Paris 2024 Olympic Games – The promotion of gender equality among athletes is far from depicting the reality in sports worldwide

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Nolwenn Bigot

“If it were not for the activist, insolent, ambitious and gifted women, we would be deprived of half of the happiness that the most beautiful emotions of sport are bringing us.[1]” With these words, the Paris 2024 Olympic Committee turns the spotlight on the importance of women doing sports as well as on the struggle they had and have to carry on to legitimise their place in sports.

In 2024, the 23rd modern Olympic Games will take place, and they are the first in history to ensure gender equality. It means that among athletes, men and women will be equally represented[2]. Therefore, of the 10,500 athletes participating, 5,250 will be women and 5,250 will be men[3].

Women’s participation in the Olympic Games alone is the result of a long battle: their involvement, as well as the recognition of their physical abilities, has never been self-evident in the Olympic Games, in competitions or within sports federations. Like many activities involving being visible in the public space, sport was for a long time the preserve of men, whereas women’s participation was subjected to gender stereotypes. In 1912, Pierre de Coubertin’s words on women’s Olympic events speak for themselves: the founder of the modern Olympic Games described them as “inconvenient, uninteresting, unattractive and, […] let’s face it, incorrect[4]”.

In the early 20th century, it was quite clear that sport, as well as competitive spirit and the physical strength it implies, were considered masculine attributes only. They were widely considered as socially inappropriate for women. The social acceptance on what constitutes a masculine, or a feminine behaviour has evolved, although it is still subjected to gender stereotypes that continue to have an influence and limit women’s involvement in sport.

These biases are based on the attributes or traits that women and men have, or should have, and on the roles that they perform, or should perform[5]. It was not until 1900, during the Summer Olympic Games in Paris, that the competition opened up to women for the first time in tennis, sailing, croquet, horse riding and golf[6]. Sport by sport, the Olympic Games continued to welcome women, in line with changing societal norms: women could first take part in sports that were initially considered as indecent (tennis and golf in 1900), then in sports that were initially considered too physically demanding or violent for them (boxing in 2012).

It was not until the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi that female athletes were finally allowed to join the competition for ski jumping, which had been an Olympic discipline for men since 1924. This sport was considered too dangerous for women because of a supposed risk for their genitals. These medical considerations were eventually refuted, which enabled women to take part in the Olympic ski jumping discipline, but still not for all events. Although both women and men can compete in ski jumping in the Olympic Games, women are still not allowed to participate in as many events as men: the largest ski jump, the most prestigious and impressive, is still inaccessible for them[7].

Olympic sports are open to both women and men; however, it remains unequal in most activities. Athletes can compete in a single competition, regardless of their sex, only when the latter’s distinctive features are “erased” through a physical intermediate between the body and the achievement, i.e. when physical strength is not the key to victory (like the rifle for shooting, the sailboat, the horse)[8]. When women and men share the same space, gender discrimination still occurs through the way the course is run (distance, duration, etc.), through ranking conditions (number of sets) or through equipment requirements (size of the ball, weight of the tools, etc.). Differences in muscle mass and, even more, gaps in terms of abilities and skills can sometimes justify adjustments, but they should not limit the progress of female athletes by restraining their evolution in sport[9].

The pretext of protecting women is also used to account for the ban on women from taking part in some sports in general, or even from practicing any physical activity in some countries. As the protection of their health has been refuted by science, the protection of their virtue, dignity and respectability is sometimes used as a substitute: practicing an activity still considered as men-only would call them into question.

When we talk about women’s participation in sporting activities or women in sport, we address in a larger sense women’s fundamental rights over their own body[10]. Around the world, several countries ban women from all or some sporting activities – supposedly for their own protection. In Afghanistan, women are banned from practicing all sports on account of their incompatibility with what women are required to wear and the mix-gender restrictions[11]. In Iran, women are regularly banned from entering stadiums and watch men’s sports competitions – this is justified by a “need” to protect them from the male atmosphere and the sight of men in sportswear. Lastly, in Tonga, women and girls are banned from playing rugby and boxing for the sake of “preserving the dignity of Tongan women”[12].

Empowering women to play sports: the weight of social norms 

Sport is a social activity therefore its practice and values are fully rooted in cultural and traditional standards, which are subjected to widely shared gender biases.

