To the most high profile sporting event on the planet, the Olympic Games, women are becoming increasingly important both as viewers and participants. Research conducted in May by Nielsen Sports reveals that 45% of women in the world’s largest economies are interested or very interested in the Summer Olympics. This is only 3% lower than the number of men who are interested in the Games.
With the Olympics becoming more gender equal in terms of events, medal totals for the top Olympic nations are also becoming more dependent on the performances of their female athletes. In fact, four of the top five countries in Gracenote’s most recent Virtual Medal Table are projected to win at least 49% of their nation’s likely medals in women’s events. This figure is above the proportion of women’s events at Tokyo 2020 (46%).
♦ The Summer Olympic Games is the biggest sporting event on the planet with 47% of people in 13 of the world’s 15 richest economies interested or very interested in it.
♦ Interest in the Summer Olympics is almost gender equal with 48% of men interested compared to 45% of women.
♦ Women are more engaged with the Summer Olympics in the BRIC economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China than in other established economies around the world.
♦ The highest interest in the Olympics amongst women in established economies is in the United Kingdom where 44% of females are interested or very interested in the event.
♦ At least 70% of the fans of some of the most popular Summer Olympic sports are interested in the women’s events in those sports.
♦ 46% of the events at the Tokyo Olympic Games are for women only, the highest proportion in the event’s history.
♦ Women from most of the top-5 countries in the 2016 medal table won proportionally more medals than expected given the number of women’s events.
♦ In addition, Canada, Hungary, the Netherlands and New Zealand all delivered high medal table positions through the performances of their women.
Lynsey Douglas, Head of Brands, Nielsen Sports said, “The Olympics provide a unifying moment with countries and athletes coming together to compete in what is the world’s largest sporting event. Although this year’s Olympics in Tokyo will be different from previous Games in many ways, the potential they bring to elevate gender equality in sport remains critical. With nearly equal medal opportunities for men and women, the Olympics provides the most gender balanced fan base among major events while attracting high interest in the women’s events that are part of the programme”.
Nothing bigger than the Olympic Games
The Olympic Games are the biggest sporting event on the planet. The latest data from Nielsen Fan Insights shows that 47% of respondents across 13 of the world’s 15 wealthiest economies are either interested or very interested in the Summer Games, making it the number one sporting event in the world. Amongst non-Olympic events, the NBA comes in next with 33% of people expressing an interest in these countries.
The difference in interest for women is even more stark with 45% interested in the Summer Olympics in these countries, 17% higher than the most popular non-Olympic competition, the NBA.
Women in the BRIC economies are even more engaged in the Summer Olympics than their counterparts in the more established economies around the world. The highest interest in the Summer Games amongst women was recorded in China, India, Russia and Brazil in the latest research from Nielsen Sports. In China there is as much interest in the event amongst women as there is amongst men. In India, women are even more interested in the Summer Olympics than men. In the more established major economies, the greatest interest in the event amongst women is in the United Kingdom and Italy.
The Olympic Games is nearly gender equal
In addition to the high interest of women in 13 of the 15 richest economies in the Olympic Summer Games, women’s sport at the Olympics also has high engagement amongst the fans of the most popular Olympic sports. At least 70% of the fans of athletics, badminton, gymnastics, swimming, table tennis, tennis and volleyball are interested in the women’s events for these sports. Around 60% of cycling fans are interested in women’s cycling despite the much bigger focus on men’s events like the Tour de France in that sport.
The IOC recognised the potential interest in women’s sport decades ago and began to develop more gender equality in events at the Olympic Games. The competition’s governing body has made strides over time in making the Olympic Games more gender equal. After holding the first modern Olympics in 1896 with no female events whatsoever, there has been a steady increase in medal events for women over subsequent Games.
