Olympic women and the quest for equality

The annual recognition of the careers of several coaches served to affirm the idea of gender equality in Olympism.

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Argentinian coach Laura Martinel receives the award from Thomas Bach, president of the IOC.
Credit. IOC media
Argentinian coach Laura Martinel receives the award from Thomas Bach, president of the IOC. Credit. IOC media

“I am incredibly excited and honored to receive this recognition in my professional career. I never imagined that I would become recognized in this way. In a world where there are still few women coaches, I want to encourage female athletes to follow their path as coaches when they finish their competitive career. We need them, and I want to tell you that we have a great ally: the International Olympic Committee, which is working hard to achieve gender equality in all areas of sport”

These words correspond to the Argentinian Laura Martinell, recently honored by the IOC with the Coaches Lifetime Achievement Awards, an annual recognition aimed at those coaches with a particularly outstanding career.

Martinell’s career began as an athlete. And with a curiosity. Always a judoka, seventh in the Barcelona Olympic Games, Laura suffered an injury before the Pan American Games in Caracas, in 1983. That annoyance didn’t stop her from being encouraged to participate in the Sambo competition, a discipline encouraged by the Russians that combines judo with wrestling. Martinell was one of her country’s two gold medals in those games. Inside the sambo, a real One Hit Wonder.

From a very young age, she dedicated herself to training athletes and enjoyed everything that can be achieved as a coach in High Performance. In 2003 it was the world title won by Daniela Krukower. Between 2013 and 2021, accompanied by Paula Pareto, she celebrated the Pan American, World and Olympic titles.

Paula Pareto celebrates Olympic gold in Rio 2016 with her coach Laura Martinel. Credit: Rio 2016
Paula Pareto celebrates Olympic gold in Rio 2016 with her coach Laura Martinel. Credit: Rio 2016

But far above all this, Laura left an undisguised signal when referring to the need to continue adding women to the positions of coaches. Also when she referred to that great ally, the International Olympic Committee. Indeed, the IOC is a great ally in the quest for gender equality. Now. After a long journey full of pitfalls, inconsistencies and arbitrariness in this regard.

Just a few facts to refresh your memory to assess the inclusive present of a movement that for decades was not inclusive.

There were no women competing in Athens 1896. Only 22 did it in Paris 1900 —Helene de Pourtales, sailing, went down in history as the first female medalist, but in a mixed race- and in Saint Louis 1904 there were only 6.

However, it is not necessary to go back to prehistory to have a complete idea of how much resistance there was to any attempt at equality.

It was only in Los Angeles 1984 that women were allowed to compete in an athletic event of more than 1500 meters. On the track there were 3000, not 5000 or 10,000 like men. And it was on that occasion that the women’s marathon premiered at the Olympic level.

It was only in 1990 that the then IAAF -World Athletics- recognized an official record in triple jump, almost seventy years after the 10 m 32 of the North American Elizabeth Stine, the first record in this regard to which reference is made. And it took six more years for the IOC to make room for it in the Olympic program.

Nothing different from hammer throw or pole vaulting. We can talk about weightlifting: The girls premiered in Sydney 2000.

Or swimming: Tokyo 2020 was the first Olympic game to include 1500 meters freestyle.

Or the fight, which came to the games in 2004, 17 years after the first world championship. And it was only in free mode; there is no Greco-Roman wrestling for women in the Olympic program.

Field hockey premiered in Moscow in 1980 and water polo in 2000, exactly one century after the men’s debut, in Paris.

Katie Ledecky won the gold medal in the 1500 meter final at Tokyo 2020, in what was the first time women swam this distance in an Olympic Game.
Katie Ledecky won the gold medal in the 1500 meter final at Tokyo 2020, in what was the first time women swam this distance in an Olympic Game.

Note that in most cases the feeling that remains is that of underestimating a woman’s capacity to submit to a certain type of demand. This is no different from some preconceptions held in this regard by several pioneers of Olympism.

Even imperfect, the passage of time helped to put many unfinished issues in order.

In Tokyo, there was a ratio close to 51 percent of male and 49 percent of female athletes, a figure infinitely more equanimous than that of, for example, the first games of the 21st century: in Sydney there were 2500 more male athletes than women.

In any case, the ideal was reached at the YOGs in Buenos Aires 2018, in which there were an equal number of athletes of both genders.

Nor would it be fair to set our sights on sport in general and on Olympism in particular.

Society itself still has discriminatory vices in an infinite number of areas. Even with vexatious laws by states whose presence at the games has never been questioned.