The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its Impact on Women in Sports

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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To understand the impact of the International Olympic Committee on gender equality in sports you must first look back at the beginning of the modern Olympic Games. The 1896 Summer Olympics were the first international Olympic Games held in modern history and were organized by the International Olympic Committee. The gender biased history of the Olympic movement starts with Baron Pierre de Coubertin who is credited with responsibility for establishing the modern Olympic Games and the founding of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

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Coubertin intended to re-create an Olympic event to “promote and spread European aristocratic and masculine values.” That is why women were not included in the first Olympic Games in 1896. Women were not included until the 1900 games and participation was minimal at best. He famously wrote an article about women and the Olympic Games in 1912 in which he magnified gender differences in stating that the inclusion of women at the Olympic Games would be “impractical, uninteresting, ungainly, and, I do not hesitate to add, improper.”

Times have changed. One hundred years later, the 2012 Games were held in London and Tessa Jowell the former British Minister for the Olympics stated that “It will be an embarrassment for London 2012 if there isn’t an equal number of events for men and women at the Games”. After the London 2012 Games Jacques Rogge, the President of the International Olympic Committee claimed that the London 2012 Olympics represent a “major boost for gender equality”, and the UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor on Sport for Development and Peace claimed that the London 2012 Games were “a very encouraging step in the fight for gender equality and women’s empowerment in and through sport.” Over the last 30 years, the International Olympic Committee has been working towards the participation of women at all levels working with the National Olympic Committees and International Federations to enhance the presence of women in sport at all levels including leadership positions. Jennifer, Hargreaves, “Gender Equality In Olympic Sport.” Sports Medicine Journal.

This research paper will examine the work of the 5 International Olympic Committee conferences on women in sports as well as before and after conferences and committee’s to reveal why they were convened and what they accomplished in regards to advancing gender equality in the Olympic Games. The objective of the International Olympic Committee world conferences has been to create awareness about women’s role in sport; assess the progress made in sport; and define future priority actions to promote women in sport. The Olympics are one of the most powerful platforms for promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls. It also provides a platform for social change to remove barriers and build bridges, and to bring people together regardless of race, nationality, or gender. Yet discrimination against women persists in many areas including the athletic arena, even as attitudes around gender based stereotypes continue to evolve. The IOC has a responsibility to take when it comes to gender equality.

Early on, female participation at the Olympic Games was weak at best. However, in more recent years there has been a major shift in the International Olympic Committee’s position concerning gender equality in part because social views in many countries of the world have changed to improve opportunities for women in all areas of life and culture, including sports. Women athletes have also become better organized and more demanding and have greater expectations. In 1949, the International Association of Physical Education and Sport for Girls and Women was formed. For the most part it was made up of physical education teachers in schools and colleges in the United States and Canada. Over years it produced a worldwide network of women who promoted exercise for girls and women to aid health and well-being. 

The International Women and Sport Movement is said to have been born out of a decade in which increasing communication brought together women from around the sports world. It does not refer to any one organization or country, but it is widely agreed that a landmark event and major catalyst in the movement was the first International Conference on Women and Sport. Dr. Anita White and Professor Celia Brackenridge envisioned and organized the first World Conference on Women and Sport in Brighton, UK. Dr. White was a professor at the University of Chichester who in 1990 joined the British Sports Council and went on to become one of three Senior Directors of Sport England in 1995. A leader in the international women and sport movement she was a founding member and former Chair of the Women’s Sports Foundation. Following the Brighton Conference she co-chaired the International Working Group on Women and Sport from 1994 to 1998 and has advised many countries and organizations on women’s sport development. Celia Brackenridge taught in schools and universities in the UK and also ran her own consulting company specializing in child protection and gender equality issues in sports. Throughout her time as an active researcher, Brackenridge studied abuse and harassment issues in sport from the late 1980s and was Program Consultant to the IOC Medical Commission on Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Sport (2007) and to the UNICEF working group on violence against children in sport (2007-08).

The Brighton Conference focused on the issue of inequality in women’s sports and sought to speed up the change towards more gender equality in sports. With 280 delegates from 82 countries, The Brighton Declaration on Women and Sport was written and was the foundation of the basic principles aiming for equality for women in sport across the world. The declaration is addressed to all government and non-government organizations who are responsible for and who are involved with women and sport. The principle goal of the declaration was to develop a culture which enables and appreciates the involvement of women in every aspect of sports. The International Working Group on Women and Sport (IWG) and Women Sport International (WSI) organizations were created. The Brighton Declaration received unexpected support from national and international governments and all levels of sports organizations. It was so highly thought of that the International Olympic Committee adopted the Brighton Declaration in 1995 and at the encouragement of women’s groups went on to set up its own Women and Sport Commission and has sponsored five IOC World Conferences on Women and Sport.

