Title IX, the landmark women’s equality law, celebrated its 40th anniversary in June. While the legislation was originally meant to target sex discrimination in hiring and employment, it has become associated with its impacts on women in sport.
Since its inception, women have seen immense gains in sporting opportunities. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, women’s involvement has increased 545 percent in college sports and 979 percent for high school sports. Other studies have correlated the legislation to additional benefits for women and girls involved in sport, such as being more likely to get better grades and graduate, while being less likely to get pregnant as a teen or use drugs.
The legacy of these successes has contributed to multiple U.S. media outlets naming the 2012 London Olympics “The Title IX Olympics.” For the first time, women outnumber the male presence on the U.S. Olympic team. They’ve also been quite successful in their various sports at the Olympics, including the U.S. women’s soccer team playing in the gold medal game (the game may be over when this goes to press), the U.S. women’s gymnastic team gold medal victory, the groundbreaking gymnastics success of Gabby Douglas, Kayla Harrison winning gold in judo, and more.
Yet, for all of these significant successes, there are still struggles to be won.
As women’s boxing was entering the Olympics during the London 2012 Games, there was massive public pushback by the athletes over the prospect that all women would have to wear skirts while competing in the ring. The resistance ultimately forced the Amateur International Boxing Association to back down. But similar sexualizing of U.S. Olympians can be seen in other sports.
The women’s beach volleyball event is populated by some of the most talented American women. In fact, the finals of the event has two American teams competing against each other for the gold medal. Yet, a disturbingly significant amount of media coverage has focused on what these athletes are wearing.
When the female tandems chose to wear long-sleeve shirts while playing in the cooler English temperatures, there were angry comments from men on social media who felt entitled to see women in skimpy outfits as well a prominent UK paper that asked: “Is THIS the biggest scandal to hit the Olympics? U.S. women’s beach volleyball stars trade in bikini tops for long-sleeve shirts.”
These limitations in the scope of media coverage for women at the Olympics can also be seen in recent research.
A University of Delaware study found that women received significantly less prime time media coverage than men during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Similarly, another study by the University of North Carolina saw limitations in which events got covered for women in previous Summer Olympics. The researchers stated: “[N]early three-quarters of the women’s coverage was devoted to gymnastics, swimming, diving and beach volleyball. Track and field, where the clothing is almost as minimal, made up another 13 percent of the women’s prime-time coverage.”
“The remaining sports represented – rowing, cycling, and fencing – are not, by traditional standards, ‘socially acceptable’ sports for women, and make up approximately 2 percent of coverage … Women who take part in sports that involve either power or hard-body contact are particularly unlikely to receive media coverage. When women engage in stereotypical feminine events, or look pretty or graceful, they will receive coverage, but they risk being shunned if they venture from that space.”
Yet, for all of these very real limitations and the scourge of institutionalized sexism, it is a testament to the growing demand for women’s sport, and the movements for equality like those that have championed Title IX, that we’ve been able to not only have such significant and powerful successes of American female Olympians on the fields of play but also have their feats publicized in multiple media venues.
Calling the 2012 Games the Title IX Olympics is appropriate. These Olympic Games, much like the landmark legislation of Title IX, have shown the very significant gains for women in athletics. Yet they also have shown the need for continued struggle to meet the real spirit of the Games and the law.
Photo: Women’s boxing at the London Olympics. Ira Glover // CC 2.0