In terms of the events offered at the 2020 Olympic Games, it will be the most gender-equal Olympics yet. Throughout the history of the modern Olympic Games gender equality has always been an issue. What began as a reflection of the societal perceptions of sport and gender roles in 1896 when the modern Games began, continued to hold on over the years, yielding only to slowly changing Victorian views of “proper” gender roles, particularly that of women. Only men were permitted to compete at the 1896 Games and by 1900 women were able to compete … but only in sports which were then considered feminine. That year 22 women took part in tennis, golf, sailing and croquet.
As the Olympics grew in popularity, so did women’s participation, both in participant numbers and in additional sports in which they could compete. Still, those were sports society considered more feminine. Women were often prohibited from competing in sports deemed as masculine or sports considered unsafe or unhealthy for women. While the pseudoscience preventing women from taking part in vigorous physical activity has long been debunked, it wasn’t until 1984 that a female division of the Olympic Marathon was added. And in 2000 women were finally able to compete in weightlifting; 2002 in bobsled; 2004 in wrestling and 2012 in boxing.
In sports such as swimming there have been different events for men and women. But for the 2020 games this gap is slowly closing where three new swimming events have been added: the men’s 800-meter freestyle, the women’s 1,500-meter freestyle and a 4×100-meter medley mixed-gender relay. These events have long been part of other large international swimming events, including the World Championships but never before at the Olympic Games.
There are still gender differences within all sports that necessitate gender divisions. Recently the primary focus on gender equality in sport has been on building female participation in sports traditionally considered to be masculine. At the 2016 Olympic Games women could take part in every sport that men could, even if the events within that sport weren’t fully equal. However, there are still two sports on the Olympic program that are exclusive to one gender; rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming. While open to women, men are banned from competing because due to old gender perceptions they might be considered gay or weak due to the perceived femininity of these sports.
We’re still on the road toward gender equality at the Olympic Games. In sports such as gymnastics and figure skating, the men’s competition is significantly different than the women’s to try and diminish any perceived femininity of the sport. Men have gymnastic events like the pommel horse, rings and parallel bars performed without music while the women’s floor routine is more artistic with elements of dance and music added. You might argue that it’s because physiologically women have less upper body strength. Yet women’s events such as the uneven bars and vault still require a strong and trained upper body that female gymnasts have shown they are more than capable of achieving.
Even in figure skating there is a reason why completing a triple axel is a guaranteed medal in the women’s competition but won’t even get you into the top 10 for the men’s competition. In a sport that emphasizes femininity, including poise, dance and short skirts, the men’s division has been driving to be more athletic – clearly why rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming are still exclusive to female competitors at the Olympic level. After all, you can’t make ribbon dancing and water ballet look more masculine but that is hardly a reason to exclude men who wish to compete.
Men have taken part in many activities that might traditionally be considered feminine, such as ballet, modeling, color guard, cheerleading and figure skating. There is a cultural perception that men who participate in such feminine activities will somehow lose their masculinity, become weak or be considered homosexual in a derogatory way. Athleticism is not easy nor is it gender specific. Like all sports, being a successful athlete requires lots of training, discipline and skill; rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming are no exception. Just because they aren’t traditionally considered masculine sports such as boxing or powerlifting, it doesn’t mean they don’t require strength and stamina to be competitive.
Men were first allowed to compete at the Synchronized Swimming World Championships in 2015 in the mixed duet division where USA athlete Bill May and Aleksandr Maltsev became the first men (along with their female partners Christina Jones and Darina Valitova) to win a gold medal in synchronized swimming. Men were not allowed to compete in any solo or male-specific events and at the 2017 World Championships there was only a mixed duet and a mixed teams division.
One of the few places where men can fully compete in all synchronized swimming events is currently at the events recognized and sanctioned by the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA). IGLA also participates in the Gay Games which has helped to build male participation in the sport. There’s also a current movement to build men’s participation in rhythmic gymnastics but it hasn’t been recognized yet by the International Gymnastics Federation (IGF) so no competition on any level is currently happening. As a swimmer, I believe it is time to add a men’s division of synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics to the 2020 Olympic Program.
Athleticism is the desire of individuals to express themselves through a physical feat, just as a singer or musician would express themselves through music. For the dedicated athletes who put in the time, money and effort to train to be their best, sport is a form of self-expression, showing the world part of who you are and what you can achieve. This form of self-expression isn’t defined by anybody else but the individual.
We shouldn’t limit people to binary-only definitions of gender. It’s time we stop looking at gender divisions as solely masculine or feminine and recognize and accept that men can be just as feminine as women can be masculine. There is nothing wrong with either and we shouldn’t define our skill set and athleticism on the grounds of archaic perceived gender roles.
By Dirk Smith