Why the 2024 Paris Olympics are pivotal for gender equity in amateur and recreational sports

By Carolyn Ali

Malindi Elmore in a yellow tank top and black shorts running on a track. Elmore speaks on gender equity in sports.
Marathon athlete Malindi Elmore, who is competing at the Paris 2024 Olympics, says childcare options and meet-up spots to help families reunite quickly in a crowd would help support broader participation at sporting events. Photo: Adrian Photography.

Olympic and Paralympic initiatives can help advance sports at lower levels—but there’s more to be done

Do you see yourself in the athletes heading to the Paris 2024 Olympics this summer? These athletes are exceptional, of course, but you might be surprised at some of the ordinary barriers they must overcome in the pursuit of greatness. Some are similar to those encountered in competitive sports leagues and even community or school sports programs.

That’s because sporting norms and policies at top levels of competition tend to trickle down to lower levels of sport, says Dr. Andrea Bundon, an Associate Professor at the UBC School of Kinesiology. This includes competition formats, event logistics and scheduling.

The Paris Olympics have made some high-profile announcements around gender equity, making these the first Games with full numerical gender parity on the playing field. The Games will have a nursery in the Olympic village in which athletes may breastfeed, and organizers have scheduled the women’s marathon as the final event of the games, in a prime-time spot previously reserved for the men’s marathon.

“What happens at the Olympics matters because it sets how we think about sports, and often gets replicated all the way through the sport system,” says Dr. Bundon, who studies the sociology of gender and disability in sport. An athlete herself, Dr. Bundon participated in the 2010 and 2014 Paralympic games as a guide for visually impaired skiers on the Canadian Paralympic team.

Olympian Malindi Elmore also sees the Olympics as a key influence on sports at lower levels. The former triathlete finished ninth overall in the women’s marathon at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, and will compete in her third Olympics at Paris 2024. Elmore is also head coach of UBC Okanagan Heat Athletics cross-country team.

Elmore calls the scheduling of the women’s marathon “highly significant” as it helps to “shift the perspective that this is a really exciting marquee event.” But while Elmore sees the Paris initiatives as positive, she says there’s much more to be done.

Dr. Bundon notes that progressive initiatives aren’t policy changes, and gains made at Paris 2024 could easily be reversed by the next host city. Furthermore, the media attention on the Olympics and Paralympics can obscure inequities at lower levels. “All this attention can make it look like we’ve reached some sort of equity, but this is not necessarily reflective of the conditions for a lot of women in sport all the time.”

Here are five things they say can help move the needle on gender equality in sport, not just at the Olympics but in competitive leagues and recreational sport programs:

1. Change sport policies and norms that advantage men

Elmore says that there have been significant changes in the last decade to national sport funding policies that disadvantage women. For example, former Olympian Hilary Stellingwerff successfully fought an Athletics Canada policy that equated pregnancy with illness or injury, affecting funding eligibility for athletes who are also mothers.

Dr. Bundon notes that maternity and parental leaves are now being raised in professional athlete contracts. However, there’s the ongoing issue of equal pay for female professional athletes and staff, and equal funding for women’s and girls’ teams.

“There’s still often an assumption that the women’s team will be okay with less support, that they’ll be grateful for what they’ve got,” Dr. Bundon says. “There’s a lot of ways that comes through, even in amateur sport organizations.”

Gender also raises physical issues that advantage men. Elmore is advocating for changes at the crowded start line of races, where women often start behind the men and “it gets pretty pushy.” Women are often forced to filter in behind the men, and the gap between “gun time” and “start time” results in slower, inaccurate race times for women.

“Ideally, half the start line should be designated for the women’s race start to make sure that it is a safe start for women and that they have the opportunity for a clear line,” Elmore wrote on Instagram. “Just like in the men’s race, the top seeds should get a top start position—which may require shuffling some men to row two to make room on the start line for both fields.”

