Women and sport conference: impatient optimists

Women have come a long way in the struggle for gender equity on the field of play at the Olympic Games. But more, much more, needs to be done to achieve equity in Olympic sport's management and executive positions, it was made clear at the International Olympic Committee's fifth "Women and Sport" conference.

The session, which wrapped up a three-day run Saturday at the JW Marriott hotel in downtown Los Angeles, attracted 855 delegates from 135 nations as well as IOC president Jacques Rogge and a number of senior IOC members -- a significant outreach for the U.S. Olympic Committee and for Los Angeles Olympic backers.

"I am an impatient optimist," Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis, who has gone on to become a noted archery competitor and leading advocate for women's equity in sport, told the conference Saturday morning.

She added, "The time for change is now."

The two LA Summer Games provide an easy benchmark to show how far things have come.

In 1932, only 9 percent of the competitors were women. In 1984, 24 percent. In 2008 in Beijing, more than 42 percent, and in London this summer, Rogge said, "We expect to improve on that."

Moreover, with the addition of women's boxing, women will compete in every one of the 26 sports on the Olympic program at the 2012 Games.

C.K. Wu, the president of the international boxing federation, which goes by the acronym AIBA, said at a session Saturday that female boxers will most likely be given the option of wearing either shorts or skirts, resolving a long-running controversy.

The addition of female boxers means there are only these two entries that are not gender-neutral on the Olympic program, Summer (synchronized swimming) and Winter (Nordic combined).

Rogge, asked about that, said that men could do synchro and women Nordic combined if there was more "worldwide activity."

Only three nations, meanwhile, have yet to send a woman to the Games -- Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar. In an interview before the conference with a group of journalism students from the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism, Rogge said he was "optimistic" the number would be down to zero by the London Games.

The next frontier, he and a number of other speakers over the conference underscored, is two-fold:

One is getting women involved at the highest levels of leadership across the movement -- in national governing bodies, national Olympic committees, international federations and, of course, the IOC itself.

"In the Olympic movement," Anita DeFrantz of Los Angeles, the senior IOC delegate to the United States said at the closing ceremony, "we desperately need more women to take their role at the decision-making tables."

The long-established target for women in senior positions in the movement is 20 percent.

There are currently 19 current active female IOC members, Rogge said. "Without jumping the gun" and mentioning no names, he said he expected the ratification of two more female members at the IOC's forthcoming annual meeting this summer in London, bringing the number to 21, and the percentage to 19.5 percent.

He said, "Is that enough? No. It's not the end of the story. But it's an important milestone."

In the international federations, the proportion of women on executive boards or commissions is still well below that 20 percent figure -- 16.6 percent for Summer Games sports, 12.4 percent for Winter Games sports, Wu said in a report to the conference.

The percentage of female national Olympic committee presidents: 4 percent.

Wu, the father of two daughters, said, "Everything in this world is more exciting, interesting and inspiring when women participate," adding a moment later, "We need to work harder on making progress."

The second "long battle for us," as Rogge phased it, is "to have better access [around the world] for women to sport."

He added, "It's not going to be easy."

In many countries in the world, Rogge said, the idea of sport for women may not necessarily be met with resistance. In most countries, sport is a government enterprise. But many governments are dealing with -- you name it -- armed conflict, economic woes, disease and other profound challenges.

In such circumstance, "They tell us frankly sport is not our No. 1 priority and you have to understand that."

It's why, when asked what sort of outcome he hoped to see from this conference, he responded, he said, "A strong message that resonates outside of this conference."

Here, he said, this conference had "what you would call a captive public," what in idiomatic American English we might call preaching to the choir.

"… Everyone is saying this is a sacred noble goal," promoting women's equity in sport.

Now, though, the conference is over and everyone is headed home from Los Angeles. The sixth "Women and Sport" conference won't be for another four years. What will the numbers say then?