How close are the Winter Olympics to being gender equal?

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Originally published: February 6, 2022

At the 2022 Winter Olympics, 45 percent of athletes are women, a Winter Games record. That’s up from 41 percent four years ago in PyeongChang – and 4.3 percent at the inaugural Olympic Winter Games in 1924.

Beijing will feature the debut of seven new events – one women’s event (monobob) and four mixed gender events – all part of an IOC gender initiative.

As a result, these Olympic Winter Games have been called the most “gender equal” in history.

Still, not every Olympic sport features equal opportunity. And even in the sports that do – take alpine skiing for example – women are often nowhere to be found in decision-making positions.

MORE ON GENDER EQUALITY IN OLYMPIC SPORTS: In alpine skiing, women compete, but that’s about it

There’s also the fact that the binary on which most sports are currently organized – men on one side, women on the other – doesn’t accurately represent society. That line is starting to blur thanks to a handful of pioneering athletes, including U.S. pairs’ figure skater Timothy LeDuc, who will become the first publicly out non-binary athlete to compete at a Winter Games when they skate in Beijing (more below).

As the 2022 Beijing Winter Games get underway, here is a look at a few sports in which progress still needs to be made.

Nordic Combined: The only Olympic sport not open to women

There is only one Olympic sport that is open to men, but not women: Nordic combined, a winter sport that includes both ski jumping and cross-country skiing. It is one of six sports that has been contested at every Winter Olympics in history.

Women’s nordic combined initially seemed like a possibility for Beijing, but when the official Olympic program was revealed, female athletes realized they would need to wait until at least 2026.

“I’ve wanted to compete internationally in Nordic combined since I was about 11 years old. And now I’m 26. And [my sport] isn’t in the Olympics, and I don’t know when it will be in the Olympics,” U.S. athlete Tara Geraghty-Moats told On Her Turf in 2020.

As a result of the uncertainty, Geraghty-Moats recently decided to switch her focus to biathlon.

“Since taking a step back and experiencing the difference of being in a sport where men and women are treated equitably and given equal prize money and equal competition starts,” she wrote on Instagram in December. “I’ve realized how short [sighted], behind the times, and sad it is that FIS Nordic combined is not moving more quickly to have equal prize money and events for men and women.”

MORE ON THE FIGHT FOR GENDER INCLUSION IN NORDIC COMBINED: Not every Olympic sport is open to women (or men)

Cross-Country Skiing: Equal number of events, but unequal distances

In cross-country skiing, there are six races for men and six races for women. But the race programs are far from identical, with men skiing longer distances in four of the six races. The biggest disparity is in the longest distance competition, where men ski 50 kilometers and women ski 30 kilometers.

“On principle, it really bothers me a lot,” U.S. Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins told NBC Olympics last spring. “Not only can we ski 50k, but we can ski more.”

That said, Diggins doesn’t necessarily think the women’s race should automatically increase to 50 kilometers.

“I actually think having the race be so long at 50km, it makes the race less spectator friendly,” she said.

Diggins believes races could be organized so that men and women’s events take the same amount of time. In PyeongChang, the winner of the men’s 50km – Finland’s Iivo Niskanen – crossed the line in two hours, eight minutes, while the winner of the women’s 30km – Norway’s Marit Bjorgen – only spent just over one hour and 22 minutes skiing.

“Do we need to race the exact same length? Maybe not. Do we need to race the same amount of time on course? Yeah, I think that’s absolutely reasonable,” Diggins said.

Cross-country isn’t alone in having men and women race different distances: biathlon, short track, and speed skating all have men’s events that are longer than the women’s counterpart. Even in alpine skiing, men’s courses are often longer than women’s courses.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Jessie Diggins’ legacy extends far beyond her historic Olympic gold

Ski Jumping: Eight years after Olympic debut, women want access to the large hill

The 2022 Winter Olympics will marked the third appearance of women’s ski jumping, with Slovenia’s Ursa Bogataj winning gold in the women’s individual normal hill competition.

In addition to the individual event, new for Beijing is a mixed gender team event. So while women now have two medal opportunities, men still have four, thanks to an individual large hill competition and single gender team event.

“It’s eight years later; let’s step some stuff up and get some more equality,” American ski jumper Anna Hoffmann recently told the Wisconsin State Journal.

A women’s large hill event has been added to the World Cup and world championship program in recent years, and competitors hope the Olympics follow suit.

