Despite recent progress, Olympic gender equity issues linger

The 1996 U.S. Olympic team was 48 percent women, including the gold medal-winning basketball squad. Rick Stewart /Getty Images

As female Olympic athletes get older, make more money, become mothers and return to the Olympic Summer Games multiple times, a question lingers: Where do women stand in an Olympic movement that prides itself on promoting level playing fields?

It's projected that more than 42 percent of participants at the Beijing Olympics will be women. That's up from the 34 percent who competed at the 1996 Atlanta Games, which were dubbed "The Women's Olympics" for all the highlight performances by women athletes.

Still, Olympic gender equity issues linger.

Softball, which provides 120 slots for women athletes, will be dropped from the Games' program after 2008. Wrestling has four women's weight classes, while the men have 14. Women's boxing hasn't been able to crack the Olympic program. And, despite the growing pool of Olympic alumna, leadership positions in the International Olympic Committee (IOC), national Olympic committees (NOCs) and international sports federations (IFs) remain male dominated.

"On the field of play, we're doing very well and should get an 'A,'" Anita DeFrantz, the International Olympic Committee's vice president from the United States, told ESPN.com.

But, she added, "There's more work to be done."

For instance, in the 2004 Athens Olympics, nine of the 201 participating nations didn't include any women on their teams, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which had teams of 16 and 15 men, respectively. The other six nations had four or fewer athletes.

The U.S. fielded a team in Athens that was 48 percent women. This year in Beijing, with the women's field hockey team recently qualifying for the Games, that percentage could be even higher.

Most troubling for DeFrantz is the scant number of women in key decision-making positions internationally. Since 1976, more than 25,000 women have competed in the Olympic Winter and Summer Games. But only 16 of the 115 members of the IOC are women. And many NOCs are devoid of women leaders, as are IFs. A special conference on the status of women in the Olympics earlier this year in Amman, Jordan, resolved to pressure the IOC this summer to increase women's leadership posts.

"There are a large number of women who understand the Olympic movement who can be giving back to it and yet the NOCs and IFs have not done all they can to reach out to those women," DeFrantz said. "Sadly, the International Olympic Committee itself is behind the curve."

For American athletes, the exploding numbers of women from other nations and increased funding have pushed the level of competition and, thus, made life more difficult. In a sport like basketball, no longer is everyone else a pushover. Australia won the world championship in 2006.

"The world is catching up to us," said U.S. center Lisa Leslie, 35, who has watched the progress of women's basketball since playing on her first Olympic team in 1996. "It's not this huge gap anymore, 'The USA is going to be first, who's gonna be second?' anymore. We really have to come to play."

Over her dozen years of Olympic experience, Leslie said competitors are "jumping higher, moving faster and getting smarter."

Similarly, diver Laura Wilkinson, 30, set to make her third Olympic team, said her entire diving list (her repertoire of dives for the competition) from her first Games in 2000 wouldn't be sufficient to compete in 2008.

"The women are stepping up their degree of difficulty more than the men," she said. "A lot of us do the same dives as the men now."

Of course, much has changed since the advent of the modern Olympic Games in 1896; there were no women participants then.

One hundred years later, those "Women's Olympics" in Atlanta saw women's team sports emerge big time: Soccer and softball debuted and basketball, on the shoulders of superstars Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes, reached new competitive heights. Meanwhile, beach volleyball took center stage and attracted all sorts of prurient interest and women's gymnastics produced the grittiest moment of the Games when Kerri Strug helped the U.S. win the team gold despite a broken left ankle.

When it came to the raw numbers, women's participation jumped a full 33 percent, zooming from 2,708 women participants in Barcelona in 1992 to 3,626 women in Atlanta.

Twelve years later, more than 4,400 women are expected to compete in Beijing, and 45 percent of the events will be women's events. The women's 3,000 meter steeplechase in track and field might be the most high-profile added event, with women's foil in fencing and women's BMX riding -- added with men's BMX -- also new.

Still, there's bitterness about softball being dropped. It was just added in 1996 and took a hit because of its association with baseball. Baseball hasn't sent its top Major League players to the Olympics and was slow to adopt drug-testing protocols. It, too, was dropped from the Olympic program for the 2012 London Games.

"I do think the dropping of softball hurt the cause of women gaining more equal numbers,'' said Steve Roush, the U.S. Olympic Committee's chief of sports performance, who monitors gender issues for the USOC.

For the top U.S. softball players, the Beijing Games will be a stage to showcase -- and attempt to save -- their sport.

"We're going to do everything we can to prove that we belong in the Olympics and we plan to use Beijing as a platform to do this,'' U.S. team pitcher Jennie Finch said. "In the United States, millions of girls have the option of getting a scholarship and playing in college. But in other countries, the Olympics is the only place to pursue their dream. We want to continue that dream for the young girls in Croatia or China. That's what it's all about.''

Women wrestlers, with limited options, have had to cut weight or bump up in weight classes to earn a spot on the U.S. team. There are seven weight classes for women at the wrestling world championships, but only four at the Olympics. Leigh Jaynes is the defending national champ at 59 kg, but there is no 59 kg class in Beijing. So, she's dropping down to 55 kg for the Olympic trials in June.

"At 59, I'd be a contender," she said. But she's realistic about it. Women's wrestling is in only its second Games. And women's spots have come at the expense of men's weight classes, which have been reduced, too.

"Unless we want to make a lot of enemies, we'll have to suck it up and hope for more [weight classes] in the future," Jaynes said.

Domestically, sports like basketball, soccer and softball have skewed USOC funding somewhat toward women's athletics, according to data obtained by ESPN.com. For the 2006 funding period -- the most recently available -- the USOC funded women's programs among national governing bodies with about $15.9 million, compared to $12.9 million for men's programs.

"We fund the women's programs significantly higher than the men's programs partly because the women are not making the salaries that, for instance, the NBA players or MLS players are making," Roush said.

That funding helps athletes extend their careers. It stokes a culture that allows women to compete into their 30s, something that didn't exist even 12 years ago in Atlanta.

Take 31-year-old field hockey veteran Kate Barber, who finally will get to the Olympics after 10 years on the national team, which failed to qualify for Sydney and Athens.

"I can be completely honest with you," Barber said in a recent interview. "I didn't suspect that I would be playing at 30. I do think a lot of athletes stop short of their actual prime in their career. But I can wholeheartedly say that I didn't reach my athletic peak until three or four years ago … Once I hit that physicality and got to a whole different level, it showed me there was a lot more I could do."

Her wait was worth it. She helped the U.S. team qualify for Beijing last month.

This steady growth in numbers on the field and the addition of new events each Olympics also means changing perceptions and changing images.

American steeplechaser Emily Brown won the Drake Relays last month and, afterward, told ESPN.com of the importance of the inaugural steeple event in Beijing. It's not only an athletic breakthrough (the distance, the hurdles, the endurance, the water jumps, the grueling nature of the steeplechase), she said, but an event that can continue to alter the consciousness of sports fans, whose images of Olympic female athletes are typically dominated by gymnasts and swimmers.

"It's really a great race to showcase our athleticism," Brown said. "There's something not pretty about steeplechase. It kind of shows girls that women can look ugly in sports almost, and it doesn't have to be a beauty contest, really."

And so it goes, as women continue to battle to gain more status, more stages and more influence amid the five global rings.

Jay Weiner is a sports journalist based in St. Paul, Minn. He can be reached at jay@jayweiner.com.