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Nineties the age of gender equality

Nineties the decade of  gender equality
Ed Gordon for the IAAF
11 August 2001- Edmonton - If a visitor to the Tokyo World Championships in 1991 had fallen asleep for ten years and suddenly awakened for the Edmonton competition, he would have had been surprised at the expanded list of stadium events.

The enlightened decade of the 1990s saw the addition of the pole vault, triple jump, and hammer competitions for women, events which were being contested in many countries but which had not been accorded full status in global competitions.

It was not a reaction to any push towards “political correctness”.  Quite the contrary, it was a move of necessity, made to give these disenfranchised athletes a platform for showing their talents. 

The triple jump was the first of the three events to catch the eye of female athletes.  As early as 1984, it became a part of the NCAA championships in the US, and the following year it was added to the US championship programme, where a modest leap of 13.17 gave Wendy Brown the first US title. 

Russia, as the Soviet Union, first crowned a national triple jump champion in 1986, and Britain followed in 1989.  Germany added the event in 1992, perhaps in preparation for hosting the 1993 World Championships where the triple jump made its international debut after almost a decade of waiting.

Anna Biryukova of Russia made history as the first global champion with a world-record leap of 15.09.  The success of the event there led to its inclusion in the Atlanta Games, where Inessa Kravets of Ukraine, the reigning world champion and world-record holder, won the first Olympic gold with a jump of 15.33.

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The pole vault was next to be grasped by young women, particularly those in gymnastics programmes. 

Germany was one of the early pioneers in establishing the vault as a championships event, adding it in 1992, the same year as the triple jump.  The early move to full status undoubtedly was instrumental in cultivating that nation’s high-level women’s vaulting program as early as the mid-1990s. 

Russia and Britain elevated the event the following year, in 1993.  Svetlana Abramanova was the first Russian champion at 3.70, while Kate Staples first wore the gold in the UK with 3.20.

Stacy Dragila and her American colleagues, on the other hand, had to wait until 1997 for official recognition.  Actually, the pole vault had been a title event in the 1996 indoor competition, but since it was not to be included in the Olympic programme, it was not officially contested at that year’s Olympic Trials.

Ironically, despite one of its perceived roles as a developmental organization, the NCAA waited an additional year, until 1998, before finally establishing the pole vault as a championship event.

Then started the Age of Dragila.  The 1999 World Championships in Seville was the first to see a women’s pole vault, as she won the first title by equalling the world record of 4.60. 

In 2000, she captured the first Olympic gold medal in the event, again tying the world record which was still at 4.60.  Then came her victory in Edmonton at 4.75 in that epic battle with Russia’s Svetlana Feofanova.   

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The Seville Championships came just a year after the IAAF’s highly successful “Year of Women” in 1998.  And swept in along with the pole vault onto the championship programme was the women’s hammer.  A year later the hammer also accompanied the pole vault as a debutant events in the Sydney Olympics.

Like the pole vault, this discipline was already far along in its development by the early years of the 1990s.  Even as far back as 1991, the NCAA had added a 20-pound weight throw, a sort of “indoor hammer”, to its indoor championships.  And although that organization didn’t crown an outdoor champion until 1996, the US federation added the event as early as 1992, as Sonja Fitts won the first title with 56.48.

Two years before, in 1990, the Soviet Union recognized 19-year-old Olga Kuzenkova as its first female hammer champion.

Eventually, in 1993, both Germany and Britain added the hammer at their top competition.

In Seville, Romania’s Mihaela Melinte won the first World Championship gold with a powerful series, capped by a 75.20 best.  Early pioneer Kuzenkova took the silver, as she did in Sydney in the first Olympic hammer for women, won by 17-year-old Kamila Skolimowska of Poland.

In Edmonton, Cuba’s Yipsi Moreno took the title with a late throw, pushing Kuzenkova to a bridesmaid position for the third straight year.

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In evaluating an event’s development, it is instructive in some cases to compare the existing world record of the men’s event with that of the women’s event.

In the established jumps, the ratio of men’s to women’s world record is remarkably similar.  The men’s high jump record exceeds the women’s by 17 percent, and by 19 percent for the long jump.

In the year the women’s triple jump was added to the World Championships, that excess was 19 percent.  And in a statistical quirk, the two triple jump world records—still the existing ones—established in the Gothenburg championships in 1995 showed the men’s standard 18 percent ahead of the women’s.  Such remarkable consistency indicates, in rough measure, that the women’s triple jump has reached a level of maturity in a very short time.

For the pole vault, such a comparison becomes distorted because of Sergey Bubka’s remarkable career over almost two decades.  At the moment, his world record is 28 percent higher than that of Stacy Dragila. 

Even leaving Bubka’s marks out of the comparison and focusing on the 6.05 jumps of Dmitriy Markov and Maksim Tarasov, if the “usual” ratio of men’s-to-women’s records is followed, the women’s record should be in the range of 5.08.

Perhaps this was what Bubka was speaking of when he was asked in the early days of the Edmonton championships whether he thought the women’s event had reached a high level.

Or it could show the fallacy of such a simplistic comparison of marks, one which fails to include, among other things, the inherent differences in the pole construction variations between the men’s and the women’s events.

The inclusion of a implements of varying weights certainly destroys all simple means of comparisons of men’s and women’s throwing events.

Still, a look at the women’s hammer all-time list shows relatively few marks from the past two seasons, an indication that either the event has peaked (hopefully not) or has at least temporarily hit a plateau while awaiting the next breakthrough.

Even with the addition of these three events to international competitions in the past ten years, gender equality still awaits the recognition of the women’s steeplechase.

Poland, Russia, Ukraine, South Africa, Romania, Kenya and the US—all of these nations already contest the event at the national championships.  Presumably it will only be a matter of time before we will see women splashing through the water at the World Championships.