tara sullivan

In the Olympics, gender equity is making gains but hasn’t quite caught up yet

Angela Ruggiero won a gold, two silvers, and a bronze medal as a member of the US women's hockey team. Maddie Meyer

It started with a simple question.

Angela Ruggiero — Harvard grad, four-time Olympian, former US women’s hockey captain, and onetime elected member of the International Olympic Committee — posed it during coordination meetings in the leadup to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games.

Why, she wanted to know, were all the women’s hockey games other than the final scheduled at the smaller rink, while men’s games were held exclusively at the larger arena? When the first answer that there were no time slots available was quickly proved untrue, she wondered again, why couldn’t organizers use an open date on the larger rink’s calendar to move, say, the women’s semifinals? When the next excuse made no sense — that the ice “needed to breathe” — she spoke up again.

“I’m a hockey player; there is literally no such thing,” Ruggiero recalled in a recent call with the Globe. “Unless you’re painting lines or something, the ice can be used 24/7.”

Her simple question, and the education that came in its answers, propelled action that would eventually turn into the IOC Gender Equality Review Project, an initiative undertaken during Ruggiero’s time with the IOC. It brought together representatives from two commissions, 11 working group members, and six stakeholder groups who combined to author a plan that was fully endorsed by the IOC Executive Board in February 2018.

It put forth 25 Gender Equity Recommendations, from the inclusion of women to the portrayal of them through the media, from the support for female athletes vis-a-vis the support for men in comparable sports to the rules and regulations that are imposed on uniforms, distances, and rosters.

“It reflects poorly on the IOC if we don’t have equal things, and the first step was with the gender equality review,” Ruggiero said, “making people aware and asking, ‘Do we know why this happened?’ ”

The Olympics have long served as the world’s referendum on the progress, or lack thereof, on gender equity. On a macro level, the Games have provided the most visible and impressive stage for female athletes, a rare instance when women such as ski star Mikaela Shiffrin or supernatural snowboarder Chloe Kim are featured as much as their male counterparts, emerging just as popular and celebrated in our sports iconography. Representation alone is enormously important to every generation of athletes.

“The Olympics have done quite a lot to advance the female athlete, to highlight the abilities of the female athlete; I think that’s undeniable,” said Jason Chung, professor of sports management at the University of New Haven. “In representation, those are powerful images of very capable women. That can only be good.”

Angela Ruggiero was honored at "The Tradition" in December. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

But as Chung and others know, the micro details don’t always tell the same story, leaving women lesser-funded, facing arcane rules about, say, the required length of their uniforms. Remember last summer, when female beach handball players were dinged for shorts that were too long, though not surprisingly men in the sport were given maximum allowable lengths? It’s a message that seemed to tell women, “Show us some leg.”

Or in the way we often judge women’s dominance differently, seeing perceived unfairness when they win by too much, as if they are supposed to be nicer.

Forcing change on those levels can be difficult to engineer, requiring action from so many different stakeholders and governing boards. These national bodies are the ones that should know better, and should be in a better position to do right by all athletes without needing to be forced by larger overseers such as the IOC. It just doesn’t always happen that way.

Go back to Ruggiero’s simple scheduling question: It was the International Ice Hockey Federation that was making those calls. Moving that up the chain to the IOC made the difference.

“That’s the struggle we’ve had,” Ruggiero said. “Where we see some progress, such as participation, one of the most visible parts of sports, check, done, we’re moving that way. We’re not there yet, but I feel pretty good.

“It’s the other little parts. Why isn’t women’s hockey last on the Olympic program? It’s always the men. If that were the final event, more people would see women’s hockey. It’s a vicious cycle.

“That’s where my angle is. The things you can see, like participation, look great, and I commend [president Thomas] Bach and the IOC for doing more of that. It’s the underlying things.

“It’s getting better, but there are some things it’s just not as easy as telling the IOC to change because they can’t always do it.”

Angela Ruggiero was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015. Charles Rex Arbogast

Ruggiero, a four-year starter on defense for the Crimson, settled with her family in Massachusetts. She penned an excellent Globe opinion piece last August pointing out the lack of gender equity in sports for women who, like herself, become parents, including the lack of a standardized maternity policy, adequate post-pregnancy training programs, and child care. Basic needs that go completely unmet.

“Let’s expose the inequalities outside of participation,” she said, “exposing all other hindrances. It’s a positive that people are paying attention to it now. The light filters in, and that needs to continue.”

While the PyeongChang Games made history with the closest statistical representation for women, at 48.8 percent (compared with the 2.2 percent of women involved in 1900′s first modern Olympics), the upcoming Beijing Games took a step back, offering 52 events for men, 46 for women, and 11 mixed teams.

Under the ongoing strategic road map Olympic Agenda 2020+5, the goals of the Gender Equality Review Project, which center around “five essential themes of sport, portrayal, funding, governance, and human resources,” are getting more attention.

Goals such as “full gender equality in athlete quotas and medal events . . . from the Olympic Games 2024 and the Olympic Winter Games 2026 onwards,” that includes “equal number of teams and, where appropriate, equal number of athletes for both genders.”

Goals to ensure “competition format related to distances, duration of competition segments, number of rounds etc. between men and women are as equal as possible.”

Goals that uniforms “reflect the technical requirements of the sport and do not have any justifiable differences,” that “wherever possible, the sport-specific equipment and apparatus between men and women should be the same,” and “that women and men use the same venues and fields of play where possible.”

Progress? Yes. A ways still to go? Also yes.

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