The differentiated distribution of women and men in sports is called gendering sporting activities: it divides physical activities between those for “women”, described as “feminine” (gymnastics, dance, horse riding, etc.) and those for “men”, described as “masculine”[13]. The process of gendering sports is linked to the prevailing representations of femininity and masculinity in society and to their associated norms, personality traits and physical features. According to these stereotypes, sport gather characteristics that are mostly assigned to masculinity and virility, such as strength, competition and confrontation – often considered inappropriate for women[14]. In fact, throughout the world, women are not very involved in sports that require strength, that are physically exhausting, risky or that require technical skills. These biases lead to belittling women, their skills, and their sporting achievements[15].

Women’s participation in sporting activities also fosters in some men a “fear of virilisation[16]”, as they would no longer correspond to the widespread gender stereotypes. Within our society, two types of women are served as an example and socially acceptable: the mother and the trophy wife. In an article published in 2004 on the gendering of sports work and the social construction of femininity, French sociologist Catherine Louveau argues that “the maternal role and aesthetical appearance are valued, if they are not the main arguments prompting [women] to practice sports or certain forms of physical activities, disciplines and recommended exercises[17]”. This is particularly the case for the so-called “hygienist” sport practices that arose in the 1970s and 1980s[18], encouraging women to engage in physical activities for aesthetic purposes (staying slim, losing weight, etc.).

When women do manage to achieve results, sport performances, or more broadly to get involved in areas that were until then considered men-only, they are subjected to what French sociologist Catherine Louveau calls “virilisation trials”[19]. Recently, Caster Semenya experienced it firsthand when the IOC considered that her body naturally contained too much testosterone, following tests that were carried out because of a “visual doubt”[20].

This fear of women becoming virile demonstrates a fear of change in social norms and in differentiations between men and women, when physical strength is seen as consubstantial with masculinity. French sociologist Catherine Louveau summarises: “What is left for men, if women can be strong, powerful, and muscly; if they engage in fights; in other words, if they can play rugby, box, etc.? This is a contemporary question that does not only apply to sports, but it arises specifically in this area because we are talking about bodily practices: the primary place of gender identity validation and expression[21]”.

Women’s access to sports: The need to adapt and secure coaching and facilities

More and more women are doing sports even though it remains unequal. Like other social activities, sport is rooted in differentiations and inequalities, and this is even more true for women than for men[22]. Among women, a huge disparity linked to social class exists. As an example, working-class women and female farmers have the least access to sports whereas women in management or with a higher level of education are more likely to have access to sport facilities and to play sports. In this way, socio-economic, ethnic, religious, cultural, age and family-related factors, etc.[23], have an impact in the limitation of women’s involvement in sport activities and emphasise the discriminations they are likely to experience. Social norms on the role of women in the private sphere, in particular their family responsibilities, are a huge burden when it comes to sport activities. In many countries and cultures, society places family burden on girls, expecting them to marry and have children soon after their marriage, even though they are still young. Therefore, they forge lifestyles in which sport, whether professional or recreational, does not play an important role and does not represent a priority area of expenditure[24]. This constraint is all the greater when they have many children and when no childcare is available to help them[25].

Making sport practices safer is a key element for enabling women to take part in these activities with a peace of mind. According to UNESCO, 21% of women suffer or have suffered from sexual abuse in sport[26]. The predominance of men in sport activities, the results prevailing over individuals through the normalisation of abusive practices under the aegis of “no pain, no gain”[27], as well as the physical proximity and admiration of athletes for each other or for their coaches and sporting staff (doctors, managers, etc.) are all factors that make reporting psychological and/or physical violence particularly difficult in this sector.

Consequently, in many cases, the lack of reliable mechanisms to report and protect victims dissuades some women to keep going to the point where they put an end to it[28]. Safe access to sports for women can only be achieved by a joint effort of political, legal, and sporting bodies. Codes of conduct for coaches, clear reporting processes and guidelines to recruit the staff supervising athletes are essential.

