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Sport, sex and gender

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Sex, gender and the Olympics - some of the issues:

  • According to The Women and Sport Commission, women did not compete in the first modern Olympics of 1896. They did however start to compete four years later.
  • Men have (to date) been excluded from participating in synchronised swimming. Historically, women have been excluded from boxing. 2012 will be the first Olympics in which women have been able to participate in this sport.
  • There have been a number of cases in which women athletes have been 'accused' of being men masquerading as women to gain advantage over other women competitors; there is no similar history in the Olympics of men being 'accused' of masquerading as women.
  • The IOC practiced 'gender verification' until 1999.
  • The 2004 IOC Stockholm committee agreed that post-operative transsexual athletes could compete in the Olympics, but only after sufficient hormone therapy.
  • In 2006 there was one woman on the IOC Executive Board. There were 14 men.

These points raise a number of questions about how issues of sex and gender have been considered by those involved in organising sporting megaevents. They are perhaps in themselves telling of how western society understands sex and gender, and perceives the differences between men, women and intersex people in ways which structure experiences of sport. International sporting events have made visible the limits to a system which recognises only two biological sexes and have helped fuel discussion about what we usually consider to be the 'natural' differences between male and female bodies.

Beyond the IOC and the sporting competitors, differences can be seen in the way men and women engage with the Olympics and with sport in general (think of viewing figures and of sports participation). Furthermore and women are employed in different capacities to work in supporting roles attached to sporting mega-events. The Olympics has created economies in which men and women have been exploited in different ways (think of the low-waged labourers working in construction, and the women who 'serve' them both legitimately and illegitimately). In considering the Olympics there is a great deal to be said about sex and gender.

This page is intended as a means of exploring these issues, and as a space which supports dialogue with others about these issues. We are collecting digital documents on this subject and welcome contributions from researchers working in this field.

We are delighted to host a new working-paper by Dr. Jean Williams which examines the history of British women Olympians. This paper, entitled 'Send her Victorious: A Historiography of British Women Olympians 1896 - 2012', draws on a range of material - including autobiographical sources - to explore the contribution of women athletes to the Games. Dr. Williams' paper can be downloaded as a PDF from the panel to the right of this page.

Getting started with the British Library's collections

Aitchison, Cara. & Scranton, Sheila. (eds.) Sport and gender identities: masculinities, femininities and sexualities
Routledge, 2007
London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2007.a.4908
DS shelfmark: m06/.42233

Blue, Adrianne. Faster, higher, further: women’s triumphs and disasters at the Olympics
Virago, 1988
London reference collection shelfmark: YK.1989.b.3607

Drinkwater, Barbara. (eds.) Women in Sport
Blackwell Science, 2000
DS shelfmark: m01/30750

McCay, Jim., Messner, Michael. A. & Sabo, Donald, J. (eds.) Masculinities, gender relationships and sport
Sage, 2000
London reference collection shelfmark: YC.2001.a.11911

Scraton, Sheila. & Flintoff, Anne. (eds.) Gender and Sport: a reader
Routledge, 2002
London reference collection shelfmark: YC.2002.a.2192 DS shelfmark: m02/11816

Shaw, Sally. The construction of gender in sports organisations
PhD Thesis, De Monfort University, 2001
London reference collection shelfmark: DX221109
Available as an electronic resource via EThOS