Dissecting female participation at the Olympic Games with infographics & data visualization

It’s unmistakable. The thunderous roar rises and reverberates through the air, capturing the minds of the exuberant crowd and eager armchair onlookers alike. The ecstatic chatter swells and energizes the atmosphere with a sense of anticipation. The hopes, dreams and desires of competitors, their teammates, supporters, sponsors, backers and nations are infused in a comradely celebration and spirited rivalry. Let the Games begin!

In just under three days, London 2012 – the 30th Summer Games – will commence with the customary epic torch relay reaching its inevitable conclusion.

London has played host to the Olympic Games on two previous occasions in 1908 and 1948. In 2012, 205 nations are expected to compete, contributing over 14,000 athletes – including 170 Paralympic teams – in over 300 events.

The first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece in 1896, and were coordinated by the newly founded (1894) International Olympic Committee (IOC). Fourteen nations and 241 athletes competed across 43 events.

Equality at the Olympics

While the Olympics has clearly evolved and diversified in a myriad of aspects over the past 100 plus years, the issue of gender equality was thrust to the fore in a recent revelation. News that male contingents of some national teams (which shall remain nameless) have been flown over to London in business class, while their female counterparts were confined to economy, has sparked understandable debate.

All these numbers, proliferating diversity and recent incidents got us thinking about the level of female participation and success over time at the Games.

So, let’s turn to our trusted chums – Business Intelligence, data visualization and infographics – to put on a jolly good show.

Female vs male participation at the Olympics over time

Following the sensation of the 1896 Olympics, the Games directly entered into a period of sustained disinterest that endangered its very existence and viability. This potentially dire situation is reflected in the drop-off in overall athlete counts – and hence medals awarded – at the 1900 and 1904 events.

Note:  The female ‘participation rate’ – as outlined in the above graph – is based on the number of gold medal winners by gender. Team events will therefore skew the number of medals as multiple members will be represented.

The 1900 Olympic Games, held at the Paris Exposition, saw the inclusion of female competitors for the first time. However, the female body was nothing more than token.

Since the 1904 World’s Fair Games in St. Louis, which included athletes predominantly from the United States, the levels of female, and overall, participation has steadily increased – aside from notable dips related to the worldwide Great Depression and the fallout from World War II (The 1940 and 1944 Olympics were cancelled due to global military activities).

But what about 1920 you ask? Why were so many more medals awarded in that year compared to any prior or post Summer Games? Well, oddly, the Games of the VII Olympiad were an international multi-sport event, which featured a week of winter sports. The 1920 Games – held in Antwerp, Belgium – also saw the Olympic debut of ice hockey and the reappearance of figure skating for the first time since 1908.

Addressing the gender imbalance

As recently as the 1984 Los Angeles Games, women only represented 23 percent of Olympians. However, female participation has ballooned in the last two decades. By the Beijing Olympics in 2008, female athletes accounted for a record 42 percent of the 11,028 athletes. That record is set to be broken again, with women making up 45 percent of all combatants in London.

The Games of the XXX Olympiad also mark a number of other significant and culturally progressive gender-related milestones, with all 205 participating countries represented by at least one female athlete for the first time. Additionally, with the inclusion of women’s boxing, the London Olympics marks the first Games in which both sexes will feature in every sport of the Olympic program.

America and Saudi Arabia embrace girl power

The 2012 Summer Games also represents a number of national gender-based landmarks. America – the world’s most prolific Olympic nation (both in terms of medals won and resources dedicated) – has sent an Olympic team containing more female (269) than male (261) participants.

And, public relations stunt or not, Saudi Arabia has permitted women to participate in the Games for the first time in the Kingdom’s history, with the IOC announcing that the Arab nation will send two female athletes to compete at London 2012.

So; we know that recent Olympiads have addressed the traditional gender imbalance – markedly. But, which Olympic events remain ostensibly male or female dominated domains?

Male vs female by event category at the 2008 Olympics

Four years ago in Beijing, Synchronized Swimming (female), Baseball (male), Boxing (male) and Softball (female) were gender exclusive events; providing obvious examples of gender imbalance by event category. However, in 2012, Baseball and Softball have been bestowed the dubious honor of being the first sports to be dumped from the Game’s program since Polo’s exclusion from the 1936 Olympics. And, as previously noted, women have been granted their first appearance in the boxing ring at this year’s Summer Games.

However, controversy abounds amidst claims of sexism on the Synchronized Swimming circuit. London 2012 organizers have lauded this year’s event as the first Olympics to make all listed sports available to both men and women. But, Britain’s only men’s Synchronized Swimming team – the Out to Swim Angels – has blasted Olympic officials, demanding to know why, if their claim is true, men remain barred from flaunting their synchronized finesse at the 2012 Games.

"Originally there weren’t many sports women could compete in, so having synchro for women only was about letting them have more sports [of their own],” said founding member of the Angels, Richard Shaw. “But times have moved on and the rules should be reversed. I feel sad that men can’t compete. Bit by bit we hope we can break down the barrier for men.”

And you thought that gender inequality in sport only affected women!

But the hullabaloo doesn’t stop in the pool, with many macho events projecting the (apparent) misconception that they’re male only affairs. Events featuring somewhat surprising gender balances include:

  • Fencing (Male 50%, Female 50%)
  • Judo (Male 51%, Female 49%)
  • Taekwondo (Male 48%, Female 52%)
  • Weightlifting (Male 53%, Female 47%)

Where to next?

Keep a lookout for our series of Olympic data blogs, appearing daily from now until London’s Closing Ceremony (12 August).