In London and elsewhere, women athletes have made this a year to shine

Nicole LaVoi
Nicole LaVoi: In many sport contexts, females are criticized, scrutinized and marginalized rather than celebrated for their athletic feats.
Courtesy of Nicole LaVoi

Nicole M. LaVoi, Ph.D., is associate director of t The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.

Three significant milestones have occurred for women in sport in 2012.

The first milestone marks the 40th anniversary of the passage Title IX — landmark U.S. federal legislation that dramatically increased sport participation opportunities for girls and women. In 1972, when Title IX was passed, 1 in 27 girls played high school sports. Today that number is 1 in 2.5, and females make up nearly 40 percent of all interscholastic and intercollegiate sport participants.

These historic participation numbers have helped create a broader U.S. cultural context in which female athleticism is increasingly commonplace and celebrated. Undeniably, the effects of Title IX can be directly and indirectly witnessed at the 2012 London Olympics.

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The second milestone — related to the first — is that for the first time in U.S. history, female Olympic athletes outnumbered their male counterparts. It is hard to fathom that, less than a century ago, women were banned from competing in the Olympics. Today they constitute 45 percent of all athletes in the London Games.

The third milestone reflects progress (albeit limited) for women in sport outside the United States. For the first time, Saudi Arabia and Qatar allowed female athletes to compete in the Olympics. Sixteen-year-old judo athlete Wojdan Shahrkhani became the first Saudi Arabian woman to compete at the Olympic Games and Qatar's Olympic delegation of 12 included four females (in shooting and fencing).

As much as these milestones are cause for celebration, females in sport contexts are far from enjoying equality.

Females still lag behind their male counterparts in opportunities to coach and lead, in distribution of institutional resources and in media attention. For example, females in coaching and administrative positions in women's sport in the United States was around 90 percent in 1972. Today, the number of female head coaches of female college athletes is near an all-time low (42.9 percent) and only 19 percent of collegiate athletic directors across all NCAA divisional levels are female.

In many sport organizations, female athletes recieve less institutional support. For example, at a typical NCAA Division-I school, female athletes receive 28 percent of all money spent on athletics, only 45 percent of college athletic scholarship dollars and only 31 percent of recruiting funds. In 2010, coverage of women's sport was at its lowest level in 20 years — accounting for 1.6 percent of televised news coverage. In the scarce instances when female athletes are covered in print and broadcast media, they are too often portrayed in ways that highlight femininity and sexuality, rather than athletic competence.

In many sport contexts, females are criticized, scrutinized and marginalized rather than celebrated for their amazing athletic feats. If one needs concrete examples, look no further than Ye Shiwen, Brittney Griner and Caster Semenya. These examples and many others provide evidence of the pervasive persistence of enduring gender stereotypes, sexism and male dominance in sport contexts.

Despite the good reasons to celebrate the achievements of female athletes and Olympians in particular, gender equality in sport remains contested and incomplete.