International Women's Day
09 March 2020

What Counts? Women in Sport

The 2019 FIFA Women’s world cup was a resounding success by all measures – spectators, sponsorship and a combined global television audience of 1.12 billion viewers. By definition, elite, competitive sport is measured in numbers: the final score, the new record time, distance, speed or the number of points, are the barometers that drive athletes and attract crowds and fans.

As global interest in women’s sport has grown, so has the sport of measuring women, with three areas of measurement continuing to cause controversy: pay gaps, gender verification and representation.

Forbes has tracked the “List of the 100 Highest Paid Athletes” for several decades. In 2019, Serena Williams was the only woman who made the list, and at that, tied at 63rd with baseball player, Miguel Cabrera. Pay disparities in elite sport have been the subject of several legal cases with some successes.

In a new deal, for example, Australian soccer’s governing body announced that the men’s Caltex Socceroos team and the women’s Westfield Matildas team will receive equal shares of total player revenue. Although this enforces a technical fix, it does not address the underlying revenue disparity between women’s and men’s sport. 

Looking at a different sport, tennis, we find that while Grand Slam prize earnings have been equalised, outside of these events, annual prize money for the top 100 earners in the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) is around 80 cents to every dollar earned by the top 100 men in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other international sporting bodies once again engaged in discussions on the highly controversial issues of gender verification in women’s elite sports, sparking heated debates between scientists, lawyers and athletes around fairness, inclusion and protection in women’s sport.

The governance and disciplining of women’s bodies in sport – from sex verification to attire and wardrobe – are never far from the discussion on gender in sport. The body serves as a contested site where gender politics are frequently performed and measured.

In February 2020, the Union Cycliste International (UCI) confirmed its ruling designed to encourage transgender athletes to compete “in the category corresponding to their new gender” if they prove that their serum testosterone level has been below 5 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to the eligibility date.

With the upcoming Tokyo Olympics this summer, more opportunities to engage in the sport of counting women begins, with the announcement that a new record on representation will be set: an expected 48.8 percent women’s participation.

In addition, IOC Executive Board President Thomas Bach last week announced two measures for Tokyo: all 206 participating teams must include at least one female and one male athlete; and second, a change in the rules will allow National Olympic Committees to nominate a female and a male athlete as joint flag bearers during the Opening Ceremony. 

Progress? As we mark International Women’s Day, let’s watch how the numbers stack up in 2020.


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