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.”
Outside of Title IX in America, one of the most powerful levers for gender equality in sports have been the IOC. As I mentioned in this post, the IOC has added new sports categories and re-shuffled events so that Tokyo 2020 will have a female-male participation rate of 48.8 to 52.2%. That’s up from a 44.2% female participation rate at the 2012 London Olympics.in this post
Interestingly, there are a handful of events that are gender-specific. In other words, there are still events that only men can compete in, and some that only women can compete in. In part one of this series, I will look at the men-only events, and part two will feature the women-only events.
No Women Allowed
Greco-Roman Wrestling: There has never been an Olympic competition in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Olympics, and there are currently no international tournaments devoted to women in that sport. It is unclear to me why Greco-Roman wrestling, which disallows grabbing of legs and kicking of legs compared to freestlye wrestling, is not encouraged for women. One of most significant physical differences between men and women is muscle mass, particularly in the upper body, but no one is saying that men and women should compete against each other in Greco-Roman wrestling. While the IOC has pressured the United World Wrestling Federation to improve gender representation in their tournaments, Greco-Roman, for whatever reason, has not had a high female participation rate historically. The biggest challenge for the wrestling federation, as I understand it, is to increase the popularity of Greco-Roman wrestling for women so that they can put together a competitive enough field. This may take until after Tokyo 2020 to hit critical mass and allow for gender equality in Olympic wrestling.
Finn – One Person Dinghy: This sailing discipline is apparently the greatest sailing test for an individual. According to sailor Zach Railey in this article, “It is well documented that overall people throughout the world are getting bigger, stronger and fitter, and the Finn is really a true test of power, endurance, and mental strength. Anyone who has sailed a Finn in steep chop and 20 knots can tell you just how physically hard the boat is to sail.” So strength again emerges as a differentiator. And perhaps as a result, the number or women who compete in Finn has not reached critical mass. The question is, with the strength requirements for the Finn, is it too dangerous for the fairer sex? Who knows.
50km Race-Walking: I can’t find any decent explanation for why the 50-km race walk is male only in the Olympics. Both men and women can compete in the 20-km race walk as Olympians. And women appear to have raced competitively in the 50k race walk in IAAF competitions through much of the 21st century. Who knows?
Pommel Horse:Hmmm….the pommel horse discipline in gymnastics appears to be a less popular discipline for men than say, the floor exercise, the rings or the parallel bar for example. This article explains that the pommel horse “caters to a different body type. Having long arms helps, giving the gymnast greater separation from the horse, and in turn, room for his hips and legs to swivel underneath him. And the basic motion – going around and around on a horizontal plane – is the opposite from the up-and-down motion of the bars, rings and vaults.” And yet, I can’t find any explanation as to why women have not traditionally competed except for the reason it’s true for the rings – greater requirements for upper body strength have discouraged women from training on the horse, and so a critical mass of women fit for competition may have never emerged. Again, who knows?
Five Thirty Eight is a blog written by data analytic junkies, and they provide powerful data on the virtual disappearance of the American male in the semifinals of any of the four grand slam tournaments: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and The US Open. In fact, the last American to win a grand slam was Andre Agassi, at the 2003 Australian Open.
That is an amazing drought for the world’s biggest economy that happens to have a huge tennis fandom.
Five Thirty Eight provides the rationale:
The globalization of tennis has slowed down America year after year. In the early Open era, beginning in 1968, into the 1970s and ’80s, America led the world in tennis training, practice and equipment. American men won loads of Grand Slam titles from 1968 through the 1990s, when John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier ruled. From 1990 to 1999, American men reached the semifinals or better 62 times at Grand Slams. All the while, though, foreign tennis training improved. By the time 2000 came along, diversity had climbed. American men reached the semifinals or better only 26 times from 2000 to 2009.
OK. That kind of makes sense.
Except that the globalization argument should include data on women. Since the year 2000, there have been only 3 years when an American woman did not win a grand slam finals: 2004, 2006 and 2011. Every other year, an American has won: Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, and two others who happen to have the same last names: Williams.
