by Jenna Fryer | The Associated Press
Grace Luczak had given up competitive rowing and took a job in the private sector when a move toward gender equality at the Tokyo Games put her back in the boat.
A women’s rowing event was added to create a more inclusive Olympics, which meant four additional seats on the American team and a spot for Luczak.
“It’s really hard to make the decision to come back to plan financially to be out of work for a year,” Luczac said. He thought that a second game in a row for an experienced player was not possible until the seats were added.
“There are four more seats. Four. And this is the first gender-equal Olympics. How can you not try?”
Much of the public’s attention is drawn to the big sports – gymnastics, swimming, track and field – but away from the spotlight, women in specific sports are being recognized and given an Olympic chance.
The International Olympic Committee added 18 new events to the Tokyo Games in a move towards gender equality. There are equal numbers of women and men for every sport, except baseball and softball, due to different roster sizes.
The IOC said women’s participation in Tokyo would be 49%, up from 45% in Rio, split almost equally with men. The committee also noted that when women made their Olympic debut at the Paris Games in 1900, only 22 of the total 997 athletes were women. Those pioneers competed in five sports, among them croquet and horse riding.
“Tokyo 2020 is predicted to have the highest gender equality ever with female participation,” the IOC said.
New opportunities come in many sports and in many sizes: Great Britain, for example, is sending more women than men to the Olympics for the first time. In water polo, two additional teams were added for a total of 10. It is still two shy of the men’s tournament, but a win for the women’s movement.
In many cases, benefits for women meant fewer opportunities for men. Boxing in Rio will see more than 36 fighters in three categories, 100 women in five categories. But two men’s classes were dropped.
This year’s weightlifting equals seven teams for both men and women, but has reached this stage by dropping a men’s team. Women’s canoeing was added, but the men’s 200 and men’s kayak double 200 were dropped – a decision met with unfavorable reaction from male athletes when it was announced in 2016.
Erik Vlasek, who took silver with Slovakia in Rio, argued that when women’s canoe was added that women should only kayak because female canoeing “doesn’t look good.” A Czech paddler jokes that canoeing is detrimental to a woman’s posture.
The change went through several games, with the rifle probably getting the most change. The sport lost the men’s prone rifle, men’s free pistol and men’s double trap, all replaced by mixed team events in air rifle, air pistol and trap.
Lukjak, 32, knows she has gained at the expense of her male teammates. The women’s coxless four returned to the competition for the first time since 1992, but was replaced by the men’s lightweight coxless four.
“It’s not great when you have to do something on behalf of men to add in women. It’s never fun for guys to find out that their opportunity is over,” Luzak said. “But creating equal opportunities In doing so, it shows that there is a path for female athletes.”
Luczak left her fiancé at home and moved in with a host family in Princeton, New Jersey, while she trained. She even traded a paycheck for a stipend, simply because the four extra seats were too tantalizing for her not to even try.
One of the reasons was the narrowing of the gender gap for many women. Equality issues were heightened when discrepancies for men and women were revealed at this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament. Images shared on social media of under-equipped women’s weight rooms became a symbol of the injustice that all female athletes have faced under the shadow of men.
Maggie Stephens, a former Stanford water polo player, said gender inequality in the NCAA Tournament was “heartbroken to see” but also an eye-opener. Stephens is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, two-time Olympic MVP, and captain of the U.S. women’s team, but she had always believed that better women’s sports get better treatment than water polo.
“Women’s basketball teams are in tournaments, they have all these fans, they’re on TV and you think ‘Look how lucky they are,'” Stephens said. “But behind the scenes things come to the fore and you realize they have the same things as you.
“For it all come out and look at it from the point of view of athletes, people who are no longer visible, maybe it shows that women can do it. We don’t need all the fancy stuff, we don’t care. We don’t care. Will do it anyway.”
Not every addition was a blow to the men’s game. Swimming added the 1,500 m freestyle for the first time for the women, while the men’s 800 freestyle was returned to the competition for the first time since 1904. The mixed gender relay made its Olympic debut.
Five new sports were added this year – baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing – and the IOC demanded that they have an equal number of men and women.
There are still large gaps to close, especially in funding and prize money outside the Olympics. Stephens saw a long push for equal pay at a special tournament this year and posted a photo of the win labeled #equalpay. Pioneer women’s water polo player Maureen O’Toole commented, “Wait what. You get paid!! This must be cool!!!” on social media posts.
“It made me think about what I’m going to comment on in 20 years and say, ‘Look what you’re getting at now? Stephens said. “It’s amazing that this door is open and that dreamy little girls like me can stand on my shoulders and push it forward and make it better.”