The XXIV Olympic Winter Games is coming up fast in Beijing, with the Chinese organizers continuing to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, National Olympic Committees feeling the crunch of back-to-back Games after last summer’s Tokyo Olympic Games, many countries angry that the event will be held in a country widely accused of human-rights violations and one academic claiming that “These could be the most unsustainable Winter Olympics ever held.”
Then there is the continuing question of gender equality.
There will be a record 109 events across seven sports and 15 disciplines in Beijing, with the usual public tally showing 52 events for men (48%), 46 for women (42%) and 11 mixed (10%). But when “event equality” – whether the events being contested of equal distance or difficulty – is considered, the outcome is not as close. Sport-by-sport:
● Biathlon by gender: 11 total ~ 5 men, 5 women, 1 mixed
● Biathlon by events: 1 equal, 10 unequal
Although gender-equal on the surface, only the Mixed 4×6 km Relay is equal in distance for men and women. All five of the other events have shorter distances for women than for men: 15 vs. 20 km Individual, 7.5 vs. 10 km Sprint, 10 vs. 12.5 km Pursuit, 12.5 vs. 15 km Mass Start and 4×6 km vs. 4×7.5 km Relay. What, women can’t ski the same distances? In Cross Country, women ski 30 km!
● Bobsled & Skeleton by gender: 6 total ~ 3 men, 3 women
● Bobsled & Skeleton by event: 4 equal, 2 unequal
Again, gender-equal on the surface, but while the Skeleton and two-person Bob races are the same, the women have Monobob racing for the first time in the Games while the men have four-man sleds. Why? We give credit to the driver most of the time anyway, so why isn’t the men’s four eliminated and the Monobob used for men? This will also save 58 places that could be used for other events, based on the 29 four-man entries at the 2018 Winter Games.
● Curling by gender: 3 total ~ 1 men, 1 women, 1 mixed
● Curling by event: 3 equal
Perfect. Curling has the same format for the men’s and women’s tournaments and has a mixed event.
● Ice Hockey by gender: 2 total ~ 1 men, 1 women
● Ice Hockey by event: 2 equal
Almost perfect. The event formats are equal, but the men have 12 teams competing and the women have 10. Given the results of the World Championships, both tournaments could be reduced to eight teams and the quality would be better.
● Luge by gender: 4 total ~ 2 men, 1 women, 1 mixed
● Luge by event: 3 equal, 1 unequal
The men’s and women’s Singles and Team Relay are fine, but women’s Doubles is just now being introduced. Wouldn’t a men’s relay and women’s relay be more interesting than the silly Doubles?
● Skating/Figure by gender: 5 total ~ 1 men, 1 women, 3 mixed
● Skating/Figure by event: 5 equal
Can’t complain: men’s and women’s Singles, then Pairs, Ice Dance and a team event. Nice (if you like judged events).
● Skating/Short Track by gender: 9 total ~ 4 men, 4 women, 1 mixed
● Skating/Short Track by event: 7 equal, 2 unequal
The program of 500-1,000-1,500 m for men and women and a mixed relay are fine, but why is the men’s relay at 5,000 m and the women’s at only 3,000 m? No need.
● Skating/Speed by gender: 14 total ~ 7 men, 7 women
● Skating/Speed by event: 12 equal, 2 unequal
The 500-1,000-1,500-5,000 m, Mass Start and Team Pursuit are the same, but why do men race at 5,000 m and 10,000 m and the women at 3,000 m and 5,000 m?
● Skiing/Alpine by gender: 11 total ~ 5 men, 5 women, 1 mixed
● Skiing/Alpine by event: 11 equal
The event program for men and women is the same – Downhill, Super-G, Giant Slalom, Slalom and Combined – but the courses are not (the women’s are shorter). It’s worth asking the women’s skiers if that should be the case.
● Skiing/Cross Country by gender: 12 events ~ 6 men, 6 women
● Skiing/Cross Country by event: 12 unequal
As with Biathlon, the distances for men and women are all different. In the individual events, the men race 15 km Classical, 30 km Skiathlon, 50 km Freestyle and Sprint Freestyle while the women have 10 km Classical, 15 km Skiathlon, 30 km Freestyle and a shorter Sprint Freestyle. Why not the same distances? The same is true for the relays. Is this necessary? Everyone knows it is not.
● Skiing/Nordic Combined by gender: 3 total ~ 3 men
● Skiing/Nordic Combined by event: 3 unequal
Nordic Combined for women is just now being introduced; perhaps it might debut in 2026?
● Skiing/Ski Jumping by gender: 5 events ~ 3 men, 1 women, 1 mixed
● Skiing/Ski Jumping by event: 3 equal, 2 unequal
There is “Normal Hill” and “Large Hill” jumping for men and a team event, but only “Normal Hill” for women, plus a mixed-team event. The better women’s jumpers are asking for their own “Large Hill” events, but the comeback has been concerns over safety as the number of World Cup big-hill events for women is just starting to expand. Where is the women’s team event?
● Skiing/Freestyle by gender: 13 events ~ 6 men, 6 women, 1 mixed
● Skiing/Freestyle by event: 13 equal
The program for both men and women includes Aerials, Big Air, Halfpipe, Moguls, Ski Cross and Slopestyle, plus a mixed Aerials event. All even.
● Snowboard by gender: 11 events ~ 5 men, 5 women, 1 mixed
● Snowboard by event: 11 equal
Like Freestyle, this event is nicely balanced: Big Air, Halfpipe, Slopestyle, Parallel Giant Slalom and Snowboard Cross for both, plus a SnowCross mixed team event.
So the totals show that of 109 total events, 75 are “equal” (more or less) in format and quality for 69%, while 54 are not (31%). Gold medals for real gender equality to Curling, Figure Skating, Freestyle Skiing and Snowboard; close-to-equal competition programs are seen in Ice Hockey and Alpine Skiing.
Cross-Country Skiing and Nordic Combined get perfect inequality scores for different distances, or no women’s events at all!
Then there is the question of judged events vs. timed-scored-measured events. In the Winter Games, most of the events are timed/measured/scored at 82.25 out of 109 (76.8%) to 25.25 (23.2%). Judged events are in Figure Skating (5 of 5), Freestyle Skiing (11 of 13), Snowboard (6 of 11) and portions of Nordic Combined (50% of ski jumping) and Ski Jumping (50% of scores).
There is more to gender equality than the number of medal events, but as this overview shows, the opportunities are there to get to true event equality as well. Give the International Olympic Committee credit for insisting on more events for women, but it will be up to the International Federations to do more to create equality within their event programs for men and women.
It can be done; in the summer Games, swimming will have true event equality at Paris 2024, and track & field will be very close (only decathlon vs. heptathlon will be different), as will many others. Time for the winter sports to catch up.
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