Over the last five decades in particular, major gains have been made with the percentage of women’s events increasing from just over 20% at the Munich Olympics in 1972 to 46% at Tokyo 2020. Men’s events account for 49% although this means that there are only nine events more for men than women. The other 5% are mixed and open events. For many years now, sports added to the Olympic programme have been required to offer equal numbers of events for women as men to be accepted.
The only discipline at Tokyo 2020 without women’s events - baseball and softball being regarded as balancing each other - is Greco-Roman wrestling. However, women do compete internationally in this sport and change is expected here too.
At Tokyo 2020, 3x3 basketball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing will all appear for the first time. Each includes as many events for women as for men. Baseball and softball also both return to the Olympics after being absent from the programme at the last two Olympic Summer Games. The IOC considers baseball and softball as two disciplines of the same sport and they both fall under the same federation, the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) which was formed in 2013.
The Olympic Games have therefore been a powerful driver in helping to grow the profile of women’s sport. Women’s events at the Olympics are presented as equal to men’s events. There are now the same number of women’s events as there are men’s within almost all of the sports and disciplines present at the Olympics. New sports and disciplines must include the same number of women’s events as men’s events to achieve a place on the Olympic programme.
Being competitive in women’s sport is crucial for overall success
With almost equal medal opportunities for women and men at the 2020 Games, the performances of both genders are crucial to the overall success of a team. Amongst the top-20 medal winning countries at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games, more than half of the medals were won by women for 10 of those nations.
The Great Britain team was the highest medal winner with fewer than half of their medals won in women’s events. Had the British team’s female athletes achieved the same number of medals as the men, the British would have comfortably beaten China into second place on total medals in Rio.
In addition to the British, other top Olympic nations like Germany, France, Italy and Brazil also recorded a lower percentage of medals from women than the proportion of women’s events present in 2016.
Smaller National Olympic Committees (NOCs) like Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Hungary were very successful in women’s events, which boosted their overall position in the medal table. Nearly 73% of Canada’s medals came from the women in their team, 67% of Hungary’s medals were picked up in the women’s events, 63% of Dutch medals were won by women as were 61% of New Zealand’s podium places.
Bold indicates a higher proportion of medals won in women’s events than the percentage of women’s events present at the 2016 Olympic Games.
The United States also topped the women’s medal table at the Rio Olympics with 61 medals, including 27 gold medals. China was second and Russia was third. Canada finished sixth on the women’s medal table, four places higher than in the overall medal table.
The Netherlands claimed a top-10 spot in the women’s medal table for Rio. The six gold medals won by Dutch women were beaten only by the top-5 NOCs. New Zealand and Hungary were 11th and 12th respectively in women’s events.
The 2016 Summer Olympics awarded 137 gold medals and 429 medals in total to women’s events. For Tokyo 2020, this has increased to 156 and 494 respectively in women’s events. Men’s events in Tokyo provide 165 gold medal chances and 530 medal opportunities compared to 161 and 517 in Rio in 2016. The IOC has also introduced more mixed events for Tokyo in which more women will win medals.
With near equality in the number of events and medals, women’s medals at the Olympic Games have become as important as men’s medals to a team’s rank in the overall medal table. It is therefore important for NOCs and the national sports bodies themselves to ensure that there are equal opportunities for both genders to participate and progress from grassroots to elite level. Countries doing this will maximise Olympic medal opportunities in the future.
In many ways, the changes to create a more balanced competition environment at the Olympic games were well ahead of their time—and the rest of the sporting world. After 50 years of female athletes pushing for more opportunity, the games are the biggest platform for gender equality in global sports, and the audiences are just as even. Equality in competition aside, progress is still needed in global sports to ensure all athletes are treated fairly, including nursing mothers and athletes whose biological makeups fall outside of what might be considered traditional norms.
And athletes and fans can help lead the charge. As the biggest showcase for women’s sports, the Olympics stands as a shining example of how important gender parity is in global sports, simply because of the appetite for it—among both men and women.
Head of Analysis, Sports
Gracenote, A Nielsen Company
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