Serena and Venus Williams have captured 29 of the past 70 grand slams since the year 2000, or 41% of them. If we add Jennifer Capriati’s three grand slam championships and one of Davenport’s, the total increases to 33 of 70 to nearly 47%, or nearly half of all grand slam championships in the 21st century.
It doesn’t appear globalization has slowed down American women.
Most Olympians who do not win a gold medal are happy to receive a silver or bronze medal. But in the dramatic selection process, in which IOC members choose an Olympic host city through a series of votes that thousands of people in candidate cities watch with hands clasped in prayer, there has been no silver medal.
Years of planning and millions of dollars spent in putting together a powerful bid can go to waste as a city’s mayor watches powerlessly in a winner-take-all vote by the IOC.
But this year, the mayors of the two top bids for the 2024 Summer Olympics, Anne Hidalgo of Paris and Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, have an opportunity to do something that no other mayor has had: to choose when their city holds an Olympic Games. The choices, albeit, are not that broad – the IOC voted on July 11, 2017 to accept the bids of both Paris and LA for 2024 and 2028.
The bids of both cities were too strong to drop either of them. And the fear of having fewer cities bidding down the road was too great, as cities like Hamburg, Rome and Budapest pulled themselves out of the campaign to host in 2024. They withdrew primarily due to growing local unpopularity of hosting expensive big-tent events. For those reasons, the IOC decided – yes, we have two gold medal winners.
According to this BBC article, “The IOC wants….the cities to reach an agreement on who hosts in 2028 by then.” And if the two cities don’t agree to who hosts in 2028, then the IOC reverts back to the original plan of voting death-match at the 131st IOC session on September 13 in Lima, Peru.
Most pundits are saying that a likely scenario is Paris going first. Both cities have many of the major venues and much of the critical infrastructure in place, unlike Rio and Sochi in recent years. But Paris does not yet have an Olympic Village, and keeping the property available for the building of the Village for a period beyond 2024 would be difficult, Paris organizers say.
According to this ESPN article, the mayors Hidalgo and Garcetti understand that this is a historic moment, when the mayors have the decision in their hands, and that they are willing to work together to make it work.
The IOC is lucky in the sense that it wound up with two 2024 bid committees capable of cooperating and a pair of mayors who have an established relationship. What if the only cities left standing had come from countries with hostile relations or diametrically opposed forms of government? How likely is a repeat of this juxtaposition of two urban areas capable of handling and absorbing the unwieldy event and possibly — an important qualifier — emerging without serious post-Games issues?
The best novelists see the world more through their characters’ eyes and hearts. Japanese publisher, Kodansha, assembled a collection of essays of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics by some of Japan’s most prominent writers in the book, A Literary Writers’ Record of the Tokyo Olympics.
Their particular reflections on the triumphant women’s volleyball team are fascinating – not so much about the competitions, the strategies, the changes in momentum as a sports writer would note, but more about their impressions of the players’ appearances, and their own feelings toward the players and their accomplishment. I believe their views might be speaking to the state of mind of the rest of the Japanese population.
Calm and Collected
Novelist Tsutomu Minakami, whose works have been turned into many movies, observed an unexpected calm during the women’s team’s finals match against the mighty Soviet team.
At first, Soviets took the lead by four points. However before the game started I felt something strange, seeing the expressions of the Japanese team. There was no tension to be seen on those faces, giving no indication that they were entering a decisive battle. Before the game, the faces of (captain Masae) Kasai and her teammates were pale, with little smiles on their faces. There was no indication of tension. Coach Daimatsu was sitting on the bench looking like he was taking a short break. He sometimes raised his head, but kept still, expressionless – a swarthy look. He looked like he was interested only in the weather.
Novelist Hiroyuki Agawa, renowned for his post-war novels on Hiroshima, watched the Japanese women’s team in their penultimate match against Poland. And even though Poland was the only team to take a set from Japan, both sides, according to Agawa, understood that Japan was on a mission and that Poland was merely in their way.
