Tokyo 2020 Gender-Specific Olympic Events Part 2: No Men Allowed

Synchronized Swimmers Bill May and Christina Jones
Synchronized Swimmers Bill May and Christina Jones

The Tokyo2020 Olympics will be the closest the Olympics have ever come to gender equality, with female:male participation reaching an amazing 48.8 to 52.2 percent ratio. This list from the IOC shows an amazing level of equality in the 321 events currently planned for Tokyo.

In part two of this look at the remaining holdouts of gender-specific events, let’s take a look at the women-only events.

No Men Allowed

  • Synchronized Swimming: Bill May is a relative rarity in sports – a male synchronized swimmer. When people wonder if men compete in a sport heavily represented by women, May is the poster child. Essentially, he’s the only one. There are discussions of adding male synchronized swimming as an Olympic event, but that would not happen until 2024 at the earliest. Synchronized swimming emerged from a sport called “water ballet” in Europe in the late 19th century. What’s interesting, according to this article, is that synchronized swimming as a show or a sporting event at that time was male only. But as people understood that women actually had body make ups that made them more effective as synchronized swimmers, women began to play bigger roles in events and competitions. The association of women to this discipline became stronger in America in the 1930s, when a swimming coach named Kay Curtis developed a form of “water pageantry” which we today call synchronized swimming, and publicized it through a swimming act known as the Modern Mermaids, a show that became very popular across America.
  • Rhythmic Gymnastics: Rhythmic Gymnastics, which involves elements of ballet, gymnastics and dance while manipulating a rope, hoop, ball and/or ribbon, has been an Olympic sport since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. However, this discipline was born from the work of men in France “who all believed in movement expression, where one used dance to express oneself and exercise various body parts,” according to Wikipedia. So why the gender split? The New York Times essentially concluded in this article that real men don’t do rhythmic gymnastics. “There are male rhythmic gymnasts, but not at the Olympics. And their numbers are small. The stigma of the term rhythmic gymnastics poses “a huge marketing challenge,” said Mario Lam, a martial arts and gymnastics instructor in Canada. Lam uses the term “martialgym” to help avoid the connotation that it is a female-only sport, he said.”
  • Balance Beam: As this site explains, the gymnastics discipline of the balance beam is an event that requires “an obscene amount of strength, flexibility, and balance” on a long and narrow piece of wood, 10cm wide and 500cm long. The reason why men don’t compete? “Basically, the decision to keep men off of the balance beam most likely borrows from centuries-old gender norms. …the balance beam requires a particular amount of grace and flexibility — traits that are designated to the women of gymnastics, whereas the men’s sport keeps a more specific focus on displays of strength.”
Man on balance beam
Man on balance beam