With the dust finally settling on the two-week long Tokyo Olympics, we are now ready to take a fresh look at what the winners and valiant participants can teach us about gender diversity, not just in sports but in other walks of life too.
The latest edition of the Summer Olympics has been special for many reasons. The successful completion of the Olympics in the midst of a global pandemic is without doubt a big headline by itself, thanks to the die-hard spirit of the host country Japan and the 11,000 athletes and thousands of organisers from more than 200 countries who made it happen. However, for many among us who have made it a life mission to improve gender diversity in every walk of life, the Tokyo Olympics, quite literally became the torch bearer for a new generation of D&I (diversity & inclusion) warriors around the world.
Nearly half (49%) of the participants in the Tokyo games were women, a record high since 1900, the year women made their debut in Olympics in Paris comprising just 22 of the 997 participating athletes. This is also a significant improvement over the previous Olympics held in Rio where women accounted for 45% of the total participants. The story got a lot more special for India with a total haul of 7 medals, a record high for the country, of which three were won by women athletes, a second record in the same year.
A consistently improving gender diversity in Olympics goes much beyond its symbolic value. The reason for this is quite obvious. The qualifier games held before the main event ensures that meritocracy plays an important role even to represent one’s country in the Olympics, let alone winning. So, it is not just three who brought home a medal, but all 54 have become role models for millions of young women in India to aspire for the highest not just in sports but in their respective chosen fields.
If we are looking for a template to replicate future successes, sport is a good place to start. The road to success in sports when compared to many other professional fields, is relatively shorter and therefore capable of inspiring millions more within just one generation. Sports also provides a global platform on a scale very few fields can match. Moreover, a woman athlete may retire from active participation much early in life (as compared to other careers) but enjoy a fairly long haul as a source of inspiration.
Anju Bobby George, P. T. Usha, Bachendri Pal and hundreds like them have become ‘poster girls’ for millions of young women and men in India. Sports is also unique in the sense that national glory trumps personal wins. It is precisely why PT Usha while congratulating javelin gold medal winner Neeraj Chopra said, “Realised my unfinished dream today after 37 years. Thank you, my son.”
Two of the three women athletes who brought home medals for India come from remote corners of the country that most of us would struggle to find on the map. Mirabai Chanu, the 26-year-old weightlifter from Nongpok Kakching village at the foothills of Imphal East district in Manipur and the 23-year-old boxer Lovlina Borgohain from Barpathar village in Golaghat district of Assam created history in Tokyo not just because of their gender but the odds they had to overcome before stepping on the winners’ podium. The two ladies along with PV Sindhu, the ace shuttler and two-time Olympic medallist and the 16-member women’s hockey team who missed the medal by a whisker have managed to create a fertile ground for more Indians to dream of wrapping themselves with the national tricolour at Paris and beyond.
The consistent improvement in gender diversity in sports, particularly in Olympics offers an invaluable lesson for other fields as well. As a nation the investment we commit, be it time, resource or money, is always long-term. Take for example the United States Olympics team. Tokyo was the fourth consecutive Summer Olympics in which women won more medals than men and the third consecutive summer game in which women participants outnumbered men. This was not some happy accident, but a direct outcome of Title IX, an American gender equality or anti-discrimination law signed by President Richard Nixon in 1972 that has had the most telling impact on school and college athletics. It took decades of patience and commitment to see real change. It is not easy, but there isn’t any real alternative either.
If we can borrow a sports analogy, every little step we take towards more gender diversity is like a baton relay race. The one who gets to cross the finishing line wouldn’t have done it without the seconds gained by those who ran before her.
One of the most valuable lessons we can draw from the recently concluded Olympic Games in Tokyo is that investing in greater gender diversity is always long-term. And the real victory will come the day when we can stop celebrating winning women as exceptions.