Gender Parity at the Olympics: Equestrian Sports (Almost) at the Forefront

Gender Parity at the Olympics: Equestrian Sports (Almost) at the Forefront

If equestrianism is the only mixed-gender sport alongside sailing, only 7 out of 31 riders are women in the pre-selections for Paris 2024.

It's official: the Paris 2024 Olympic Games will be the first completely gender-balanced games with 50% female athletes, promised the French Olympic Committee through its president, Tony Estanguet. We take stock of gender parity in the Olympics in equestrianism on March 8, International Women's Day.

While equestrianism is one of the few disciplines offering completely mixed events at the Olympic Games (alongside sailing), gender parity in the participation of female and male athletes in equestrianism is not a given.

The French Equestrian Federation (FFE) declared its support for strict parity among selected athletes to represent France at the end of 2023. This is legitimate: equestrianism is the leading Olympic women's leisure sport in France with nearly 700,000 licensed participants. However, only 7 women are listed among the 31 athlete riders receiving personalized support, according to the long lists published in November 2023.

"There are performance criteria, strictly sporting criteria that require us as a mixed sport not to sort by gender," says Sophie Dubourg, the National Technical Director of the FFE. "We do not apply a female quota based on lower sporting criteria at the Olympic level." At the same time, she acknowledges and regrets having a particularly poor Olympiad in terms of female participation.

Equestrianism, an Olympic sport since 1900

The gap between the reality of sports practice and access to the highest level is not a recent phenomenon. While 2024 is theoretically expected to mark a turning point for equestrianism, a similar shift occurred in 1912. Before this year in France, only male military riders were allowed to participate in competitions. In 1912, at the Stockholm Games, women were permitted to compete in equestrian events for the first time.

However, not in all events. It would take another 40 years, until 1952, to see women allowed to compete in Olympic dressage events. On that occasion, perhaps to symbolize women's ability to succeed, Danish rider Lis HARTEL became the first female equestrian to win an Olympic medal.


Lis HARTEL at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games ©International Olympic Committee

Although women struggle to access the highest levels in equestrianism, "most often due to the professional or family choices they make at a certain point in their lives," notes Sophie Dubourg, this mixed-gender sport still serves as an example compared to other more closed Olympic sports.

While mixed-gender events are rare and cannot be applied to all disciplines, some sports have been slow to introduce women's events. Equestrianism has long taken pride in its mixed-gender nature.

For example, judo was long reserved for male athletes. Women had to wait until the 1992 Barcelona Olympics to compete on the tatamis. Conversely, rhythmic gymnastics remains the only exclusively female Olympic discipline, as men gained entry to the synchronized swimming team event at the 2024 Paris Games.

There were 18 mixed events out of 339 in Tokyo. In 2024, there will be 20, alongside 152 women's events and 157 men's events.

The International Olympic Committee is pleased to offer Paris "a more balanced sports program" with the possibility for women "to win the same number of medals as men." Let's rejoice: at the 1992 Barcelona Games, there were fewer than 29% female athletes, 40.7% 20 years ago at the 2004 Athens Games, and 47% at the Tokyo Games.


Sweden won the team gold at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021. Pictured: Henrik von Eckermann, Malin Baryard-Johnsson, Peder Fredricsson ©FEI / Arnd Bronkhorst

Few women on the podiums

However, the mix of events does not necessarily mean equality of medal chances. For instance, many teams have a majority of male riders - Canada and the United States boast impressive gender parity compared to teams from the old continent - and only 5 women are among the permanent world ranking of the top 50 show jumpers, for example. Female medal chances are more than limited. Is it a foregone conclusion?

"Honestly, what would help and potentially reverse the trend would be to create strictly female events and other strictly male events," says Sophie Dubourg, who feels torn and unsatisfied with the current situation.

"If we had a specific women's circuit and another for men, with, for example, different levels of difficulty, our sport would, like athletics or swimming, be a major medal provider," says Sophie Dubourg.

Some female riders have already made history at the Games, showing their ability to shine on equal footing. Even if their performances are recent.

For instance, Brazilian Luiza ALMEIDA was the youngest rider to participate in the Olympic Games at the age of 16 in Hong Kong (Beijing Games) in 2008. And Dutch dressage rider Anky VAN GRUNSVEN is the most decorated athlete with nine Olympic medals, including three golds.

In 2021, German rider Julia KRAJEWSKI became the first woman in history to win a gold medal in the individual eventing competition. She clinched this medal in Tokyo with her horse Amande de B'Neville.


German Julia KRAJEWSKI and Amande de B'Neville are crowned Olympic champions in eventing in Tokyo ©FEI/Christophe Taniére

In France, equestrianism has seen its fair share of champions: Pénélope LEPRÉVOST, who won team gold at the Rio Games in 2016, Alexandra LEDERMANN, who claimed individual bronze in Atlanta in 1996, and Eugénie ANGOT, a member of the French team at the Athens Olympics, for example. These women have left a lasting impression on generations of female riders.

Are these successes indicative of a brighter future? Not really. For evidence, less than a quarter of the riders expected to compete at the Versailles Castle are women. Once again, we find Pénélope LEPRÉVOST, accompanied by Bingo del Tondou, as the only woman in show jumping - despite there being 5 women in the top 20 French show jumpers. Morgan BARBANÇON MESTRE and Habana Libre A, Pauline BASQUIN and Sertorius de Rima Z*IFCE in dressage - even though 9 women are in the top 15 French dressage riders. And Lisa CEZ and Stallone de Hus, Alexia PITTIER and Sultan 768, Anne-Frédérique ROYON and Quaterboy LH, and Chiara ZENATI and Swing Royal*IFCE in para-dressage.

A notable fact: no women appear on the list for eventing (CCE), even though this discipline has the most couples (fifteen) being considered for the 2024 Olympics, and 4 female riders are among the top 20 French riders currently. Between "lack of experience among the younger ones" and "non-qualification of certain horses at this level of competition," France presents an unusually low female participation in this discipline.

In summary, and with 6 months to go until Paris 2024, we have the following on the starting line: 0 women out of 15 couples expected in eventing, 1 woman out of 14 couples expected in show jumping, and 2 women out of 5 athletes in dressage. Only para-dressage seems to uphold the Olympic promise of parity cherished by Tony Estanguet, with 4 female riders out of 5 athletes expected for these Summer Olympics.

In short, behind the beautiful words, there is still work to be done!


The French rider Pénélope Leprevost is the only female figure in GROUP 1 for France in show jumping ©FEI/Lukasz Kowalski

Cover photo: France won the team gold medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016 with Roger-Yves Bost, Pénélope Leprevost, Philippe Rozier, and Kevin Staut ©AFP