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Gender imbalances persist in sport leadership at the Olympic level

This is an excerpt from Women and Sport eBook by Ellen J. Staurowsky.

The Olympic Games are the pinnacle sporting event for athletes, with more than 10,500 athletes competing in the Summer Games and just over 2,500 athletes in the Winter Games. At the most recent Summer Games in London, women constituted their highest percentage of participants ever, with 44.3 percent (4,751) competing for 205 national Olympic committees (NOCs; Smith & Wrynn, 2010; 2013). Despite the efforts to achieve gender equity among the athletes, the leadership of women at the Olympic Games as members of the IOC, NOCs, and International Federations (IFs) is nowhere near the equity achieved by female athletes. Female sport leaders at the Olympic level continue to struggle in terms of overall numbers and positions of power. This section assesses female sport leadership at three levels: IOC, NOC, and IF. Additionally, it evaluates similar parallel structures in the Paralympic Games organization.


The IOC is a male-dominated organization at every level. Founded in 1894 with 13 members, all male, the IOC governs the Summer and Winter Olympic Games and serves as the stewards of the Olympic movement. IOC membership bestows a great deal of power to its exclusive 106 members, making decisions ranging from which sports to include in the Games and the location of the Games to distribution of funding to NOCs. To address the gender imbalance in sport leadership in the IOC, in 2000, the organization established a 20 percent minimum threshold for the inclusion of women in administrative structures to be achieved by 2005 (Smith & Wrynn, 2013). Despite setting the 20 percent threshold (a figure that falls well short of 50%), the IOC and its various structures struggled to meet their own minimum standard. In 2012, for the first time in the IOC's history, they achieved their 20 percent goal, with 22 women accounting for 20.8 percent of total membership (an increase from 2008, when women made up 14.9 percent of the membership). Equally important was the historic inclusion of three women (Claudia Bokel from Germany, Nawal El Moutawakel from Morocco, and Gunilla Lindberg from Sweden) on the 15-member executive board, including El Moutawakel as one of four vice presidents. To date, there has never been a female president in the IOC's history. To address the role and status of women in the Olympic movement, the IOC has established the Women and Sport Commission and has hosted five world conferences on women and sport. There are a total of 29 IOC Commissions with women accounting for 84 of the 442 positions (19%). Of the 29 commissions, 11 meet or exceed the IOC's 20 percent standard (this is up from 4 of 31 in 2008). Six of the 29 commissions are chaired by women: the Women and Sport Commission (Anita DeFrantz), the Athletes Commission (Claudia Bokel), the Evaluation Commission (Gunilla Lindberg), the PyeongChang 2018 Coordination Commission (Gunilla Lindberg), the Rio 2016 Commission (Nawal El Moutawakel), and the Youth Olympic Games Coordination 2016 Commission (Angela Ruggiero). Despite this progress, 6 of the 29 commissions have less than 10 percent female participation and 4 commissions have no female members (Smith & Wrynn, 2009, 2010, 2013).

Learn more about Women and Sport: From Liberation to Celebration.