When Team GB’s chef de mission released the list of athletes travelling to Tokyo to represent their country this summer, one statement stood out.
Announcing that – for the first time in its 125-year history – Team GB would be taking more women than men to a summer Olympic Games, Mark England declared that “2021 is truly the year of the female Olympian”.
Could he be right? While in Atlanta 1996 34% of competitors were women, in Tokyo it is approaching parity on 48.5%. Many of the brightest stars preparing to shine on the Olympic stage are women, from the US gymnast Simone Biles, to Japan’s tennis champion Naomi Osaka and the Jamaican 100m sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.
For the first time, the summer games will include mixed-gender events in athletics, swimming, table tennis and triathlon and the women’s 100m final – rather than the men’s – is being hailed as the blue riband event of Tokyo.
From a British perspective, certainly, it is a moment to savour, says the UK Sport chief executive, Sally Munday. In Paris 1900 Team GB took only one woman, but in Tokyo a total of 210 female athletes will perform – 53.5% of the squad.
“It’s just a really exceptional moment in British sporting history that for the first time ever, we bought a team that has more women than men,” she says. “The Games are going to provide these extraordinary sporting moments that are going to excite and inspire the nation again. And many of those moments are going to be created by female athletes.”
In Team GB Laura Kenny, already Britain’s most successful women’s Olympian with four gold medals, is hoping to increase her haul. The country’s youngest Olympian, 13-year-old Sky Brown, will be going for gold on her skateboard in the opening weekend, while the 36-year-old dressage champion Charlotte Dujardin will be hoping to add to the golds she took home in Rio 2016 and London 2012.
On the track, all eyes will be on Katarina Johnson-Thompson, as she hopes to overcome injury to excel in the heptathlon, while Dina Asher-Smith, the reigning 200m world champion and a silver medal holder in the 100m, is looking to add an Olympic gold to her achievements. And in the team events, the women’s football squad have already declared they have their sights on gold while the women’s hockey side hope to defend the Olympic title they won in Rio.
This games will also see Helen Glover, the double Olympic rowing champion in the women’s pair, become the first mother to have been selected for the GB Olympic rowing team.
The boxer Charley Davison, whose dad trained her at home because her local gym didn’t take girls, was on the fringes of Olympic selection when she retired from boxing in 2012 to start a family with her partner in Lowestoft – three children later she’s proud to be known as “The Boxing Mum” as she prepares to compete in Tokyo. “I want to keep doing better every time to prove you can do anything after having kids,” said the 27-year-old.
All this matters, says Kate Dale, Sport England’s campaign lead for This Girl Can. “This Olympics will show women getting rewarded, recognised and celebrated just as much as men,” she says. “Sport plays such an important role in our culture, and the fact that women are achieving as much if not more than the men is such an important message for girls growing up.”
Many of the UK’s competitors acknowledge their importance as role models to girls and women. “I feel like sometimes girls are scared to be the only girl and they’re scared to be judged by the boys,” said Sky Brown, before she flew to Tokyo. “But I feel like watching the Olympics, seeing how many girls are doing the sport and how good [they are], they’re gonna really want to [try it].”
Asher-Smith, who featured on the cover of @BritishVogue’s August digital issue, has also talked of wanting girls to see women looking strong, muscular and powerful.
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“I want someone to look at a poster, think that they look like that too and it’s fine because she’s on a billboard,” she told Sky Sports. “It might seem like something really small and inconsequential but to a lot of girls, it really matters.”
It could help tackle the “dream deficit” that still exists in female sport, adds Women In Sport’s CEO, Stephanie Hilborne. According to its research only 30% of girls dream of reaching the top of sport, compared with 60% of boys. Last year research showed that 63% of boys participate in team sport compared with 41% of girls, with the figure dropping as girls enter their teens.
“Having these amazing women being our biggest medal hopes at the Olympics, is another opportunity for girls to dream,” said Hilborne.
The equality of Team GB 2020 proves what female competitors and the bodies representing them have been saying for years, she adds – if you fund women and men equally, they will produce excellence in equal measure.
While that may be true of Olympic funding, it isn’t the case across the rest of UK sport, with the distribution (calculated on lost revenue) of the government’s Winter Sports Survival Fund – created to support the sports sectors hit hard by lockdowns – starkly illustrating the point: netball, the most popular female sport, received £4m, the Rugby Football Union £135m.
“The big challenge will be making sure that girls who are inspired have the opportunity to follow those dreams,” said Hilborne. “Let’s use this moment to call for that equality of investment and opportunity on the ground as well.”