At the beginning of fourth set, the ball rolled over the net without me understanding where it would fall, and when it finally fell on the Poland side, it was good that the Polish girl with the golden hair of a lioness, had the wherewithal to laugh. However, the Polish team looked exhausted. They couldn’t jump so well as they had used up all their energy in the third set, falling behind 9 to 1, then 14 to 2. The match finished with a Japanese victory – 15 to 2. Both teams shook hands, but the Poles were all smiling. For the Japanese team, there was no excitement of victory. The win appeared to be a customary outcome, quite natural to them, so they simply walked off the court.
Proud of our Feminine Warriors
1964 was the first time in the Olympics that featured female team competitions. And it just happened to be a sport where Japanese women were favorites. The entire country rallied around this powerful women’s team, amazed that this relatively shorter, less muscular collection of women could take on the Amazonian women from the West. The novelists who observed these matches likely reflected the views of the masses – not only were Japanese women to be praised for their impressive athletic accomplishment on the volleyball court, they were able to triumph while retaining the ideal characteristics of Japanese femininity – sweetness, restraint, and quiet fortitude.
Here again is Agawa, comparing the sweetness of the Japanese women versus the coarseness of the Polish women.
Members of the Poland team were wearing red pants and white shirts and Japanese were in white shirts and green shorts. The Japanese girls would shout in curt strong voices, “Come on, let’s go,” and their teammates would answer with “hai, hai!” Those sweet “hai’s” were impressive. On the Polish side, voices called out what sounded like “yassera”, “buraa!”. All these voices sounded like big birds croaking in the woods. When our girls shouted, “hai”, their little faces in the court looked very beautiful. Besides that, even though these girls were playing sports, they didn’t look like boyish – they looked very feminine.
Macho-man and literary giant, Yukio Mishima, also framed the volleyball team in terms of gender, somewhat playfully referring to the Japanese captain as the hostess of a party.
Kasai is a wonderful hostess as she notices almost instantly if the glasses of the guests (he means her enemies) are getting empty or any guests have a stiff muscles and takes care of that with splendid service. The Soviets became tired of such painful attention. However, the Russian player Riskal was amazing. The blond girl with loose hair and big breasts flew like an arrow and strongly hit the ball.
Even novelist, Sawako Ariyoshi, a woman who championed women in such novel’s as The Doctor’s Wife, The Twilight Years, and The River Ki, found herself praising the Japanese players as domestically minded and potentially good future wives.
Japanese athletes have not forgotten the elegance of Japanese women. It was a hot battle and the sweat was falling to the floor. As soon as they noticed it, they would wipe the floor with a cloth. That was a pretty sight. I was applauding to them thinking that they would be wonderful wives when they get married. I think that their attitude towards the game also made a strong impression about our country. They behaved very well.
But at the end of her essay, Ariyoshi seemed to assert more feminist views, praising these symbols of Japanese women power, where marriage was merely an option, and that they could accomplish anything. Having said that, the only person she gives thanks to is the male coach, Hirobumi Daimatsu.
Please don’t say such gloomy words to girls as marriage and love. From now on, be confident because you can do anything. If you go back to work or start a life in marriage, you will be fine. Because you showed everybody in Japan how smart you are to master those sports techniques and skills. I am praying for your happiness in the future to have all three – pretty appearance, physical fitness and a strong spirit. But at the same time, I must thank a man who brought up these women. Thank you, coach Daimatsu.
Note: Special thanks to Marija Linartaite, for her help in the research for this article.
October 23, 1964 was a momentous day for Japan. Two of the most memorable sports events in Japanese history took place on that day, both which left irrevocable imprints on the Japanese psyche.
That afternoon, hulkingingly tall Anton Geesink of the Netherlands handily defeated Akio Kaminaga of Japan in the open weight class of the judo competition at the Budokan, thus denying Japan to win gold in all four weight classes in judo’s debut at the Tokyo Olympics.
That evening, the Japanese women’s volleyball team closed out the Soviet Union in three straight sets to win gold at the Komazawa Indoor Ball Sports Field, thus fulfilling the expectations of an entire nation.
