a thriving women's game, and rugby sevens won inclusion.

If there is any legacy from these Olympics, then it will be that this was the first Games in the modern era where women were on the same footing as men.

A right hook for equality was thrown in London which will be long remembered for it. It might not mean so much in countries like Australia and Britain, but in a place like Saudi Arabia this is a huge step forward.

But change can sometimes only be cosmetic. Take the case of the Japanese women's soccer team. They had to travel in economy while their male counterparts flew in business class. Wonder what will happen on the way back home, though - the women having won silver while the men had to settle for playing for bronze.