LONDON (Reuters) - Women boxers have claimed an early victory at the 2012 Olympics by knocking out the last all-male sport but the battle for sex equality at the Games rages on, and not just among women - male synchronized swimmers are also demanding equal rights.
London marks the first Olympics where women will compete in all 26 sports on offer, a major change from Stockholm 100 years ago when women could only participate in five of 110 events.
Campaigners for gender equality acknowledge there has been progress but stress the battle is far from over and the Games must symbolise, reflect and celebrate the dominant beliefs and values of society.
At the London Olympics, running from July 27 until August 12, women are competing in 30 fewer events than men.
A total of 162 gold medals are up for grabs for male competitors while women can win only 132. At the 2008 Beijing Games there were 165 gold medals for men and 127 for women.
Annie Sugier, spokeswoman for the French coordination for the European Women's Lobby, said several women's groups were planning to hold a demonstration in London on July 25 to put seven demands to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) regarding discrimination and segregation.
"The objective of the Olympics is to build a better world through sport but the reality is that we still have all the stereotypes, discrimination, and prostitution around the Games," Sugier told Reuters.
"The Olympics is the right place to enforce change as there is just one law for all. You have the instruments to enforce equality and equality is justice."
OLYMPIC ROLE MODELS
Tackling sex inequality and other forms of discrimination at the Olympics is viewed as critical by campaigners. The Games are a high-profile global event where the same rules apply to all nations and these values can filter into other areas of life.
It is also unique for a sporting event as the audience is fairly evenly split between men and women and therefore a platform for women's sport to be on a par with men's events, to establish women as role models, and to encourage women to take up sport which can be a way to empower and build confidence.
Sugier, who has been campaigning for equality and neutrality at the Olympics for 20 years, said the IOC needed to act more decisively after stating its support for gender equality at the Olympics but so far failing to meet its targets.
In 1996 the IOC set a target to ensure women held 20 percent of the positions in its ruling bodies by 2005 which included the 205 National Olympic Committees and the 35 Olympic International Olympic Sports Federations.
This has not been met, and Sugier says women on average only hold about 10 percent of these positions. Some of the National Olympic Committees have no women.
The board of the London Organising Committee, LOCOG, has only one woman among its 19 members, former Olympian Princess Anne, while the IOC has 20 women among its 105 members which falls just short of the 20 percent.
"With so few women serving in leadership positions and a lack of commitment among the male-dominated leadership, there has been little progress on supporting women as athletes and leaders," said sports historian Dr Maureen Smith from California State University in a report for the U.S.-based Women's Sports Foundation, founded by Billie Jean King in 1974.
She said this lack of commitment started at grassroots and was typical of developmental levels all the way to the upper echelons of competitive Olympic and Paralympic sport.
The gender gap has narrowed. At Beijing there was 4,746 women competitors which was a record 42 percent of the total.
But this was despite IOC President Jacques Rogge in 2004 stating that: "our ultimate goal must be 50-50 participation." He did not, however, set a clear date for this proportion.
"No time deadline has been set but we would hope that London will see the highest percentage of female participation in history," said IOC spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau.
MEN CALL FOR EQUALITY
Smith said certain sports were getting better when it came to gender balance and for some countries this was not an issue at all.
"Some countries don't care if it is a man or a woman winning. They just care about winning the medal. But there is still some way to go," Smith told Reuters.
At the Beijing Olympics, three countries did not bring women athletes but this has changed for London as the Muslim nations of Qatar and Brunei will include women competitors in their teams for the first time.
The final country to forbid women to compete, Saudi Arabia, last month bowed to pressure from the IOC and said it would allow women who qualify to compete at the London Games.
It has yet to name any female athletes who will represent the Middle Eastern kingdom.
Sports historians said the changes at the Olympics reflected the overall changes in society since the start of the modern Olympics in Athens 1896 when no women were allowed to compete.
Women first appeared at the Olympics in Paris in 1900, competing in golf and tennis, but were excluded from track and field competitions until 1928 when the longest race was the 800 metres.
Several women collapsed in exhaustion during the race and then IOC President, Count Henri Baillet-Latour, even suggested ruling out all women competitors from the Games.
Clearly this did not happen but the women's 800 metres did not reappear until 1960. Women were not allowed to run the marathon until 1984.
Tim Woodhouse, head of policy at the Women's Sports and Fitness Foundation, said a number of sports were seen to put women's health and their fertility at risk.
"Amazingly it was not until the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s that these myths were debunked," said Woodhouse, whose foundation is a UK charity that aims to make women active and confident.
In the United States, the 1972 legislation Title IX, which prohibited gender discrimination in educational programs, had a massive impact on women participating in sports at colleges and high schools.
As well as the debut of women boxers in London, the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, will see women being allowed for the first time to compete in ski jumping. The Nordic combined events at Sochi, however, will only be contested by men.
"The addition of these sports, including boxing at London, is a really positive step forward but there is still a big disparity in other sports," said Woodhouse.
The IOC should consider including some sports which were more women based, such as netball, if it really wanted to resolve the issue, he added, and there was still major discrepancies in numbers in canoeing, rowing, wrestling, weight lifting and judo.
"These numbers need to be worked on and it takes leadership from the IOC to push that agenda," he said.
But it is not just women who want equality.
Men have called for action after being ruled out from competing at two events at the Summer Olympics, synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics, even though there are growing numbers of men participating in both sports.
A lobby group of male synchronised swimmers wrote to the IOC and swimming's governing body FINA in June to argue that men should no longer be excluded from this event at the Olympics.
The group, which includes the London swimming group Out To Swim, said this was gender discrimination despite the Olympic Charter condemning any discrimination regarding race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise.
"For the most part, this discrimination has affected women athletes, and great progress has been made in this area. But in at least one sport, it is men who are victims of this discrimination, which is no less intolerable than that aimed at women," said the letter.
Stephen Adshead, manager of the Out to Swim Angels synchronised swimming team that was set up three years ago, said this was "blatant inequality and unfair."
"We realise it is too late for men synchronised swimmers at London but we would like to have a serious discussion with the IOC after the Games as there is no reason why there can't be gender equality in all sports," Adshead told Reuters.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)