In comparison to the “West”, the Japanese saw themselves as underdogs. After all, it was only 19 years earlier when the Allied Forces flattened Japan with its superior weaponry, and then ruled over Japan as occupiers for over 5 years. Judo was a Japanese creation, and yet a taller, stronger Westerner easily defeated Japan’s best. Was Geesink’s victory yet another symbol of Japan’s “inferiority”?
But only a few hours later, the national psychology was already undergoing a shift, as people all over the country completed their day’s work, settled down to meals, or gathered in public places to watch the finals of the women’s volleyball competition. The Japanese team had never lost since joining international competition and losing to the Soviet Union in the volleyball world championships in 1960. This very team had already defeated the Soviet Union at the 1962 world championships…in Moscow. And so, the weight of an entire country pushed heavily on the shoulders of these Japanese women, particularly after the jarring disappointment of that day’s judo finals.
Fortunately, the women of the Japanese volleyball team restored their country’s faith in themselves by easily defeating the Soviet Union in three sets. The shorter, less muscular team from Asia defeated the taller, more powerful team from the West, on the biggest sports stage in the world, on the final competitive day of the 1964 Olympics.
… the Oriental Witches were clearly linked to the economic and technological progress of the 1960s. This success replaced the more classical notions of the nation in Japan and supported a new type of nationalism. Economic achievements were vital for regaining international standing as a nation, because the GNP acted as a yardstick for national pride. The Oriental Witches embodied this new self-assurance.
Tasgold is referring in his title to a particular maneuver developed by team coach Hirobumi Daimatsu, a technique called “kaiten reshibu” (receive and rotate). Players were trained to dive for balls, using their momentum to roll as they hit the ground, like a judoka would, so that they could emerge back on their feet quickly to take on another attack. This technique was a competitive advantage as Japanese players were more willing to dive to the hard court floors and quicker to their feet than players on other teams.
Tasgold highlights this technique as a symbol of how the underdog Japanese can outperform bigger stronger foes, not only on the volleyball court, but also on the global economic stage.
(The kaiten reshibu) was a symbol for the means in which Japan had invested to regain her economic strength only two decades after suffering the worst. The invention of clever technical solutions was imperative to the country, which saw itself as small island without natural resources to offer. Daimatsu did for volleyball and Japanese sports, in general, what Morita Akio did as a leader of Sony and what Ohno Taiichi achieved at Toyota by introducing the Toyota Production System. The rolling dive recovered lost time and reduced the burden on Japanese bodies caused by their inferiority compared to Western athletes.
… the kaiten reshıbu could be read very naively as the story of post-war Japan. The Japanese fell, but they got back on their feet again quickly. It had taken the country only 19 years to be back on top, both economically and in women’s volleyball…. The women overcame all hard attacks and rolled on the ground only momentarily. But falling was part of the success in the end. Many conservatives in the 1960s began to stress the sacrifice that the country had made in the Second World War as a cause for their current prosperity. In their opinion, it seemed inevitable to stumble once in order to be in a much better position in the future.
The film, over 54 years later, can indeed make one cringe.
The male coach, throwing a volleyball to the right and to the left of a young woman whose sole mission is to get a hand on the ball, do a somersault on the hard court over her shoulder or across her back, land on her feet in order to begin running the other way so she can desperately get her hand on the ball, back and forth, down and up, over and over again….until she’s so tired she does not realize her body is simply moving on its own.
This technique is called “kaiten reshibu” (receive and rotate), and was one of the secret weapons that made Japan’s women’s volleyball team so effective in the sixties. When they marched into Moscow to take on the mighty Soviet Union in the 1962 world championships, where the Soviet team was not only on their home court, but had a distinct height and strength advantage, the Japanese entered the arena as underdogs, and left the arena as world champions.
It is said that the Soviet press were so amazed by the Japanese that they called them “The Oriental Witches”, a moniker that the international press took up with relish. Interestingly, the Japanese press and the team itself took to that title with pride.
The domineering head coach of the women’s national team of Japan, Hirobumi Daimatsu, knew that the Japanese had to find a way to compensate for their weaknesses. The Japanese women were smaller, so they had to be quicker, more efficient, more willing to sacrifice their bodies.