Therefore, public policies have a major impact on women’s real ability to take part in sport activities. There are an increasing number of initiatives aiming at promoting the benefits of sports for girls, but they are seldom implemented by governments themselves (such as Skateistan, Help Age International Tanzania or Pro Sport Development, three organisations that have won “sport and active society” development grants from IOC). Often, NGOs are the ones making up for those shortcomings thanks to programmes that combine sport with prevention or information campaigns aimed at girls. As an example, the UN published in 2015 an article on the benefits of sport activities for international development, coinciding with the adoption of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. It shows that in India’s deeply rooted patriarchal social structures, voluntary sport-based programmes offer young women the opportunity to gain important knowledge on procreative health and to improve their self-confidence, social status and social relationships.[29] When funding is running out, sports club managers favour men’s over women’s teams, regardless of their level and even if they play at a higher level[30]. Their skills or successes seem to be automatically diminished as soon as the men’s sphere is threatened.

Breaking free from gender norms to promote women’s access to sports

Throughout the world, women’s involvement in sports remains limited quantitatively, qualitatively, and spatially, as this sector is rife with differentiations and inequalities whose forms, values and bodies correspond to social, cultural, and historical productions.

The athlete mobilises their body and mind to improve themselves and establish themselves in the public sphere; doing sports reflects their success, in relation to others but also in relation to themselves: sport performance helps boosting self-confidence, developing their personal identity and securing their place in society[31]. For women, sport is a conveyor of empowerment, especially for young women who are marginalised or whose social, economic, and physical development is limited. Their participation in a sport programme represents a transgression that challenges patriarchy and traditions, which are unfavourable to women, in particular when they excel in their area of expertise.

Nowadays, promoting gender parity and equality in sports and competitions is not enough: we need to rethink the sport culture and promote an egalitarian alternative, free from gender biases. These gender biases, which limit women’s participation in sports, are neither transcultural nor transhistorical. They evolve with time and culture.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.

To quote this publication: Nolwenn Bigot (2023). Promoting gender equality among athletes is far from depicting the reality in sports worldwide. Gender in Geopolitics Institute.


1 Site web officiel des Jeux Olympiques de Paris 2024, URL :

2 Définition proposée par l’INSE – Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques

3 Guillaume Depasse, Paris 2024 : Les premiers Jeux à atteindre la parité des genres,, 28 juin 2023, Site web du CIO, URL :

4 Bohuon, Anaïs, et Grégory Quin. « Quand sport et féminité ne font pas bon ménage… », Le Sociographe, vol. 38, no. 2, 2012, pp. 23-30.

5 Haut Commissariat des Nations Unies pour les Droits de l’Homme, Site web, URL :,ils%20jouent%20ou%20doivent%20jouer. ) définissent les comportements socialement acceptables pour un·e individu·e, en fonction de son sexe. La volonté ou la contrainte de se conformer à ces normes de genre, attentes sociétales et pressions sociales peuvent décourager ou encourager l’implication des femmes dans la pratique sportive, cet article vise à déterminer quelle est l’influence des stéréotypes de genre dans la pratique féminine du sport.

Autoriser la pratique sportive féminine : une reconnaissance progressive des athlètes féminines

Les textes législatifs nationaux et internationaux de même que les politiques peuvent favoriser, autoriser ou entraver l’accès des femmes à certaines disciplines, ou niveaux de compétition. À titre d’exemple, la Charte des Jeux Olympiques a progressivement évolué sur ce sujet : lors des premiers Jeux Olympiques de l’ère moderne en 1896, les femmes n’étaient pas autorisées à participer aux compétitions((Ministère de l’éducation nationale, “La conquête des Jeux Olympiques par les femmes”, Article du Réseau Canopé, Ministère de l’éducation nationale, en ligne, URL :

6 Comité International Olympique, “Quand les femmes participent-elles pour la première fois aux Jeux Olympiques ?”, Article en ligne, Site web du CIO, URL :

7 Résultats des épreuves féminines de Saut à ski, Jeux Olympiques d’hiver de Pékin 2022, disponibles en ligne, site Web des Jeux Olympiques de Pékin, URL :

8, 9, 30 Saouter, Anne. « Ordre sportif et police de genre », Revue du MAUSS, vol. 46, no. 2, 2015, pp. 204-218.

