What is the Legacy of the “Gender-Equal” Tokyo 2020 Games?

Beyond winning medals, feminists at the 2020 Olympics made a winning case for public policies to advance gender equity. 

American sprinter Allyson Felix recently created a grant to support childcare costs, ensuring that athletes who are mothers can compete. (Wikimedia Commons)

When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced last winter that Tokyo 2020 would be “the first gender-equal Olympic Games,” they were touting the near 50 percent representation of female athletes, an all-time high.

Now that the summer games have concluded, the IOC statement turned out to be prescient in other unexpected ways: fierce feminism has been on full display for the past two weeks as athletes boldly broke norms and pushed back against sexist protocols and practices. Beyond winning medals, they made a winning case for domestic public policies to advance gender equity. 

Starting with the state of crisis in the United States over childcare. The pandemic forced a long overdue discourse about modern motherhood, as news headlines continue to underscore the well-documented “she-cession” and real-time exodus of moms from the workforce.

These issues played out on the Olympic stage, too. American sprinter Allyson Felix made history twice in Tokyo: not only by becoming the most decorated Olympian in track and field, but by showing up for her fellow mom athletes. In advance of the summer games, Felix launched The Power of She: Child Care Grants, a $200,000 fund that provides financial support for childcare and related expenses to ensure mothers can compete; among the initial reported recipients are gold-medalist sitting volleyball player and four-time Paralympian Lora Webster, hammer thrower Gwen Berry, and runner Aliphine Tuliamuk.  

The distinct challenges faced by nursing mothers were also in the spotlight. Synchronized swimmer Ona Carbonell from Spain posted on Instagram her despair about having to forego breast-feeding her infant on account of a maze of government rules that made the logistics too difficult.

After other athletes spoke out, the IOC eventually took steps to ensure necessary accommodations for breast-feeding. No doubt, this experience mirrors that of millions of working mothers who face similar resistance, lack of support, and logistical nightmares of their own. 

At long last, outdated wardrobe selections were taken to task—most notably, the skimpy, sexualized outfits traditionally assigned to female athletes. Inspired by the members of the women’s beach handball team from Norway who were fined for ditching their bikinis and donning shorts instead (pop-star Pink pledged to pay their penalty fines), Germany’s gymnasts traded revealing leotards for long-sleeved and ankle-length uniforms. Both teams’ members made crystal clear that they were choosing their own comfort and competitive edge over the public expectation to be eye candy. These messages are an especially powerful counter to pervasive draconian school dress codes that humiliate and punish female students across the country.

Gymnast Danusia Francis from Jamaica discussed how much this costume rebellion meant to her in an essay for Newsweek, in which she doubled down on another pervasive barrier—menstrual stigma. She stated: “I hate to be on my period during a competition, because there is that fear of your tampon string hanging out of that thin bit of material. Maybe, given the opportunity to wear a full body suit, I would have just accepted my period and worn something different. I doubt men in gymnastics are aware of this.” 

Back in 2016 at the Rio Olympics, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui also made worldwide headlines for referring to her period, and its impact on her performance, to a reporter. Both athletes’ matter-of-fact remarks are a reminder of the myriad ways society marginalizes menstruation, by either concealing or sensationalizing any mention of it. Francis’s unabridged essay provides important fuel for policies that ensure access to menstrual products and help shatter the shame.   

Male athletes spoke out, too. Three members of the U.S. Men’s Fencing Team showed solidarity with and support for victims of sexual assault by staging a powerful photo-op – appearing side-by-side in bright pink face masks to protest the decision to allow their teammate Alen Hadzic to compete as an alternate while under investigation for prior sexual misconduct against several female fencers. 

And the list goes on. The takeaway, of course, is not that these issues are uniquely endemic to the world of elite athletics. Or how the IOC will address them all over again in a few months when figure skaters and skiers arrive in Beijing for the 2022 games.

Rather, they are emblematic of the inequities millions of everyday people contend with—especially here in the United States, where we still don’t have guaranteed paid parental leave or any meaningful support for working and nursing mothers, where schools routinely penalize girls for revealing so much as a stray bra strap, where period poverty persists, and where our systems are designed to rarely deliver justice to survivors of sexual assault. 

The real solution, of course, is better public policy that serves us all. For advocates like me, over the last two weeks it has been as exciting to watch these Olympians flex their extraordinary athletic talent and skill as it has been to cheer their powerhouse activism. Let’s ensure that the legacy of the “gender-equal” Tokyo 2020 games lives on in the halls of government, too. 

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Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is the executive director of Ms. partnerships and strategy. A lawyer, fierce advocate and frequent writer on issues of gender, feminism and politics in America, Weiss-Wolf has been dubbed the “architect of the U.S. campaign to squash the tampon tax” by Newsweek. She is the author of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity, which was lauded by Gloria Steinem as “the beginning of liberation for us all,” and is a contributor to Period: Twelve Voices Tell the Bloody Truth. She is also the executive director of the Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Center at NYU Law. Find her on Twitter: @jweisswolf.