At the final competition before the Beijing Winter Olympics, Norway’s team manager Clas Brede Brathen pointed out that men and women competed on the same large hill at a World Cup in Willingen, Germany.

“It will be a difficult job for those who will argue against the girls jumping on all the slopes after what happened in Willingen,” he said. “There, the girls showed what many of us have said for a long time, that they will show it when they get the opportunity.”

MORE ABOUT GENDER EQUITY IN SKI JUMPING: Women face uphill battle ahead of third Olympics

Hockey: Women’s tournament expands for 2022 Winter Olympics

A total of 10 women’s hockey teams will compete in Beijing, up from 8 at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. (Since 1976, 12 men’s teams have competed in the Olympic tournament, except for 1998 and 2002, when the number was raised to 14.)

Men’s teams also have slightly larger rosters: 25 players, compared to 23 on the women’s side.

There’s also the fact that the coaching pipeline is clearly broken. Of the 10 women’s hockey teams competing in Beijing, all are coached by a man.

But the gender disparity most women’s hockey players are most concerned about is the lack of investment and visibility of the women’s game: from the youth level to the professional landscape.

“In order to make money, you need to spend money,” Olympic hockey gold medalist Kendall Coyne Schofield explained on an episode of “On Her Turf at the Olympics” during last summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

“Everything that it ultimately takes to be professional goes into a proper infrastructure and that ultimately allows the players to put the best product on the ice, court, field, whatever the sport may be,” she said.

MORE WOMEN’S HOCKEY NEWS: U.S. women’s hockey faces test after Decker’s tournament-ending injury

Luge: Is a women’s doubles Olympic event on the horizon?

The doubles event in luge is technically mixed gender, but of the 36 athletes expected to compete in Beijing, all are men.

It seems unlikely the event will truly become mixed gender in the future, so in September, the International Luge Federation (FIL) said it would ask the IOC to add a women’s doubles event to be added to the 2026 Milan Cortina Winter Olympics.

And earlier this week, a women’s doubles World Championship was held for the first time. Germany won both gold and silver, while the American duo of Chevonne Forgan and Sophia Kirkby took bronze.

Bobsled: Gender equal events, but only for pilots

While men have competed in two Olympic bobsled events for nearly a century, thanks to the addition of a women’s monobob event, the 2022 Winter Olympics will mark the first time that female bobsledders have two medal opportunities.

Female pilots, that is.

While U.S. pilots Elana Meyers Taylor and Kaillie Humphries – among others – advocated for the addition of a four-woman event, a women’s monobob event was added instead.

“It wasn’t what me and Kaillie intended when we started this journey,” Meyers Taylor said in October at the Team USA media summit. “We intended to try and get more women in, to give more medal opportunities to the female brakemen, too.”

Because of the work that goes on behind-the-scenes, female push athletes often spend just as much time preparing for the monobob competition as they do the two-woman event. “We’re increasing the workload, but with less people to do it,” U.S. push athlete Sylvia Hoffman said.

“It takes an entire team just to manage one monobob,” Meyers Taylor said. “Some of the monobob-specific pilots who don’t have brakemen… I have no idea how they get anything done.”

MORE ON THE ADDITION OF MONOBOB: Despite the name, monobob is not a one-woman event

Figure Skating: A sport in which competitors are now “women” – not ladies – and one athlete is breaking gender norms

In the lead-up to the 2022 Winter Olympics, figure skating’s marquee event saw a small – but significant – change. In June, the International Skating Union announced that moving forward, “ladies'” figure skating would be rebranded as “women’s.”

“I thought it was awesome,” said 2021 U.S. champion Mariah Bell, who will make her Olympic debut in Beijing.

MORE ON FIGURE SKATING’S NAME CHANGE: Figure skaters are now “women” instead of “ladies”

“The equivalent of ‘ladies’ would be ‘gentlemen,’ and the ‘men’s’ event has been the ‘men’s’ event for as long as I know,” said Ashley Wagner, a 2014 Olympian who will be a correspondent for Peacock’s Olympic Ice show during the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Also in Beijing, U.S. figure skater Timothy LeDuc will become the first publicly out nonbinary athlete to compete at a Winter Olympics. LeDuc, a two-time national champion, competes in pairs’ skating with Ashley Cain-Gribble.

“As a person that exists and really thrives outside of the binary, it can be very complicated sometimes navigating a gendered sport,” they explained on a recent episode of My New Favorite Olympian.


ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Women of Team USA lead the way at 2022 Winter Olympics

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC