For the first time in history, every country competing in the London 2012 Olympics will have at least one female athlete, with many – notably in Latin America – achieving gender parity among their delegations. As a symbol of women’s increasing presence in Latin America, half of the athletes carrying Latin American flags in tonight’s opening ceremonies will be women. Argentina, Bolivia, El Salvador, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Peru have selected female athletes to represent their teams. Overall, the number of women athletes competing in this summer’s games exceeds the number from Beijing 2008.
This is no isolated trend. “The peak of women in sports in Latin America coincides with the increase in women’s participation in the social, political and economic life of the region,” said Fernando Segura Trejo, a sports sociologist at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (Center for Research and Teaching in Economics) in Mexico. “Women have not only reached the highest positions of administration, including various presidents, they have gained tremendous ground under the yoke of many decades of oppression and restriction of rights that today seem natural.” The latest issue of Americas Quarterly, released yesterday, looks at the progress women have made in politics and business in the region, while noting that they are far from parity in leadership positions in political, corporate and judicial systems.
Women have made huge strides in sports in the United States and other countries as well. Forty years after Title IX legislation was passed in the U.S., opening the door for more equal participation of girls and women in educational and athletic activities, a majority of U.S. Olympic athletes are women, 269 to 261. Russia’s team, which is nearly as big, also has a majority of female athletes. And Saudi Arabia, notorious for restricting women’s rights, is sending its first two women to the London Games. These advances have led some media and Olympics watchers to call the 2012 games the “year of the woman.”
Despite these achievements, not all are celebrating. Representatives from various European women’s groups met in London on Wednesday to call for an end to gender discrimination at the Olympics, with women’s rights campaigners criticizing the fact that women will compete in 30 fewer events than men in the 2012 Games, and only 132 gold medals are available to women compared to 162 for men. Moreover, even as women are participating in sports in increasing numbers, they still lag behind their male counterparts in pay (prize money and sponsorship), media coverage and allocation of financial resources to support their training and facilities.