2. Consider caregiving barriers and offer family-friendly measures in sport

When Elmore had her son nine years ago, she thought she was “done being an athlete.”

“It felt like there was a signal socially and athletically that you have kids or you have an athletic career, but you can’t have both,” she says. Elmore recalls struggling after a competition to locate her husband with her infant so she could breastfeed, and says that initiatives like a breastfeeding area would have made a difference.

Now, Elmore says “there are so many great examples of women who are competing at the highest level of sport after having children, and they’re even better athletes than they were before they had children.” However, challenges remain.

At all levels of sport, childcare options and meet-up spots to help families reunite quickly in a crowd would help support broader participation, Elmore says. She would like to see more family-friendly initiatives at the Olympics, such as making it easier for athletes to visit with their children during the Games. (Families are typically separated for weeks due to village security.)

“These things are important as we start to shift, recognizing that the Olympics aren’t just about the young, single professional athlete who doesn’t have other responsibilities.”

– Olympian Malindi Elmore

Competitions aside, caregiving responsibilities remain a barrier to sport participation, and they are still highly gendered. Elmore explains that although high-altitude training camps are a very effective way to train for marathon, she hasn’t been able to participate in them since she had kids. 

“I can’t go away for three or four weeks easily, and if I brought the kids, which I did when they were younger, I’d have to bring my mom. But I’d have to pay for them and pay for my mom and pay for accommodation, which gets really expensive,” she explains. “And now the kids are school age, so I don’t want them to be out of school for three or four weeks.”

Canadian marathon runner Malindi Elmore holds her two children on a fence at a race site.
Malindi Elmore with her children. Photo: Courtesy Malindi Elmore.

3. Offer more mixed-gender events

The Olympics and Paralympics have introduced many mixed events in recent years including relays in swimming, triathlon and Nordic skiing and mixed teams in curling. That’s positive, says Dr. Bundon, because mixed-gender events encourage nations to invest in both men and women to be competitive. Mixed events also offer “an opportunity for male athletes to see the athleticism of female athletes and to be invested in their results.”

Dr. Bundon is starting to see relay-type events or mixed team events at provincial levels. She believes there’s a lot of potential for mixed events, and formats such as competitive and non-competitive leagues, to foster inclusion of non-binary and transgender youth in sport.

4. Include people with disabilities in initiatives that promote gender equality

Dr. Bundon’s research has shown that while the Olympics are making progress on gender equality, the Paralympic Games are being left behind. And while many initiatives intend to increase opportunities for disabled women, there’s often “an idea that because you’re offering a disability sport or adapted sport, you’re doing enough—you don’t really need to be thinking about gender.”

For example, many countries have sent only men to the Paralympic Games. “The fact that they’re doing something for disabled athletes overshadows the fact that they haven’t made any opportunities for disabled women,” she says, a dynamic she’s seen play out in para sport at the local level as well.

5. Schedule women’s sporting events with equal priority to men’s

Dr. Bundon explains that at all levels of sport, women’s events are often scheduled before men’s, as if they are the warm-up act to the real show. In contrast, men’s events tend to be scheduled for a time when most spectators can attend.

When sports team travel, she notes, sometimes the men’s bus won’t even arrive until after the women’s events starts—it’s assumed that the women will cheer the men on after they have competed, but not vice-versa. “The assumption is that women’s sport is watched by girls and women, but it’s just as important for boys and men to see women playing sport,” says Dr. Bundon.

That’s why examples set at the Olympics matter. “Things are changing,” says Elmore. “Like anything, it’s never as fast as it needs to be, and it’s always behind. But hopefully, these types of initiatives continue to present opportunities for future women.”

Learn what to watch for in women’s sport media coverage.

UBC’s Coverage of the Paris 2024 Olympics:

Carolyn Ali is a writer for UBC Brand and Marketing. This article was published on June 19, 2024. Feel free to republish the text of this article, but please follow our guidelines for attribution and seek any necessary permissions before doing so. Please note that images are not included in this blanket licence.

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