Nick Butler ©ITG

There were a couple of sport-specific recommendations in an International Olympic Committee (IOC) gender equality review published to coincide with International Women’s Day last week which got me thinking.

Recommendation 2 was to "ensure the competition formats related to distances, duration of competition segments, number of rounds, etc. between women and men are as equal as possible".

Recommendation 4 stipulated that: "as much as possible, the sport-specific equipment and apparatus for men and women should be the same".

Is this right and should male and female sporting events be as identical as possible?

I will return to these points in a moment.

Gender equality is an area where the IOC have made progress in recent years.

Female athletes should compile 48.8 per cent of the participants at the next Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo and they have cajoled many governing bodies into eradicating longstanding discrepancies.

They have also helped ensure that female athletes and events receive just as must exposure as male ones at the Olympics to the extent where focus on Ester Ledecká, Alina Zagitova and Chloe Kim just as much as on Marcel Hirscher, Yuzuru Hanyu or Shaun White at Pyeongchang 2018 did not ever bear remarking upon.

How different is this to other sporting events like football, basketball, rugby and golf? All Olympic sports are facing pressure to equalise prize money and exposure and, while gaps still remain in many, they are gradually closing. 

The Tour of Britain and Tour Down Under cycling events have each announced equal prize money in recent weeks.

The Tour Down Under is among sporting events to have introduced equal prize money ©Getty Images
The Tour Down Under is among sporting events to have introduced equal prize money ©Getty Images

Steps are also being taken to boost the number of female administrators and officials in sport, although there is still a big divide.

Four of the 15 IOC Executive Board members are currently female and 24 of the 100 IOC members, although this does include 14 of the 28 to have arrived since Thomas Bach became President in 2013. There are just two female Presidents among the 33 Summer and seven Winter Olympic International Federations and only four at the top of the 50 European National Olympic Committees.

Trouble is, there is currently only a small pool of officials to choose from for these top positions and the focus is, quite rightly, now on a bottom-up approach. You cannot suddenly flick a switch and suddenly make it 50-50 not because there would not be enough experience. The gap, though, will continue to close.

It is also worth pointing-out that key posts at Pyeongchang 2018 were held by women.

Gunilla Lindberg led the IOC Coordination Commission and Nicole Hoevertsz was, nominally at least, in charge of the Implementation Group determining the lifting of Russia’s suspension after the Closing Ceremony. Kirsty Coventry also became the third consecutive female head of the IOC Athletes’ Commission.

We journalists should also look closer to home before criticising the imbalance.

Statistics published by IOC head of media operations Anthony Edgar after the Winter Olympics found just 19.1 per cent of accredited journalists and 25 per cent of broadcasters were female, with the difference probably explained only by the abundance of female administrative staff in the latter group. 

There have been no improvements in the last 20 years, Edgar said, and there had been a "significant decrease" in the percentage of female photographers. insidethegames, for the record, currently has no female journalists, although we do have a female managing director. 

Discounting the BBC rightsholders, there was apparently one more woman among the accredited British media. United States managed a comparatively high 29.7 per cent.

It is hard to see how the IOC review's aim to have balanced media portrayals is ever going to happen while this gap remains.

Sports administration was one area targeted in the IOC review but the recommendations are for nothing more concrete than "strategic mechanisms" to increase the pipeline of female candidates for governance roles, whatever that means.

A 50-50 gender balance at the 2024 Summer and 2026 Winter Olympics was the first and most headline-grabbing recommendation. This should not be too hard to achieve now. Efforts are already underway to add female events in Greco Roman wrestling and Nordic combined skiing, the two lingering men-only disciplines, and the International Ski Federation have applied for the latter to be added at Beijing 2022. 

Women’s events in large hill ski jumping and 50 kilometres race-walking are arriving at World Cup and World Championship level and four-person bobsleigh should eventually follow suit, although it has not yet been proposed for Beijing 2022.

If I was the IOC or International Skating Union, I would push for the scrapping of the men’s 10,000 metres speed skating event rather than adding an equivalent female event, although any past attempt to do so has been thwarted by Dutch-led resistance.

The challenge, which the IOC are aware of, is to avoid promoting women’s events before their time if standards and depth are still very low. Only four athletes completed the women’s 50km walk at last year’s International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in London, for instance, and there are concerns in cycling about adding numbers to the women’s road race at the expense of a deeper men’s field.

International Boxing Association officials oppose the IOC order to scrap two men’s categories in favour of extra female ones at Tokyo 2020 because of the "differences in ability" and the risk of harm to the men’s tournament.

I can sympathise with this to an extent but are they cautious or backwardly traditional?

The IOC also cite studies finding a direct link between Olympic equality and higher female participation at grassroots levels.

This brings us back to Recommendations 2 and 4.