10 Étude sur le Sport, le Genre et le Développement en Afrique, Cabinet PWC, Novembre 2021. Conclusions en ligne, URL :

11 France Info, “Afghanistan : comment les talibans privent les femmes de leurs droits depuis le retour au pouvoir”, France Info, Décembre 2022, Article en ligne, URL :

12 Eleanor Ainge Roy, “Tonga bans schoolgirls from rugby and boxing ‘to preserve dignity’”, The Guardian, %ars 2018, Article en ligne, URL :

13, 16, 17, 21 Louveau, Catherine. « Sexuation du travail sportif et construction sociale de la féminité », Cahiers du Genre, vol. 36, no. 1, 2004, pp. 163-183.

14, 22 Louveau Catherine. “Les femmes dans le sport : construction sociale de la féminité et division du travail”. Les Cahiers de l’INSEP, n°32, 2002. Sport de haut niveau au féminin (tome I) pp. 49-78

15 Gagnon, Nathaly. « Culture sportive et violence faite aux femmes. » Service social, volume 44, numéro 2, 1995, p. 35–56. URL :

18, 19 Catherine Louveau, « Inégalité sur la ligne de départ : femmes, origines sociales et conquête du sport », Clio. Histoire‚ femmes et sociétés [En ligne], 23 | 2006, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2008

20 AFP pour FranceInfo, “Athlétisme : la Cour européenne des droits de l’homme donne raison à Caster Semenya, atteinte d’hyperandrogénie”, 11/07/2023, article en ligne, URL : ) lié à son apparence physique jugée trop masculine. Ce qualificatif a d’ailleurs été attribué de manière récurrente, à travers l’histoire, aux femmes qui d’une manière générale, accédant à des fonctions historiquement socialement dévolues aux hommes : les premières écrivaines, les premières femmes politiques, les premières avocates ont toutes été considérées comme trop viriles, lorsque leur activité leur faisait accéder à une reconnaissance sociale.

Dans le domaine de la compétition sportive, il reste risqué pour les femmes de tutoyer les performances ou les caractéristiques physiques des athlètes masculins. Bien qu’en 2000, le Comité International Olympique (CIO) a « officiellement » supprimé le test de féminité (initié en 1966 sous la forme d’un contrôle systématique de sexe pour devenir au grés des avancées scientifiques un test chromosomique Pcr/Sry)((Bohuon, Anaïs. « Sport et bicatégorisation par sexe : test de féminité et ambiguïtés du discours médical », Nouvelles Questions Féministes, vol. 27, no. 1, 2008, pp. 80-91.), visant à « prouver » scientifiquement la féminité des athlètes lorsque celles-ci étaient considérées comme se rapprochant trop des athlètes masculins, non seulement par le physique, mais aussi par leurs performances. Malgré cette suppression, un personnel médical reste autorisé à « intervenir en cas de doutes sur l’identité sexuée de certaines athlètes », doutes basés de fait sur une appréciation esthétique visuelle du corps de l’athlète et renvoient inévitablement à la question des normes de genre. L’athlète indienne Santhi Soundarajan, médaillée d’argent au 800 mètres lors des Jeux asiatiques de Doha, s’est vue retirer sa médaille en 2006 suite à son échec au test de féminité, bien que reconnue comme étant de sexe féminin à sa naissance. La féminité se décline pourtant dans une multitude de dimensions, et ne saurait donc se réduire à une paire de chromosomes, comme le rappel Human Rights Watch((Human Rights Watch, “Les tests de féminité abusifs imposés à des sportives devraient être supprimés”, Décembre 2020, Article en ligne, URL :

23 Étude sur le Sport, le Genre et le Développement en Afrique, Cabinet PWC, Novembre 2021. Conclusions en ligne, URL :

24, 25 Global Sport, “Le sexe caché : Le sport féminin dans les pays en développement”, article, Janvier 2018, Article en ligne, URL :

26 UNESCO, “Tackling violence against women and girls in sport: highlights”, UNESCO, 2023, Disponible en ligne, URL :

27 Peut-être traduit en français par : “pas de résultats sans effort”

28 Conseil de l’Europe, “Gender-based violence in sport”, Novembre 2018, Article disponible en ligne, URL :

29 Simon Darnell, “Le sport comme moyen pour promouvoir le développement international”, Chronique ONU, Article en ligne, URL :

31 Marie Level, Éric Dugas et Thierry Lesage. “Jeux sportifs, codes et construction identitaire”, Ethnologies, Volume 32, numéro 1, 2010, p. 113