The Olympics give fans what they want: More women's sports

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The Olympic rings.
The Olympic rings. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

Olympic canoeing is an unlikely bellwether for the state of the Games. Though it's been a part of the summer Olympics since 1936, the sport is not as popular as its preppier cousin, rowing, and it doesn't tend to produce prime-time stars like swimming and gymnastics.

Well, unless Nevin Harrison has something to say about it.

One of the preternaturally talented Gen Zers headed to Tokyo, the 19-year-old world champion is poised to potentially become the first American woman to win an Olympic canoe or kayak gold medal. But despite canoeing's long history at the summer games, she'll be competing in a brand new Olympic event: the women's 200-meter canoe singles. It's one of three women's events that have been added to the typically male-dominated canoeing section — and it comes at the expense of three men's events, in line with the IOC's goal of achieving 50 percent female participation across the Games by 2020.

But for all the grumbles about "marketing and politics" by those opposed to the elimination of a handful of male canoeing and kayaking events to reach the benchmark, the influx of women competitors this year is hardly an example of woke tokenism. The Olympics are just giving the fans what they want: more female athletes to watch in the competition.

Nearly 50 years since the passage of Title IX, more women than ever are playing sports in the United States. Coverage of women's sports, though, has not kept pace: "Women's sports receive the same amount of news coverage as they did in the 1980s," a Purdue study found earlier this year — that being about 5.4 percent of all airtime, or 3.5 percent once the Women's World Cup is factored out. But while there remains a pervasive misconception that women's sports aren't as "elite" or "exciting" due to constraints of physical strength, "the media creates demand as much as it meets it" according to Cheryl Cooky, one of the Perdue study's authors. As Cooky further pointed out to The Atlantic in 2015, part of the reason men's sports even seem more exciting in the first place is that "they have higher production values, higher-quality coverage, and higher-quality commentary … When you watch women's sports, and there are fewer camera angles, fewer cuts to shot, fewer instant replays, yeah, it's going to seem to be a slower game, [and] it's going to seem to be less exciting."

But clearly the interest in women's sports exists, even if it's not directly being catered to on American sports pages. Last year, women's sports adapted brilliantly to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the National Women's Soccer League being the first professional sport to return after the shutdown. While cynics might argue the league's 500 percent jump in viewership was because nothing else was on, the "record-breaking growth" of interest in women's sports has carried over into 2021, reports, noting that last month more people watched Game 2 of the Women's College World Series than the Islanders-Bruins NHL playoff game on NBCSN that same day.

The international stage has long been one of the best opportunities for female athletes to secure TV time in the U.S., and the Olympics most of all. But the IOC's conscious effort to boost women's participation at the summer Games — 48.8 percent of the Tokyo field will be women, up from 45 percent at the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2.2 percent at the 1900 Olympics, the first year women were included, according to The New York Times — is a game of catch-up more than it is a driver of significant change. "Historically, the boost that the Olympics and all big sporting events have given to interest in and coverage of women has not translated into lasting changes," explained Olga Harvey, the chief strategy and impact officer at the Women's Sports Foundation, to the Times.

So while issues of broadcasting parity and interest in women's sports are undoubtedly linked, the IOC's push to add more women's sports as well as mixed-gender competitions seems more overdue than anything else. Sports like BMX freestyle park riding, surfing, and skateboarding haven't been male-dominated in years, and having equal numbers of male and female competitors is a no-brainer, not the radical feminist statement it might have seemed like in the 1990s. Look no further than the female canoe competitors who surged into the spots opened up by the International Canoe Federation — and the fans who are already clamoring to watch them compete.

Progress is progress, and fans watching at home will be rewarded by the IOC's tweaks to the programming. Not long ago, there were snickers at the thought of female canoe sprinters; now, it's a given like anything else. "Everyone wants to be an Olympian," Harrison explained to The Associated Press. And overdue or not, she'll be attending the first games where, it seems, everyone finally gets to be.

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