The first six of the 25 IOC recommendations for improving gender equality ©IOC
The first six of the 25 IOC recommendations for improving gender equality ©IOC

There are still a lot of differences regarding distances, format and equipment.

In athletics, men compete in the 10-event decathlon, while women still do the seven-event heptathlon. Men race over 110 metres hurdles with 42 inches-high barriers in comparison with 100 metres and 33 inches for women. Throwing implements are heavier for men than women and the discus is, at two kilograms, twice as heavy for men.

In cycling, the men’s road race in Tokyo will be 266 kilometres for men versus 143km for women. The new Madison events in the Japanese capital will be 50km for men and 30km for women. Both male and female team pursuit events are now four-per-team, but the team sprint remains three for men and two for women.

All women’s distances in cross country skiing and biathlon are shorter for women than men, culminating in a 30km mass start race for women compared with 50km for men.

An Olympic men’s singles tennis final is five sets, while the women still play for three. Aquatics has done a lot to close the gender-gap recent, with a women’s 1,500m freestyle due to feature at Tokyo 2020 for the first time. All male diving competitions, however, still feature six dives in comparison with five for women.

On the other side of the coin, we still have the two women-only disciplines of artistic swimming and rhythmic gymnastics.

Artistic gymnastics contains perhaps the biggest differences. Men’s events such as the rings, pommel horse and horizontal bar are based more around strength and power while women’s ones such as the beam are more about grace and finesse. Both men and women compete on the floor but only the latter do so to music.

Is this right?

I am in two minds here. 

There does not seem any reason why women should do less than men in endurance sports. They can run marathons, compete in the same open water swimming events and over the same distance in triathlons, so why should it be different in cycling, biathlon and cross-country skiing?

Women have competed the marathon distance at the Olympics since Los Angeles 1984, when the United States Joan Benoit won the inaugural edition ©AFP/Getty Images
Women have competed the marathon distance at the Olympics since Los Angeles 1984, when the United States Joan Benoit won the inaugural edition ©AFP/Getty Images

There is also an imbalance in cross-country running where senior men raced over 15km compared with 8km for senior women at the South of England Championships in Brighton in January. A petition has recently been set-up to demand change and the IAAF made both men’s and women’s races 10km for the first time at last year’s World Championships in Kampala.

In skiing, the explanation I have heard is that they are more focused on time and exersion than distance. This is questionable, because the winner of the men’s 50km in Pyeongchang took 2 hours 08min 22.1sec in comparison with 1:22:17.6 for the women’s 30km, but there does not appear to be a huge appetite for change.

In cycling, there are fears that longer women’s road race courses would make races less exciting as riders would be focusing on simply completing the course rather than launching attacks and breakaways. I do not know enough to challenge this, and it would clearly require differences in training and approach, but perhaps they should experiment with some longer stages?

Tennis legend Billie Jean King said last week that men’s Grand Slam tennis matches should be three rather than five sets to stop apathy and avoid injuries. This is an interesting idea, and there are certainly too many injuries in the men’s game right now, but I feel this is caused more by the deluge of tournaments and that there is no reason for women not to play five-set finals, at least, at Grand Slams or the Olympics.

The gymnastics difference is another argument. I have asked various people this week why women cannot compete on the rings, and men on the beam, and am yet to hear a conclusive answer. "I have never heard this kind of topic," answered an International Gymnastics Federation spokeswoman. "Women’s and men’s Artistic Gymnastics are both judged on difficulty and execution."

"The beam is almost impossible for men," said somebody else. "Not an issue of strength but pelvis shape." 

Others cited tradition.

Only men compete on the rings in artistic gymnastics events ©Getty Images
Only men compete on the rings in artistic gymnastics events ©Getty Images

Hmm. Clearly there are still differences between the physique of men and women and perhaps we should embrace that rather than always seek change? 

In the non, or former, Olympic sport of lacrosse, there are vast differences between the contact men's game and the non-contact women's one. There are also tactical differences in singles figure skating, where the men chase quads and athleticism and the women’s is more about artistry. 

Women’s table tennis consists more of lightning-fast close-to-the-table rallies while the men’s game contains more spin and power further away from the table. 

We could go on.

On the other hand, the "tradition" argument is the same defence cited for men-only golf clubs and surely changes should not be dismissed out of hand?

I received a phone call from my grandad last week who was keen to tell me about a talk he had heard on the “Dick, Kerr Ladies F.C”. This was a women’s football team which came together in Preston at a World War One ammunitions factory before becoming so popular that a crowd of 53,000 watched them play St. Helen’s Ladies at Goodison Park on Boxing Day in 1920.

A year later the English Football Association banned women’s football at its members’ grounds in a measure lasting until 1971. This was ostensibly due to concerns the game was "unsuitable" for women, but probably more because its popularity was threatening the men’s game.

This reminded me how far women’s sport has come. There is no reason to stop now and not to explore further changes.