At the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, female athletes are set to outnumber men in Team GB for the first time. The news highlights why it’s important that we all back women’s sport.
The 2016 Rio Olympics were a magical time. Team GB secured second place in the medals table, bringing home a whopping 27 golds and becoming the first nation to increase our medal count at five successive Games. Cyclist Laura Kenny became the most successful British female Olympian in history, winning four gold medals; Mo Farah won both the 5,000m and 10,000m; and rower Katherine Granger became the first British woman to win medals at five consecutive Olympics.
But while the 2016 Olympics were undeniably awe-inspiring, they weren’t quite as good as previous years in terms of female representation. Britain sent 164 women and 202 men to Rio, meaning that just 44% of Team GB was female – a drop of 4% from the London 2012 Games. The International Olympic Committee has said that it wants all countries to bring teams with a 50/50 split of male and female athletes, but in 2016, Team GB fell notably short.
At next year’s Games in Tokyo, however, things could look very different. According to Mark England, the man who heads up Team GB, women athletes from the UK are set to outnumber their male teammates for the first time at the 2020 Olympics. If his predictions are correct, it will be the first time in history that women make up the majority of the British squad.
“For the first time it looks like we might have more women than men in the Great Britain team for Tokyo as we see the fruition of some fabulous athletic talent,” England told BBC Sport.
Most athletes have yet to qualify for events at the Tokyo Games. But The Guardian reports that internal data from the British Olympic Association suggests that around 370 British athletes will be heading to Japan – and the majority of them will be women.
It’s fantastic news for women’s sport in the UK – and it shows that when individuals and organisations make a concerted effort to support, nurture and promote female athletes, the results can be spectacular. For years, the dominant narrative was that the general public just wasn’t as interested in women’s sports as men’s, and a vicious cycle was perpetuated as a result. Media bosses assumed that the public didn’t care about women’s sports, and so they didn’t give women’s sports much coverage.
This dearth of coverage made it difficult for female athletes to sustain their careers through sponsorships, while simultaneously reducing the likelihood that people would develop an interest in women’s sports. And without a wide range of inspiring role models, girls and young women became less likely to take up certain sports themselves. According to a UN report on gender equality and sport, a “lack of culturally relevant role models” is a significant barrier to female physical activity.
But in recent years, attitudes towards women’s sports have begun to shift. In October, a global study found that the overwhelming majority – 84% – of male and female sports fans are interested in women’s sports. The women’s FA Cup final was broadcast live on BBC One for the first time last May, and attracted a record crowd of over 45,000 people to Wembley Stadium. Sky Sports’ viewing figures for their coverage of the women’s Six Nations rugby increased by 92% over the course of 2018 – and overall, summer 2018 saw more women’s sports shown on UK TV than ever before.
It’s not just in terms of media coverage that women’s sport is finally getting the backing it deserves. While commercial investment in women’s sport remains relatively low, the number of women’s sport sponsorship deals increased by almost 50% between 2013 and 2017. During the same time period, Sport England invested over £90 million into sports popular with women, including netball, running, equestrianism, swimming and tennis, and also poured money into the Football Association’s projects supporting female talent.
And when people invest this much time, money and energy into women’s sports, it pays off. All of these factors – combined with the strength of the Britain women’s football team and the inspiring example of past female Team GB Olympic champions like Nicola Adams, Heather Stanning and Jade Jones – mean that the UK’s female athletes are on course to make history in Tokyo next year.
“It is tremendously pleasing to see the success of women that have come through our system,” said England. “The strength and pedigree of those female athletes has been awe-inspiring and they have been tremendous role models for future generations.”
Bring on Tokyo 2020.
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