And while the end seemed to justify the means – the women’s volleyball team under Daimatsu had never lost – some wondered whether the coach was crossing the line, and abusing his players. In a Japanese documentary cited by Iwona Mewrklejn in her article, “The Taming of the Witch: Daimatsu Hirobumi and Coaching Discourses of Women’s Vollevball in Japan”, the labor union of the company that employed the members of the women’s volleyball team criticized Daimatsu for his training regimen. But “the union’s objections did not seem to matter, either to the coach or to the management.”
Overseas journalists also thought that the women were being abused, as you can tell in the title of a Sports Illustrated article, “Driven Beyond Dignity.” In this March 16, 1964 article, the writer, Eric Whitehead, described the punishing practices that Daimatsu put his players through. When a player looked so exhausted that she wanted to quit, Whitehead quoted Daimatsu as saying:
If you’d rather be home with your mother, then go. We don’t want you here.
There’s a South Korean team in town. If this is too tough for you, maybe you should go and play with them.
Whitehead goes on to describe the evening meal break from practice as terse, something that more or less interrupts the coach’s training timeline.
It is 7 o’clock now and the girls’ supper is wheeled in in metal urns: rice, meat and fish. Daimatsu ignores it and quickens the pace. His grim, wild-eyed intensity is frightening. His face is still a mask, but it is strained and beaded with sweat. Now many of the girls are openly sobbing, their faces distorted with the agony of effort and the physical punishment. But they keep staggering in, and the food sits for half an hour before Daimatsu gives a curt signal and the first-team girls- always the first to eat – go to the urns. The others shift to a brisk scrimmage as Daimatsu goes to the sidelines for his own meal, which is served to him by a ball girl. As he dines he is even more chilling to observe, for now one seems to see in him the cool arrogance of a despot.
One could also say there is a bit of “arrogance” in Whitehead’s writing. In response to a comment by Daimatsu about the importance of this kind of training, Whitehead editorialized directly in his article with a single, dismissive line.
Except for a one-week break around Eastertime, this is the routing, year in and year out. Says Coach Daimatsu: “There is time for nothing else. The players know absolutely no other life. They do it because they choose to. The preparation for winning is a personal, individual challenge. It is accepted without question.
Ah, but then, I said to myself, it’s only volleyball, played by girls.
If this were high school football in Texas, where football has been religion for decades, my guess is that Whitehead would never write “Ah, but then, it’s only high school football, played by boys.” Never mind that many of the women on Daimatsu’s team were in their mid to late 20s, he may not have fully understood the expectations that the entire nation of Japan had of this women’s team, although he gives a nod to the notion, albeit in a somewhat patronizing way:
The team’s captain, tall, graceful Masae Kasai, smiles shyly from her desk. Little stories like hers tell the big one. Two years ago, at age 28, Masae was in love and engaged to a young man from Osaka. She had a choice: marriage and a home, or a continuation of the daily torture under Hirofumi (sic) Daimatsu. She chose the latter, for at the 1964 Olympics the glory of Japan will flicker again and glory is everything.
Perhaps Masae had said it all the previous night when I asked her about the team’s chances at the Olympics. “You must understand,” she said gravely. “We have never experienced defeat. We must win.”
Whether they were chasing glory or just trying to meet the heavy expectations of their country, Kasai and her teammates bought into Daimatsu’s approach, as explained by Macnaughtan. After all, they tried his methods and won, and never believed that he was treating them with disrespect. In fact, they trusted Daimatsu explicitly.
I had a lot of trust and respect for Coach Daimatsu. The team was happy to take direction from him because we trusted him. He was a volleyball player himself when he was a university student. He joined Nichibo (the name of the team’s company) after being a soldier in the war. The team and I followed his hard training because of his great human nature. He was a man we could trust and respect as a human being. Whenever our team won, we were convinced that his hard training was the right way to go, and so we would practice and train hard again, and then we would win again. There was a very close bond between him and the team.