New SHARP Center “Women in the Olympic and Paralympic Games” Report Reveals Equity Gaps in Participation, Leadership Opportunities for Women

Published on April 11th, 2013

Ann Arbor, MI (April 11, 2013) – The 2012 London Olympic Games were widely recognized as the “Year of the Woman,” because with the exception of two nations, for the first time in the history of the Games every nation that sent a delegation included at least one female. However, today the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy (SHARP) Center for Women and Girls, a Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) and University of Michigan collaboration, released the results of Women in the Olympic and Paralympic Games: An Analysis of Participation and Leadership Opportunities,” a study that provides new insights into the generally poor representation of women in leadership roles and sports participation in the international and U.S. Olympic and Paralympic organizations. The groundbreaking report also assesses the extent that the International Olympic Committee (IOC), International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and United States Olympic Committee (USOC) are fulfilling their stated missions with respect to gender equality.

“The Women’s Sports Foundation began this research series to follow women in the Olympic and Paralympic movement and, because the first three reports showed that progress toward gender equity has been limited, the SHARP Center saw a critical need to carry this work forward,” expressed Kathy Babiak, SHARP co-director and associate professor of sport management at the University of Michigan’s School of Kinesiology. “In fact, the current findings inform us that there is much more work to be done.”

Despite noteworthy attempts to support the inclusion of greater numbers of women on the international sporting scene, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) rhetoric of gender equality has gained only minimal responses from the National Olympic Committees (NOCs), the International Federations (IFs) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC)—most of which still struggle to meet the IOC’s request in 2000 that women hold at least 20 percent of leadership positions. The IOC has itself, for the first time, met its stated goal of 20 percent female representation among its membership with 21 percent of the current members (22 of 106) being female. This increase from 2008—when membership was 15 percent female (16 of 107)—is notable yet fails to reflect true parity.

While the United States exceeds many countries with 37 percent female representation on the USOC Board of Directors, eight of the 29 established U.S. National Governing Bodies (NGBs) are below the 20 percent threshold ranging from zero to 18 percent female representation—Judo, Cycling, Triathlon, Table Tennis, Canoe/Kayak, Wrestling, Taekwondo and Soccer—and of 58 executive leadership roles in the U.S. NGBs, only six positions are held by women (10 percent), down from eight positions (14 percent) in 2008.

“The SHARP Center findings demonstrate both the successes and shortfalls of the IOC’s gender equity thresholds,” shared Women’s Sports Foundation CEO, Kathryn Olson. “We are far from the 50/50 split in balanced leadership which embodies the inclusive spirit of the Olympic and Paralympic movement. There are abundant returns that come to women who serve in a leadership capacity in sport and they are an integral part of the team, actively advocating for women as athletes.”

“Women in the Olympic and Paralympic Games” also uncovers startling gender inequalities in athletic participation by men and women. Although competing in the same number of Olympic sports as their male counterparts, women competed in 131 events (43.4 percent, up from 42 percent in 2008), while men competed in 163 events (54 percent, down slightly from 54.6 percent in 2008). Additionally, there were eight mixed events (accounting for three percent), putting women in a total of 139 events (46 percent) and men in 171 events (56 percent) of the 302 events offered at the 2012 Games.

Paralympic women had the opportunity to compete in 236 (47 percent) of 503 events; there were 200 (40 percent) women’s events, 267 (53 percent) men’s events and 36 (7 percent) mixed events. Female Paralympians compete in 47 percent of events, but continue to account for less than 40 percent of the total athletes.

Key findings from “Women in the Olympic and Paralympic Games: An Analysis of Participation and Leadership Opportunities” include:

  1. The IOC requested that women be provided with at least 20 percent of the leadership opportunities in international sport organizations by 2005; however, women continue to be excluded or minimally represented in leadership positions in these groups. The vast majority (85 percent) of NOCs have all-male leadership teams. While only six of the 28 IFs have exceeded the 20 percent threshold.
  2. The USOC is making greater strides towards organizational gender equity, but it is still well below a balanced 50/50 split in leadership positions. This is particularly true in the NGBs where women are woefully underrepresented in leadership positions. The worst offenders include: Judo, Cycling, Triathlon, Table Tennis, Canoe/Kayak, Wrestling, Taekwondo and Soccer.
  3. Women still have not exceeded 45 percent of the total participants in the Olympic Games and 36 percent in the Paralympic Games; however, in the 2012 Olympic Games, for the first time in history, women made up more than half of the U.S. Olympic athletes (51 percent).
  4. Female athletes often have fewer events per sport resulting in fewer medal opportunities. Female athletes also have fewer slots per event leading to fewer participation opportunities overall. For example, there are slots for 16 soccer teams for men and only 12 for women.
  5. Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei sent female competitors to the Games for the first time in 2012, not every nation included a female competitor. Barbados and Nauru did not send any female athletes to these Games.
  6. In both the Olympic and Paralympic Games, delegations from wealthy nations were more gender equitable than those of less financed nations.
  7. American women dominate team sport competition in the Olympic Games, in large measure due to the impact of Title IX.

Based on the relevant findings, the Women’s Sports Foundation, a leading organization in girls’ and women’s sports, developed specific, evidence-based policy recommendations intended to provide governing bodies, athletes, and policymakers with new and accurate information with an eye toward making the Olympic and Paralympic movement equitable for all.

“The Women’s Sports Foundation has worked closely with the USOC to establish its recent athlete safety guidelines governing harassment, child abuse and various forms of misconduct and we look forward to assisting the USOC, IOC and IPC leadership to implement changes within their respective organizations that are beneficial to gender equity in the Olympic arena,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, four-time Olympic swimmer and senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation. “Our latest SHARP Center research report brings the current gender inequities to the forefront and arms athletes and leadership with the information they need to take an active role in advocating for opportunity.”

In an effort to continue the momentum spurred by the recent Olympic and Paralympic accomplishments, the Foundation recommends the collective international and national Olympic and Paralympic governing bodies take the following major actions:

  • Enforce accountability for meeting the gender equity thresholds. Noncompliance should be considered in evaluating which sports are added or removed from the Olympic program, which countries are eligible for IOC office, which countries are considered as a potential host city for the Olympic Games, among others. Raise gender equity standards:

Increase the 20 percent and 30 percent gender equity goals for women in leadership roles.

Set 50 percent equity goals for participation by the 2016 Games.

  • Increase Olympic Solidarity scholarships to female athletes to at least 50 percent
  • Institute clear and evidence-based reporting requirements with regard to current patterns and improvements towards the representation of women leaders within the IOC, IPC, NGBs and NOCs.

Detailed results of “Women in the Olympic and Paralympic Games: An Analysis of Participation and Leadership Opportunities” and to access the complete policy recommendations here.  

To access all four reports in the series, please visit
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About the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls (SHARP)
SHARP, the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls, was established in 2010 as a new partnership between the Women’s Sports Foundation and University of Michigan’s School of Kinesiology and Institute for Research on Women & Gender. SHARP’s mission is to lead research that enhances the scope, experience, and sustainability of participation in sport, play, and movement for women and girls. Leveraging the research leadership of the University of Michigan with the policy and programming expertise of the Women’s Sports Foundation, findings from SHARP research will better inform public engagement, advocacy, and implementation to enable more women and girls to be active, healthy, and successful.

Media Contacts:
Kasie Carr
Women’s Sports Foundation

Jared Wadley
University of Michigan