The first IOC World Conference on Women and Sport took place in 1996 in Lausanne, Switzerland.[footnoteRef:8] During this time, the president of the IOC was Juan Antonio Samaranch who held the position from 1980- 2001. During his leadership, in 1991, a historic discussion was made by the IOC: any new sport seeking to be included on the Olympic programmer had to include women’s events.” By 1995, the IOC established the Women and Sport Working Group. This group was created to advise the Executive Board on suitable policies to be implemented in the field of gender equality. At the first conference on Women and Sport recognized that the Olympic ideal cannot be fully realized without, and until there is, equality for women in the Olympic Movement. The conference recommended to “created special committees or working groups composed of at least ten percent women to design and implement a plan of action with a view of promoting women and sport.” Following this, the committee created a special fund promoting women’s sport at all levels such as: training women for administrations, technical officials, and coaches with emphasis on developing countries. Participants also called upon the Olympic Movement to take into consideration the issue of gender inequality in all their policies, procedures, and programmers and to recognize any specific needs of women in the full and active part in sport. This resulted by the first overall theme in the 1996 Conference “Olympiad for Women.” One year later after the conference, in 1997 Ms. Anita De Frantz was elected as IOC Vice President Chairperson of the IOC Women and Sport Commission, the first woman to occupy this position. 

The second IOC World Conference on Women and Sport took place in Paris, France in 2000 with the new theme “New Perspectives for the 21st Century.”[footnoteRef:12] After Juan Antonio Samaranch stepped down as president in 2000, Jacques Rogge was elected as president being a member since 1991. Being an Olympian himself he competed at the 1968 Olympics in the sailing events and competed in the following two Olympics and became a World Champion in this dominating sport. At the second World Conference, the IOC members assessed the progress made over the last four years and assessed the experiences and new challenges faced from the previous conference. Conference participants requested the Olympic Movement “reserve at least twenty- percent of session- making positions for women within their structures by the end of 2005.” They requested the International Olympic Committee to encourage the minimum representation of at least one women representative in national delegations of the world and regional assemblies and other forms of sports organizations.

The fourth conference, held in Dead Sea, Jordan in 2008 reflected sport as a “power tool” for addressing societal problems. During this conference, Ms. Anita De Frantz, Chairperson of the IOC Women and Sport Commission, addressed the issue on the attention of both the inequalities that exist in society and how those inequalities can be addressed. From this, participants in the conference adopted an Action Plan. The resulted “Dead Sea Action Plan” identified a number of opportunities on how to move the agenda forward.

The fifth IOC World Conference in Women and Sport took place in Los Angeles, California in 2012. It set a minimum target for all sport governing bodies to be forty percent women by 2020. Although the IOC had made valuable contributions to their goal of gender equality, they decided to reach out to the United Nations for assistance in reaching goals by collaborating with common organizations within the governing bodies.

Today, through its Gender Equality Review Project and its Women in Sports Commission, the International Olympic Committee is following through on its commitment to use sports to advance the rights of women and girls around the world, and ensure that changes are reflected not just on the field, but also at the point of decision-making in sports. Among the many actions the IOC is taking is the bold step of calling for increasing female participation at the Olympic Games to fifty percent, as stated in Olympic Agenda 2020.[footnoteRef:18] But it doesn’t stop there. The recommendations also call for more female officials, coaches, and heads of Olympic commissions and sports federations. Change must be driven from the top down. Even with the recent gains within the Olympic Movement and beyond, and with increasing support for female athletes everywhere women must press ahead. Gender equality in sports has come a long way but there’s still more work to be done. 

Women can only be the change they want to be if they rally around their cause and use the knowledge gained from their predecessors to take action and be involved to make effective change together. It will take the cooperation of the sporting federations, officials, commissions, and executives to say that they will all come together with their best efforts because they’re going to build for the future with gender equality as a top priority. Only then can every female athlete fully realize her dreams through sports.


  1. DeFrantz, Anita L. “Olympic Review.” The changing role of women in the Olympic Games.(1997). 26: 18- 21
  2. “IOC World Conferences On Women and Sport.” The IOC World Conferences On Women andSport. (2012)
  3. “Key Dates in the History of Women in the Olympic Movement.” The International Olympic Committee. Last accessed April 27, 2019.
  4. “Women In The Olympic and Paralympic Games: An Analysis of Participation, Leadership, and Media Coverage.” Women’s Sports Foundation. Last accessed April 27, 2019.
  5. “IOC World Conference on Women and Sport, 1996.” The International Olympic Committee. Last accessed April 27, 2019.
  7. “IOC World Conference on Women and Sport, 2000.” The International Olympic Committee. Last accessed April 27, 2019.
  9. Pike, Elisabeth. “The social responsibility of the Olympic Games.” Journal of Olympic Studies. Olympic Women. (2017). 1(1): 1-14. 2016.
  10. “Factsheet Women In The Olympic Movement.” Factsheet Women In The Olympic Movement (International Olympic Committee) 5.
  11. Hargreaves, Jennifer. “Gender Equality In Sports”. Sports Medicine Journal. 80-86.
  12. “Olympic World Library”. International Olympic Committee. 2018.
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The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Its Impact on Women In Sports. (2021, Apr 03). Retrieved from