Olympics: Female X-factor

By Andrew Alderson


If the country's female Olympians need an aspirational anthem for the Games, it might be time to download The Eurythmics' Sisters are Doin' It for Themselves on to their ipods.

In London, New Zealand looks set to have its highest percentage of women in a Games team and more genuine female medal contenders than ever.

A stronger Kiwi female Olympic presence has become a trend. With the announcement of the Football Ferns on Friday, 82 of the 175 New Zealand athletes - 47 per cent - named to date are women.

That compares with 46 per cent at Beijing (85 of 185) and 45 per cent at Athens (67 of 149).

Sometimes such statistics are distorted by team sports such as football, basketball and hockey.

Perhaps a better gauge is that five of the six Olympic sports targeted by High Performance Sport New Zealand - rowing, cycling, sailing, triathlon and athletics - each has at least one female athlete who was ranked in the top three of their respective world championships in the past year.

The other targeted sport, swimming, has freestyler Lauren Boyle as its best outside chance, particularly in the 800m.

Women such as equestrian rider Caroline Powell and hockey's Black Sticks, in sports that have received additional 2012 high performance investment, could also be in medal contention.

Kayaking (through K1 200 world champion Lisa Carrington) is the only sport with a strong women's medal prospect not to receive any extra funding above the $1 million already invested by the high-performance group this year.

This could be just the second summer Games where medals earned by females outweigh those of males.

The first was 1952, when Yvette Williams won long jump gold, Jean Stewart won 100m backstroke bronze and John Holland notched a solitary bronze for the blokes in the 400m hurdles. Annelise Coberger's Winter Games slalom silver at Albertville in 1992 is the other instance.

In the past two summer Games, women have won two out of three gold medals (Sarah Ulmer, Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell 2004, the Evers-Swindells and Val Adams 2008) but failed to win more medals than men overall.

Medal prospects in an Olympic lead-up always look different from the real number that feature on mantelpieces or get stuffed in sock drawers at Games' end.

New Zealand women have at least 10 realistic medal chances in London. Securing anywhere near that figure is unlikely but to get part of the way is significant traction in a movement which has often hindered female sports.

For example, athletics did not feature until 1928, rowing 1976, cycling and the marathon 1984. That is one reason women represent just 20 per cent of New Zealand's total medals (18 out of 90).

Fifteen have been won in gender-specific sports and three in three-day eventing teams. That percentage has climbed to 28 (five out of 18) since the turn of the century, including four of New Zealand's seven golds.

Such evidence highlights a change in expectation since 2000. Until 2004, New Zealand had only two female gold medals - long jumper Williams and boardsailor Barbara Kendall.

Contributing factors to the change have been achievement-based funding, better access to sponsorship and publicity, more available sports and a greater independence to aspire to sporting goals before families, tertiary education or the workforce intervene.

The Olympic equivalent of women's suffrage from the likes of the Evers-Swindells, Ulmer and Adams has also helped.

The current situation contrasts with the vision of modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin. The Frenchman believed the Games should be an exclusively male preserve.

To glean an idea of his view, take his description of women's bobsledding: "The most inaesthetic sight human eyes could contemplate".

Such thinking drove an underground feminist movement called the "women's Olympic Games" which ran from 1922 to 1934. The catalyst came when female track and field athletes were denied entry to the Antwerp programme in 1920.

Women finally began receiving track and field recognition in 1928 at Amsterdam in five events. That foothold has slowly grown stronger across other Olympic sports.

However, there have been a few stumbles to equality. IOC president Avery Brundage (1952-72) once referred to women's track competitors as having "charms that sink to less than zero".

As late as 1992, when Kendall took the boardsailing gold, just 98 events were for women out of 269 overall (36 per cent).

At Beijing, there were 137 events out of 302 (45 per cent). This is set to change further in London with the advent of women's boxing (New Zealand has two entrants) and sports such as kayaking and cycling redressing their previous gender imbalance.

- Hamilton News

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