An important step towards achieving improved public health is to encourage equal participation in sports by both genders. The International Olympics Committee(IOC) has recently adopted the Olympic Agenda 2020 which confirms the IOC’s commitment to working with International Sports Federations and National Olympic Committees as well as the UN, to increase the participation of girls and women in sport. The goal is for 50% of Olympic participants to be women by 2020. Increasing female participation in sport is vital, not only because of the health benefits of sports participation, but also because involvement in sport increases mental well-being, physical health. It also enhances economic development.

There has been good progress towards this goal despite the slow start from 1900 to 1972 when female participation grew only about 12% from 2.2% to 14.6%. By the 2012 London Summer Olympics and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, 44·2% and 40·3% of participants were women, respectively. These reports were part of a series of physical activity coinciding with Rio Olympics 2016, which are just a week away, published by The Lancet on 27 July.

In light of the data on physical activity presented in this series, the gender gap is not surprising. According to the authors, men are more active in 137 of the 146 countries whose data is available. Furthermore, World Health Organization(WHO) data shows that women are 35% more inactive than men. This data is based on time spent on occupational activity and transport activity, but included leisure activity i.e., sports as well. Hence it is not surprising that in nine mostly low-middle-income countries, such as Indonesia, where women still have high rates of occupational activity, they are slightly more active than men. However, data on time spent in pursuing leisure activity is still almost half in women than in men, 13.7 minutes daily compared to 25.3 minutes daily respectively, in 34 low-income and middle-income countries.

One way to increase leisure time physical activity in these countries is to offer equal access to women for participation in sports. The UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Sport for Development and Peace recognizes that mass participation in sport is a powerful strategy, not only for health promotion and disease prevention, but also for education, suburban growth, trauma relief, and economic development.

What’s interesting to note, however, is that the authors point out that women’s low participation in sports is not just limited to low or middle income countries. Rich Middle Eastern countries also face the same criticism of lower participation by women, and the greatest gender inequality, probably due to religious, cultural and social stigma factors. The IOC has been rallying to fight towards gender equality and equal participation in the Olympics. IOC achieved some form of success at the 2012 London Olympics when for the first time in the history of Olympics all participating teams had women representation. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei, all Muslim countries had women participants for the first time in the last Olympic Games, sporting clothes that were in accordance with their religious teachings.

Even in developed countries such as USA, Australia and UK, where there are fewer gender discriminations and social stigmas, difference between physical inactivity among men and women was surprisingly high (UK, 1·31; Australia 1·37; USA 1·55). initiatives by the IOC and the UN, which aim to support gender equality and greater sports participation by women, may play a part in achieving the WHO’s goal of a 10% reduction in the prevalence of physical inactivity across the world by 2025.

Rio Olympics Might Discourage Overall Participation

Rio de Janeiro might not be the place that will encourage more sports participation, despite it being the host of the 2016 Olympics. The city is marred with problems, to which governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro declared “a state of public calamity”. About 35% of the city’s sewage lines are exposed, meaning that athletes participating in open water events such as the triathlon or marathon swimming might be exposed to human fecal matter, which can expose the participants to many diseases such as gastroenteritis, malaria and hepatitis.

Despite the outbreak of Zika virus in the country, social problems are far more likely to be the bigger problem. According to a recently published academic study by professor Eduardo Massad of the Sao Paulo School of Medicine, a woman is 10 times as likely to be raped in Rio as to contract Zika, and a man is 10 times as likely to be shot to death. Rape is severely underreported in Brazil. In 2012 there were 6,029 rapes in the state of Rio De Janeiro, with 4,993 of the victims being women. This is still way less compared to US which had a staggering 173,610 victims of rape or sexual assault in 2013, according to United States Department of Justice document, Criminal Victimization in the United States.

On average, 416 women a month were raped that year and according to Rio’s state Institute of Public Security (ISP), the rate of rape in the state is 37 per 100,000 for victims of both sexes. Besides, this year, 21 people have already been killed by stray bullets outside of Olympic venues or on routes between them. Hence the mosquito virus is least of the athletes’ worries.

To add insult to injury, even the hotel rooms are subpar. The Australian Olympic team refused to stay in their hotel rooms due to gas leaks, exposed wires and blocked toilets. The Argentine committee said that two of the five floors of its building were uninhabitable, and the Egyptian athletes had no hot water and their toilets did not flush properly.

Why Physical Activity Is Important?

A recent study conducted by scientists from Norwegian School of Sport Sciences concluded that the adverse effects of sedentary lifestyle on health, such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, cancer and death can be reduced by increasing physical activity to 60-75 minutes per day.

The study has established a connection between high amounts of sedentary behaviors and health conditions leading to mortality. The study divided participants into two groups, the baseline group had sitting time of less than four hours while the experimental group had sitting hours of 4 to 8 hours. The results showed that the experimental group had mortality rates 12% to 59% higher than the baseline group. Hence instead of favoring a sedentary lifestyle, a physically active one is the one which is more ideal.